Two Sundays ago, Prior Joseph gave a Chapter Talk, quoting a passage from Joan Chittister’s book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. One of her points is that suffering or scarring or “damage” is not just inevitable in human life but it is a resource. In fact, such scars remain a valuable resource even if such vulnerability is not prized by our competitive, success-oriented society. In fact, from the point of view of getting ahead, I might be more likely to conceal my woundedness and bluster on uphill against the competition. Certainly as a male of a certain age, I’d be expected to act strong, confident and, unwaveringly, provide answers and impose solutions.
I believe it is significant that Joan Chittister, being both a woman and a Benedictine, is capable of a counter-cultural perspective on the topic of wounds and scars. As a woman in a still male-dominated society and in a male dominated Church, she’d know plenty of scarring from experience. Her choices would be denial or living up (or dummying down to) male expectations OR owning her scars and exploiting them as a spiritual resource. As a Benedictine, she opts to appropriate the scars from life’s struggles as self-knowledge, part of our relationship to God. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, if I know myself–even myself as an image of God distorted by sin, personal or collective–I am on the road to encountering God. This may not be part of the roles that John Wayne used to play, but this most certainly can be a part of Joan Chittister’s experience and teaching.
This is not the comforting sanctity of a featureless, plaster-cast saint, static and confined to pedestal or niche but the challenging, dynamic, work-in-progress sanctity offered us by the Scriptures. It’s the uncomfortable, organic sanctity of a Sarah or an Abraham, a Peter and Paul, a James and John, a David or Deborah, a Ruth or an Esther, a Mary and Joseph; the mistakes are as formative as the “right” choices. That is, they are formative when I own and worked through them, when I resort to the help of others and trust that God, if momentarily concealed, is still invested in the mess.
I’m very struck by the second half of the title, …Transformed by Hope. When I look at the world around me, when I consider the pessimism that had afflicted my worldview decades ago, when I was 37 years old, I don’t see much hope operative in our society. I see many things that people call “love”, I see outpourings and generosity of sympathy and support whenever tragedy strikes, so one could believe that there is some sort of Charity, at least in embryonic form. Certainly, people believe in lots of things today: UFO’s, consumerism, the Constitution (whether interpreted from the Right or from the Left or from the Center), even the literal meaning of the Bible. One might be persuaded that Faith is still operative. But I’m often at a loss to find any symptom of hope beyond the fact that people are still have children. Is there a connection between our lack of hope–or downright hopelessness–and our reluctance to own our scars? That is to say, if I am ashamed of my scars and mistakes and vulnerability, if I can’t risk acknowledging them can I no longer risk hoping?
And yet, when I invest myself in owning them and go through that pain and shame, hope is born against all expectations. I don’t even need hope to get started, or courage. I just have to be sick enough of remaining stuck in a dead-end and take a step out. Those first steps may not be unlike stepping through a hedge of briars, but it’s only a hedge. After that things get better: there is palpable hope. Once I start exploiting those wounds and scars, there is hope. Then those pale ghosts of “charity” or “faith” that seem to exist in our success-oriented world can make way, bit by bit, for the real thing. Sympathy can gradually develop into an identification with the other person, even the person so unlike myself. Belief systems can open up to a living trust in Someone bigger than systems, capable of outliving any system and its ups and downs.
I deeply feel that this is a question worth embracing: what value is there in my wounds, my limitations? What precious resource have I overlooked in those aspects of myself that I’d tend to hide? What strength and energy is latent in my weakness?
For some time, I’ve had the intention of writing about prayer as described by the New Testament, rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Obviously I haven’t begun writing those posts yet. But I think this is a good place to start if I would write about living prayer: Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope.
In future weeks a series of POSTS on prayer will begin to appear under NEWS.