Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope”

An hourlong teleconference with

Joan Chittister, OSB

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Sr. Joan Chittister for our June 2016 WATERtalk. Joan is an articulate social analyst and influential religious leader of this age. For over 40 years she has dedicated herself to advocating for universal recognition of the critical questions impacting the global community. A Benedictine Sister of Erie, PA, Joan is an international lecturer and award-winning author of over 50 book, including Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2003), the basis of this WATERtalk.  

I have no doubt that the people on this line have been part of the parade of struggle in both church and state for the last 25-50 years. For that reason, I’ve chosen to do today’s topic with this group. We have all struggled and are still struggling. Struggling takes its toll but gets little attention, especially for those whose life is made up of it. Is there any template we can find to help us through our own dark days when justice seems elusive?

Søren Kierkegaard wrote that life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. The fact of the matter is that we don’t talk about the experience as much, but we do try to solve a lot. Everyone has a story of despair, hopelessness, sorrow. There is no one who hasn’t known what it is to lose in the game of life, to know its humiliation, to be standing naked and alone in a world that does not grieve for your grief. Life forges us in struggle. Everybody has been changed by something they did not want to have change – the divorce, the personal humiliations – leaving us hollow to the core. What happens to us spiritually as a result?

We’ve been told we can assume life is a plan that God makes to test us, or that God is a puppeteer. We can says its God’s will that lives are ruined, and in the midst of that we are led to believe that the more unhappy we are here, the happier we can be somewhere else. But that’s not a spirituality of struggle, that’s an attempt to turn the process of struggle into a kind of spiritual masochism.

God is the ground of our being, energy of life; and to grow into fullness takes a spirituality of struggle that owns the pain, but comes to grips with each of its dimensions and grows as a result.

In every major spiritual tradition there is a narrative of struggle, a testimony to the universal role of struggle in spiritual life. In the Judeo-Christian narrative, I believe it’s the Jacob story in Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with a man who struck him and dislocated his hip before blessing him. Jacob renames the place Peniel because he saw God face-to-face and survived. Most of us simply ignore this story – it comes out of nowhere in the middle of the scriptures and doesn’t resolve a thing. But in it, I believe, is embedded the spirituality of struggle, the secrets of a spirituality of letting go and going on despite loss.

Genesis tells us that Jacob had made peace with his father in law, he is reconciling with Esau, and life is good – he had a wife, cattle, servants, etc. But then that night, with no warning, he finds himself wrestling in the dark with the unknown, as do we all, when we find ourselves wrestling with our demons or our God. Our own struggles begin when the present disappears and the future seems totally unacceptable. Do we go on in the full of ourselves, or live wounded for the rest of our lives. One way is defeat, the other way is hope.

In the story of Jacob, we begin to see the nine challenges that struggle brings and the unfolding of the nine gifts of the spirit that go with them. Though a shortened version today, they will be the topic of a full-length webinar from on October 22, 2016.

Jacob is facing change, which plunges him into a process of nine challenges, and in this lies a template of nine checkpoints with which to examine where we are in the process of our own struggles as we move from change to transformation.

Change. When it happens, Jacob is on the brink of success. Real struggle come out of a reversal of fortune we feel we deserve. The loss is psychologically cataclysmic because we feel like we’ve earned our success. The first gift is conversion of heart. This requires that we assume a new openness to the God of creation. It is the first step to a mature faith, the willingness to start over again in the dark. We begin to look beyond the loss to what it will take to begin again.

Isolation. Jacob is all alone, and that’s the point. Isolation at any time is calling us to the gift of independence. Isolation is the aloneness that comes from the sense of powerlessness from shocking change. We must find within us the will to grieve and to live at the same time. We must become psychologically independent of our own pain – we can’t own it to the point that we are incapable of doing anything else in life.

Darkness. Jacob is assailed at night. Struggle is a contest of great internal proportions. It’s not what you lose – it is to do with what we put our life on. We wrestle with feelings that threaten to overwhelm us, feeling of abandonment. Faith, the early notion that life is bigger than we are, can be the beacon of the soul and the antidote to darkness. It’s a strong step in the exercise of hope. Suddenly we know there’s hope for us too.

