Featured: THE LITURGICAL YEAR by Sr. Joan Chittister [Vol. 2, #48]

December 11, 2009

 

Full of the energy of the universe,
fearless, full of faith and sure of more joy to come

A Review of
The Liturgical Year:
The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life
(Ancient Practices Series)
.
By Sr. Joan Chittister.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The Liturgical Year:
The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life
(Ancient Practices Series)
.
By Sr. Joan Chittister.

Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

The Liturgical Year - Joan ChittisterFrom her place in a community of Benedictine Sisters in Erie, PA, Sr. Joan Chittister has a prime vantage point for exploring the church’s liturgical year.   For many years, this cycle of seasons has been an intimate part of her life as a Benedictine, and now she reflects on the rhythm of the liturgical year in her new book in Thomas Nelson’s “Ancient Practices” series: The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of Spiritual Life.  Early on in the book, she captures the essence of the church’s calendar:

Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.  They add layer after layer to the meaning of life, to the sense of what it entails to live beyond the immediate and into the significant dimensions of human existence.  The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present (6-7).

Indeed, Chittister spends the first quarter of the book reflecting on the meaning of time and calendars.  She proposes here that our transformation into the image of Christ extends even to the way in which we understand and experience time.  The civic calendar, which begins on January 1 and which we learn as children at home and school, Chittister argues is for the Church not our primary means to mark the passage of time, nor is it “the narrative of our spiritual lives” (5).  This idea that time is a way of narrating our lives is key to Chittister’s case for the primacy of the liturgical year, and is a theme that she often returns to over the course of the book.  Although Chittister primarily focuses on seasons as the basic unit of the liturgical calendar, she does spend one chapter examining weekly life, choosing to focus in specifically on Sunday, which “to the Christian mind is a ‘little Easter,’”  (33) a time to gather and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus that is central to our lives.

Given that we are in the midst of the Advent season, the Church’s sort of New Year’s celebration, I particularly relished Chittister’s chapters on Advent.  Just as she has called us to a counter-cultural way of understanding the passage of time, she also challenges us to remember the meaning of Christmas, a counter-cultural story in our age of consumerism:

The function of Advent is to remind us of what we’re waiting for as we go through life too busy with things that do not matter to remember the things that do. …  Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world.  It slows us down. It makes us think. It makes us look beyond today to the “great tomorrow” of life.  Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow (61-62).

Following the lead of the authors of previous volumes of the “Ancient Practices” series, Chittister draws richly from the tradition of church history as she explores the meaning of Advent and the other seasons of the liturgical year.  From Advent, she proceeds to the “ordinary time” between Advent and Lent and then on to Lent.  But before she begins exploring Lent, she inserts a chapter on asceticism that presumably will lead the reader toward a deeper understanding of the meaning of Lent.  For this reader, however, this chapter raised more questions than it answered.  I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with Sr. Joan about this chapter.  Her description of Christian asceticism hinges primarily on an almost-gnostic dualism between soul and body.  Consider her words: “The ascetic is the person who sets out to subject the body to the spirit” (103).  I know that she has invested much time in studying the history of monasticism, and it seems that with all this research one could find language to describe asceticism that is more theologically robust than that of dualism.  I certainly appreciate the key role of self-denial in the life of the church community, and I suspect that further conversation with the author about this chapter might mitigate some of my concerns about the choice of language there.

Chittister’s chapters on Holy Week are superb.  Holy week, which culminates in Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter is the pinnacle of Christian year.  Indeed, Chittister says that Easter sets the tone for the whole year, “it is the reason for all the feasts of the Church” (159)  Chittister sets this season in a rich biblical and historical context.  In the final section of the book, Chittister focuses on the cycle of remembering the saints, which has always been of interest to me as a way to deepen our sense of the Story of God’s people into which we have been immersed.  This section concludes with a chapter on the “Marian Feasts,” the celebrations of the Virgin Mary that span the liturgical year.  I’ll admit that, as one whose life has been spent in churches outside Roman Catholicism, this adoration of Mary has always perplexed me and Chittister does not do much to soothe my confusion, but this chapter did make me want to go back and re-read Scot McKnight’s book The Real Mary (a rich theological study of Mary intended for Protestants) more carefully.

The Liturgical Year serves as a wonderful introduction to a distinctively Christian way of marking time.  Sr. Joan Chittister’s writing is marked by its deep monastic reflection and (generally speaking) its clarity of expression.  I highly recommend it, especially for those who have little or no understanding of the liturgical calendar and its significance in the life of the Church.  In one of the book’s high points, Chittister poetically captures the essence of the liturgical year, and I believe she offers here the best reason for why this book should be read and re-read:

The liturgical year sweetens life.  It affirms human feelings, all of them, happy as well as sad, mournful as well as ecstatic.  It makes room in life for feasting and for fasting.  It tells us that life is a medley of sweet and sour, of the pungent and the soothing.  It wakes us up to our own feelings and shines the light of faith on them.  It tells us that being human is good, that we are next to God, full of the energy of the universe, fearless, full of faith and sure of more joy to come (168).