Tom Roberts, an editor-at-large for the National Catholic Reporter, has written an exceptionally fine biography of Sister Joan Chittister, the acclaimed Benedictine writer, speaker and prophetic activist. It is clearly written and intelligently organized, with an appropriate level of context and description, imbued with understanding, empathy and respect for his subject.
The book is notable because, for the first time, Sister Chittister shares the story of her painful childhood. Her parents, Loretta Cuneo and Daniel Daugherty, were married less than three years when, in 1938, her father died of tuberculosis. It left her mother a “23-year-old widow with a baby at the end of the Depression with no job, and undereducated.” A year later, Loretta married Harold (Dutch) Chittister, a Protestant. Roberts comments that “it is difficult to overstate the strains that a mixed Catholic and Protestant couple might have experienced at that time, especially if their religious affiliations were important to them.”
But in addition to the religious differences, Dutch was a violently abusive drinker and “whatever demons were at work in him would take out their vengeance on Joan’s mother.” Growing up, Joan “experienced ceaseless fear. ‘Every day wasn’t tragic. The real problem in my life was that every day could turn into a tragedy, and you never knew which day it would be.'”
Sister Chittister gives us an unsparing portrait of a childhood lived under the shadow of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. All the more remarkable, then, is her generous rendering of Dutch’s life. “He loved me, and he didn’t have to. He had nothing to do with me. … We had every problem in the book, but he loved me. He was clear about it, and he was good. He had his weaknesses, but he was a good man: paid every bill, never missed a day of work, was as honest as the day is long, was generous beyond his means.” That generosity did not extend to Joan’s education; he refused to pay for the Catholic education that provided her with an antidote to the chaos of her family life and where teachers recognized her intellect and writing abilities.
The book is particularly helpful in providing the context of Sister Chittister’s life as a vowed religious. When she entered the Erie Benedictines in 1952 she was formed by the “rigor of routine.” Twenty years later, the elected prioress of her community, she helped to guide, not lead, the renewal effort after the Second Vatican Council. “I was not one of the people who could leap so easily and lightly from the 18th century, let alone the sixth, to the 20th. I had to do a thought, a piece, at a time.”
One of the pleasures of this book is appreciating Sister Chittister’s evolution into the remarkably gifted leader she is. This is evident in the manner in which she shepherded the community into new ministries, the deliberation and clarity with which she makes decisions and her willingness to listen. “The notion of becoming, of journey, of movement, is extremely important to her thinking about religious life in transition from old forms that have become ossified to something newly dynamic.”
Roberts offers a good overview of Sister Chittister’s pastoral gifts, as well as her social justice and peace activism, much of which entails demanding international travel. This is a satisfying biography of a Benedictine woman, her community and her church.
“Two Dogs and a Parrot” is, unfortunately, not one of Sister Chittister’s finer books. In the introduction she notes that writing stories about her pets led to a “level of spiritual insight to my own understanding of the human-animal relationship.”
In the second creation narrative in Genesis, God brings the animals to Adam to name them. “Naming is an act of relationship,” she writes, “not dominance. … Naming gives our relationships character and recognition and respect.” One expects, then, a theological context for the stories she writes about Irish setter, Danny, golden retriever, Duffy, and the caique parrot, Lady Hildegard.
Sister Chittister is a good narrator and her engaging anecdotes can be humorous, touching, empathic, but always respectful of her pets. The stories segue to short, three- to four-page reflections on themes that range from acceptance, assertiveness, rejection and woundedness to play, change, adventure and respect. There is nothing wrong with the concept of such a book, but the reflections are pedestrian, self-evident and lack a coherent spiritual focus.
– – –
Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, has a master’s degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.