The Benedictine sisters in Erie share a rich community life centered in prayer and ministry and, under Joan Chittister's leadership, have become well known for their commitment to feminism and peacemaking. Joyce Hollyday interviewed Chittister while enjoying their hospitality.
Sojourners: You are part of a tradition that goes back more than 1,500 years, and one of the major aspects of that tradition is the importance of community. Religious life has always taken the shape of community. Could you talk a little about why that is so?
Joan Chittister: It's Basil, a Father of the Church, who says, "Whose feet shall the hermit wash?" That question is the basis of the spirituality of community.
The function of the Christian community in sharing the bedrock of Christian spirituality is the upbuilding, the co-creation of the kingdom; the bringing of the kingdom now, the bringing of now for the kingdom. So, like the community recorded in the book of Acts, the major witness of the new Christian community is the creation of an alternative way of life.
Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictines, deepened his own spirituality to the point that he had a new vision of the Christian life. He looked around post-Constantinian Rome and saw a well established, politicized church. It was a church that had been made church by virtue of the baptism of the emperor and his decree that all his subjects would likewise be baptized.
An analogy would be an emperor who was a basketball player decreeing that basketball should be the only sport in the empire. So everybody plays it; but that doesn't make everybody a basketball player. So the emperor decreed that everybody was Christian, but that didn't make everybody a Christian. Benedict was immersed therefore in a "pagan Christian" culture.