Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life
Hardback: Convergent Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Alexander Steward
We are a people that search. We search for the things we have lost. We search for the latest and greatest item that will make our life that much easier. These searches tend to focus upon the outward self and what will benefit us as individuals the most. The search that is easily avoided because it takes too much time and a lot of patience, is the search for the inward self. The self that is called to be in relationship with God. It is in this search that we are able to grow as individuals and nurture our relationship with God.
To begin this search, one can go to the closest book store and look at the self-help section or spirituality section and find hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the topic of personal growth. Each one meant to connect with a certain personality. I believe that few have the ability to span across the millennia and connect the past with the present in a way that leaves the learner wanting more.
In her newest book, Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister is able to do just that. The subtitle, 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, may sound like a book that could be a quick fix to your spiritual life. However, what she presents is a life journey. It is no quick fix, but it is a way of living into your true self and building a stronger relationship with God. Our true selves have been swallowed up by the abundance of things happening around us. We are bombarded daily by social media and the news. Every second we turn around, we encounter something new and must intentionally pull ourselves away from it. As she says in the introduction, “This book is about recognizing what has mastered us and then discovering what it will take to break those chains.” We have allowed things of non-importance to master our daily routines, and this is a call for us to wake up and see how we can change.
The twelve steps that she lays out for the reader are based upon the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. It is these very rules that she had to walk through herself as she became a Benedictine nun. These ways or rules come directly from chapter 7 in the Rule of Saint Benedict and address the importance of humility. What a telling sign in our times that the need for humility is being lifted up. In the midst of our latest presidential election and the partisan fighting that seems to be constantly happening in our government, it appears that possibly a little humility could do all of us some good.
The beautiful thing about Chittister’s offering is that it is not purely a rephrasing of Saint Benedict’s rule written back in the sixth century. She takes a chapter for each of the twelve ways in which one can work towards a humbler life and living into the true self. It is also providing the opportunity to live into a greater spiritual fullness. While she takes each step, and discusses it in depth, she does so in three parts. Her chapters may read somewhat like a catechism instruction as she digs deeper into each step of humility.
She first explores what the challenge of each step is by asking the question, “what is the challenge here?” There is, of course, a challenge to each of these steps, or Saint Benedict would not have included them in his rules. The next question that one must ask is, “What is the underlying issue?” We must venture into what it is truly deep within us that makes this step more difficult to follow. Finally, she asks the question of “What are the spiritual implications of this step of humility?” This is where we begin to work on our spiritual relationship with God. How will living into each step of humility get us closer to our true selves and thus closer in relationship to God.
Part of the wonderfulness of this book is that it also reads somewhat like a memoir. Sister Joan shares with the reader how she has progressed through many of the steps in her own personal life. From entering the monastic order while she was young to the many varied experiences that she had throughout her life encountering each step and having to wrestle with it. While not a complete autobiography, it gives the reader a glimpse into the character of Sister Joan and how she has faced the tough act of humility.
The steps to humility tend to progress on the difficulty scale as you move through them. Humility is not easily achieved overnight, and following in Sister Joan’s acknowledgement, it is something that takes a lifetime of work. Isn’t this true of all things spiritual? This is why people jump so quickly from one practice to another. They do not have the patience to walk through the difficulties associated with whatever practice they are attempting. It is the patience that is required to stick with something, even when we feel that our prayers are not being answered, that we will finally hear God’s response. In this patience, we listen. “A spiritual life that learns to listen to the voice of God within is a spiritual life with God as its director. Then we are free; then we are truly authentic.”
This is also not just a one-time practice that as you work through the steps, you will come to completion. It is true that, “Just as the world thinks one struggle has been won, somewhere, somehow, it emerges all over again.” It is amazing how history does repeat itself, and we fail to learn from our mistakes as people of God. This is where we fall into sin. This is where Sister Joan’s work offers us the opportunity to work out of those mistakes.
What posture must we take as a people of God today? “In a society that glorifies achievement and success, the very thought of a spiritual life based on what appears to be groundless deference and debasement of self is totally unacceptable.” We allow the grace of God to wash over us and humble ourselves before God. “Spirituality is not about feeling good about ourselves. It’s about dong good wherever we are. It’s about bring good to everyone…. It’s about fashioning our souls in the kind of silence that enables the whole world to feel safe in our calm and quiet presence.”
In this calm and quiet presence, she brings The Rule of Saint Benedict back to life for those that may have forgot it; for those that may have never seen it; and for a world that is so in need of humility in this time and place.
Alexander Steward is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Richmond, MI