Before a dear friend invited me to hear her speak, I had never heard of Joan Chittister. A few days after accepting the invitation, my friend and I attended the book release for her recently published biography. In what seemed like a few short minutes, I had the opportunity to listen to her discuss the biography with its author, Tom Roberts. There were a number of striking aspects of their discussion, including Joan’s remarkable humility with regards to the existence of the biography. Perhaps the most intriguing and for me, life-giving, part of their conversation was about how the biography came to be. Initially, Tom had come to Joan with the hopes of asking a few brief questions about her life so that he could “freshen up the files.” Tom was so enthralled with her story that he continued to ask questions out of sheer interest. As he continued, the questions grew deeper.
Joan recalled that there came a point in their interaction when the questions begged such depth and vulnerability in their answers that she had to request a pause in the interview. She revealed that in interviews past, she had skirted around genuine responses or produced formulated generic answers. She described what it was like to come to this point: to choose to be vulnerable and lay out her entire life for all to read or to stick to the chronically scripted answers of her past. It was the crossroads between self-emptying vulnerability and complacently scripted safety. After an intense and tumultuous period of contemplation, Joan decided that although it may be painful, she would respond with vulnerability, revealing the most hidden and tender parts of her past. And the beautiful book that is Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith was the result.
Joan’s exposition of this critical crossroads is intimately connected with one of the primary questions that she raised for me during our time together. That is, how do we answer questions of the identity of the Church? Joan opened my eyes to the fact that it is with her same courageous and terrifying vulnerability that we must approach our identity of who we are as the Catholic Church. If the Church were to be interviewed about her past and present identity, how would she answer? Who are we as the Church? Moreover, what does our identity as the Church communicate about the identity of our God?
In my sixteen-plus years of Catholic education, I have come to understand that God is all-loving. God is infinitely merciful. God is self-emptying, humble love for the whole of humanity. Are these characteristics of God communicated in the identity and actions of our Church? Unfortunately, I think the answers to this question would vary greatly both within and outside of the Church. Although some of the answers may be painful, this question is not only important, it is absolutely critical for the life of the Church. Joan’s action in choosing self-emptying vulnerability is a beautiful reflection of the actions of Christ on the cross. On the cross, Christ intimately revealed the depths of His identity, exposing Himself in worldly weakness to all of humanity. Thus, the Church is also called to expose itself in self-emptying vulnerability, such that she comes to mirror the endless and unconditional inclusivity and love of Christ.
Prior to hearing her speak, I had not even heard of Joan Chittister. Now not only have I heard of her, I hear her. Her words are alive within me. Her words burn me as I realize that the face of the Catholic Church has not and does not always reflect the face of the all-loving God that it has set out to represent. And this painful burn ignites my soul, my mind, my heart. As a member of the Church, Joan has reminded me of my fundamental duty to ask the hard questions about our identity, to give the painful answers of the past and/or present, and most importantly, to dedicate myself in self-emptying passion and love to the creation of the portrait of the future.