Fear. Jacob fears he’s losing the battle to save himself. We’re being called to the gift of courage. When fear of the unknown strangles the heart, one tiny act of courage can bring hope alive again in the midst of openness. One attempt to find a new job, one night out with a friend, one open and honest talk.

Powerlessness. Jacob comes to know what it is to be ineffective, to be impotent, to be helpless. Having made one thing in life, when the definition of our self, our job, love, or life goes, the core of us goes with it. Life is, for the most part, out of our control. Even in this world of global corporations and networks, the individual has never before been so assertive but so powerless. When we surrender ourselves to becoming conscious, thinking members of the human race, so that our pain does not crush others, then we’ve begun to grow to our full stature. That becomes a spark of hope – rising from the defeat to see what we can do to erase the pain for other people.

Vulnerability. Jacob discovers that not only was he powerless to prevent the situation, but he was vulnerable to it. Being made fallible is the greatest sting of all. It’s not so much losing the great work, but being humiliated in the loss of it. Self-acceptance is the only thing that can save us. I must choose between flailing in the face of the inevitable or accepting my limitations requires me to depend on the strength of others. Hope lies in being willing to ask for help. In those very limitations is the beginning of my hope that God, working through others, will be my strength if I only ask for help.

Exhaustion. Jacob wrestles the whole night long. He is exhausted by it, as so many of us have been along the line. We spend years beginning and beginning again, trying to reach the peak of our aspirations and goals, and then it all crumbles at our feet. In that pain, we are being called to the gift of endurance. Our creating God goes on creating and is asking the same of us. God, whose failure is continual, says “Join me in it and we’ll go another route.”

Scarring. Jacob is bandied, impaired, crippled by his struggle. He walks into the struggle but he lives out of it forever marked, limited by the experience. But scarring also vitalizes another whole part of us and we become fuller selves. In responding to each part of the cycle of struggle, that hope emerges and leads us on. It’s the very act of resisting despair that abolishes it.

Each of the challenges is transformative – isolation to independence, exhaustion to endurance. It is struggle itself that is the foundation of hope, not hope that is the wedge against struggle. Struggle transforms us from our small, puny, self-centered selves into people with compassion. Before struggle, our grief for others is a formality. After struggle, for the first time we understand the fearful and sinful and exhausted – they have become ourselves and we have become them. We commiserate with the marginalized, we identify with the invisibility of the outcast, the rage of the forgotten. The whole purpose is to transform into the self we are meant to become.

Turn your face to the sun and the shadows always fall behind you. Hope is not waiting for things outside of us to get better, but about what’s inside of us to get better to deal with what’s outside. We always think of hope as grounded in the future. That’s wrong, I think. Hope is fulfilled in the future, but it depends on our ability to remember that we have survived everything in life to this point, so why not this latest situation too.

As Kierkegaard said: “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”


Mary Hunt: A place to start pursuing this topic is in the interface between psychology and spirituality. A lot of what you said sounds like clinical depression, though I know that isn’t what you mean. It reminds of the difference between PTSD and moral injury, which we’ve been talking about at WATER with Rita Nakashima Brock, and the difference between what happens to the psyche and to the soul. How do you tease out clinical issues at play in this?

Joan: I can only tell you that my own development comes when spiritual people, who had been trained in a culture like confession, discovered that confession was punitive but that these conversations still needed to be addressed. There was a search for psychologists in the late 50s and 60s to help people understand, but psychology cannot answer a spiritual question, emotional, or developmental question. You can get very lost if your soul is in struggle. If you’ve been, as so many women have in an institution like marriage, government, religion, abused and constrained and repressed, a delayed PTSD can come years after the abuse began. Women in their 50s or later start to touch the raw nerve of the abuse. A good psychologist can help them understand what happened, but the answer has to do with the kind of work you’ve been doing for years, Mary [Hunt], moving us into the questions “What about my soul, my spirit? How did I get here? What am I struggling with and what is the answer to the spiritual demon I am confronting?”

Mary: In the field of social work, I’m glad to see there’s a new field that combines spirituality and social work so they are not seen as distinct. In patriarchal and hierarchical churches, we don’t often have people who are trained to tease these issues out.

