***Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.***
The fifteen-century-old Rule of Saint Benedict is the subject of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit. Specifically, she writes about chapter 7 of the Rule, which is on humility. Chittister believes by embracing the spirit of humility that God calls us to and Benedict outlines, we can experience true freedom.
The book is organized into 12 chapters, with each taking one “Step” on the path to humility. The chapters address such themes as confession, tradition, silence, authenticity, spiritual guidance, contentment, and ultimately, freedom. Each chapter shares personal anecdotes of Chittister as a young novitiate in a Benedictine monastery learning humility while memorizing and reciting the Rule. She explains how her understanding of the Rule has blossomed and flowered over these last six decades, connecting her anecdotes to issues in the present. She clearly shows how our modern-day issues can and should be addressed by a robust understanding of Benedictine humility. Finally, she sums up each chapter with a brief glimpse at the spiritual implications of each step of humility in the life of one who is pursuing God.
Chittister is feisty and fiery and does not pull punches concerning the things she sees wrong in our world. She calls out the modern culture, in which each person has made himself the only real agenda. She reproofs us for living with a falsely developed sense of perfection based on social norms instead of on God.
Social Justice, Chittister says, is always a battle. We can never assume equality exists as long as people strive for power. She encourages readers to take heart and to continue to stand for justice “when going on seems fruitless and madness runs amok” because that is a true sign of both faith and commitment (82). She also says that silence allows us to find our “real life” and move from our sanctification to others’ liberation.
While Chittister is deeply devoted to social justice, I think her wisdom shines through in this book even more. She is deeply insightful, encouraging me to consider a new perspective, which led me to many “Aha!” moments while reading. Among the pearls of wisdom Chittister gives are:
- Humility begins with the recognition that only God is God.
- We should open ourselves up to receive spiritual guidance from others (as long as it is in line with what God had revealed through God’s Word) and forgo our perceived omnipotence.
- “The meaning we give to obedience is, in the end, the measure of the fullness of our spiritual development,” (65).
- The antithesis to the freedom we experience in humility is frustration, which spends its time demanding control.
- Confession is an “unburdening of the past” that allows us to understand others better and let our own self-righteousness die (95).
- Turning to simplicity is not about giving away what I have but examining “why I expect it and need it and demand it,” and repenting of that desire (108).
- Tradition and Traditionalism are not the same thing and work must be done to recognize the difference between the two, sifting that which is necessary to the Christian faith, and that which we do blindly because “it has always been done that way.”
For Chittister, the crux of living a life of humility turns on choosing to let go of the false sense of self that we create, which she focuses on in chapter 7. When we puff ourselves up with a false sense of self, we are giving ourselves the right to use others as things. We must embrace our humanity. We need each other. We are not perfect. But we can become more.
Having read a couple of Chittister’s other works (The Gift of Years, The Liturgical Year), I was familiar with her wit and insight. I appreciate her thoughtful, conversational prose and the transparency with which she admits her own shortcomings. She has encouraged me to recognize my own limitations and to humbly recognize that only God is God.
This has been my favorite book of 2017 to date. It eclipses CJ Mahaney’s Humility as my favorite book on the subject and has a permanent place on my shelf. I encourage anyone interested in Benedictine spirituality, spiritual disciplines, social justice, and young ministers to check it out!
Rory Jones is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a co-editor at Words About God. He enjoys cooking with his wife, Elise, and playing board games.