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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

October 28, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 31

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Here's a new litany for you

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Margaret Mead is long gone but her dictums on the nature of human interaction and organization may be taking on new meaning. One of those thoughts gets clearer by the day. She wrote: "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, that is all that ever has."

This week I saw a new world emerging in four different places at four different times. Watching a new world begin to issue out of the old felt a little like a description I heard years ago of Christopher Columbus's sighting of the Las Tortugas Islands in the Caribbean. The outlines of it were admittedly dim, even distant, perhaps -- possibly even a mirage -- but clear nevertheless. And there were signs of life there.

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The first measure of comprehensive change in the way the human enterprise is evolving came from Israel and Palestine. Fifty-five years after the partition of Palestine, 36 years after Israel's military ascendancy at the end of the Six-Day War, and day after day of death for the lifetime of the inhabitants of both areas, Arab and Israeli civilians sat down and did what their governments refused to do. They wrote a peace treaty.

It took them two years to hammer out between themselves what was dearest to the heart of each people -- the sharing of Jerusalem and the recognition of sovereignty for both nations.

Over 40% of both populations, National Public Radio reported in its examination of the event, signed on to the document within 24 hours of its release. Ha'aretz, Israel's major newspaper, published it in full. What's more, the work of this civilian negotiating committee captured more attention in Israel than anything either government did in pursuit of war that week.

In that simple but breathtaking act, the world got a glimpse of what may well be the beginning of a whole new way of doing government. The glimpse is dim and distant, the revolution is quiet and almost unseen, the forces in power may well ignore it, but there is no doubt that the world is changed because of it. And so are the powers in place.

When governments fail, people are beginning to ignore them. When politicians pursue their own agendas rather than the questions of the people, the people are taking issues into their own hands.

The second excursion beyond life as we have always known it, always assumed that it had to be, came by e-mail. No bells announced its arrival. No banners or storefronts were opened to mark its coming. Instead, between the spam about diets and money lending and male potency, came the announcement that some group, somewhere intended to launch its own national political public service notices. Independent of either political party, the materials that will be aired publicly during the next national election campaign will be aimed at the issues most likely to be ignored by major party candidates. They will also monitor the truth-telling of all of the candidates.

These materials will not be paid for by any of the candidates or either of the political parties. They will be subsidized by the computer users of the United States who are tired of being ignored in the streets and want to get into the electoral process.

The third event that puts both church and world on notice, I think, happened in my own monastery. In a community of 122 professed members, over 190 lay Benedictine Oblates, entered the chapel sanctuary to make some stage of oblation or profession to the Benedictine way of life as it is fostered by this particular monastery at this particular time.

Oblates have been a part of Benedictine life for over 1,500 years. There's certainly nothing new about that. But what is different about this group is that they come from all over the United States -- California, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Cleveland, wherever -- as well as from the local area.

People are in search of the spiritual life. They are no longer simply accepting whatever standard-brand substitute for the growth of the soul that they get where they are. Simply going to church is not enough now. Just as whole waves of young people went to the East to find wisdom when the wealth of the West failed to save, people in this country are leaving the churches to find the faith that makes sense out of the world as they now see it.

Finally, just yesterday, a young woman asked me if I knew about the town in New York State -- Ithaca -- that was printing money based on barter valued at $10 an hour. The system, created by Paul Glover, a community economist, is meant to keep local money in the local area and the local economy growing. (See Grassroots Economics) Ithaca HOURS, the name of the currency, is actually the pledge of an hour's work. So, I can pay you to paint my porch with equivalent hours of computer work. Or I can pay you with the HOURS I've earned doing computer work elsewhere for someone else.

The link noted above is full of stories of people who have contributed work hours in one area in order to save money in another. For instance, the site tells the story of Sara who took out a loan of HOURS from a carpenter friend who had earned a bankbook full of them. Sara intends to use them to pay for childcare until her own strawberry sales begin to come in. And no interest is charged.

So what? And who cares about all of these things? Maybe we all should. After all, if these events prove anything, they prove we are not at all as powerless in the face of public affairs as we have come to think we are. And whether we care or not, certainly the groups and organizations that underlie all these systems should. If trends like these say anything at all, they say that the controllers of the system aren't nearly as much in control as they may be inclined to think.

A rallying cry of the '60s, that now much maligned period of U.S. history, rang loud and clear. "Power to the people," the young radicals cried. And all the realists in town laughed. But the Zen master teaches that "The seed never sees the flower." I'm beginning to think that the notion of people power may have been years before its time back then, but it is coming into bloom right now, far more quietly and far more effectively.

From where I stand, it seems people everywhere are beginning to ignore, get around, subvert, or develop beyond the systems that once held them captive -- the governments, the political parties, the churches, even the commercial economy. If you pay attention, you can almost feel the ground shifting under your feet.

Clearly people want some of the most important things in life to change. That's not unusual, perhaps. But what may be most unusual is the fact that we are beginning to see signs that if the systems they depend on to do it for them don't comply, they may well do it themselves. They are banning the bomb and saving the whales, changing the churches and promoting the women, creating new educational programs and crossing national borders to do the diplomacy that the warmakers do not do.

On the bad days, it might be a good idea to say over and over again to yourself a whole litany of Margaret Mead's prayer: "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, that is all that ever has." Never doubt ... Never doubt ... Never doubt.

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