Joan: When I mentioned the isolation challenge that turns into independence, I think of all the women who are isolated in their homes, workplaces. If women started to realize independence and find each other, we threaten the entire system with our independence. We set up a tremor in the foundation in the institution, when we stand up and say “that’s wrong.” When the walls come tumbling down on your head, you will be changed.

Q: While we’re talking about women in spirituality and religion, what is your advice to someone who misses having a spiritual family? I can’t get rid of Catholicism. It’s inside me, and I miss it, but I can’t go to Mass without being furious. What would be your advice?

A: You have got to go out, and you’re doing it already, and find communities in intentional parishes, monasteries of the heart, places like WATER, retreats, etc. If it’s a first step for you, my suggestion is that you find women’s groups that are committed to the spiritual questions, and check out communities of women religious in your area and see what they’re offering for women. There are places you can talk about your spiritual life as a feminist, an environment where that’s not a foreign language. Reach out especially to women’s groups. You have to find the spiritual torch within and be in a family where you speak the same language.

Q: I have gone through loss, through death, but I think the thing that really bothers me is my expectation of a group or a person when they don’t meet those expectations that I put on them, wrongly. That is the thing that keeps me down. As a “P.S.” I don’t like to keep referring back to Jacob – it doesn’t seem womanly – or to scriptures even. There is so much to look to today.

A: It’s part of a ladder that we’re all on. I am not conscious of saying Catholic, because I hardly care about that as an identifying factor anymore. In my own life, I feel confident in my womanhood and your womanhood and feel safe there. Where I can find a template that links to another body of knowledge, it doesn’t bother me so much. The question then is what our own expectations are doing to us – and my answer is that I can’t waste any more time going through life with expectations of any more institutions. To burden myself with expectations of someone else, honestly, we’re too big for that. In all your work, I see clear, honest questioning that calls for the self critical, not for expectation. I want to be free to walk the spiritual path without any obstacles that says someone won’t understand or not to listen to somebody. At the heart of spirituality is the holiness of freedom, and that’s a posture without expectation.

Q: We are increasingly dealing with family members going through Alzheimer’s. How can we help them?

A: My mother was an early Alzheimer’s patient – and was for 28 years. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that help for Alzheimer’s comes with a safe and gentle environment for the patient and a focus on help for the caregivers. Those are people who are locked into this phenomenal pain. These self-help groups that have emerged out of these public questions are more than fads – they are the deepest kind of spiritual and psychological foundations. I know your question was about the patient, but I only know to leave that up to the expert and give concern to the caregivers, give them a break, understand that may be more alone than ever.

Q: We just had a crisis in my family – a niece of mine wanted to hurt herself, and I found out that she’s in serious communication difficulties with her family. Her father was in the Marines, has PTSD, and doesn’t know how to help his family. This young woman is very impacted by the culture we live in, and it’s expectations of girls. The emotional issues can be handled, but I’m concerned about the spiritual issues. How can we deal with the young women who are coming along now and struggling with these aspects of their lives?

A: You have put your finger on one of the cultural tsunamis of the age. Our children have grown up in front of television – what has that done to our children emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? If your niece is tempted to hurt herself but she had the sense to seek help (it is one of these challenges in the spirituality of struggle to ask and seek help), she sounds like a good candidate then for a residential program. The question of what to do with girls in our culture could take hours. Frankly, I’d concentrate on her. The educational system in our culture is so fractured itself that it may not be the place to start. I would hope that older women would be inviting younger women to conversation, getting them in touch with a lifeline. Again, it’s a non-answer but calls us to pay attention to the person you are with, and what that suggests to us about the rest of the culture.


Q: I just had a couple more thoughts about being spiritually lost. I recently watched the film A Year By The Sea, and independent film by Joan Anderson, and I would suggest getting some women together in your area to see it and talk about it. There’s also a wonderful book by Margaret Wheatley called Turning to One Another, that has really great questions in it for groups. Get some women together and start talking!

WATER thanks Joan Chittister and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. Stay tuned for the dates of upcoming WATERtalks, starting again in September 2016. Thanks for joining us!