Benedictine nun’s ‘radical’ take on humility, fake news and social media

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2017 10:03 am

Sister Joan Chittister opens her latest book with the story of Abba Zosimas, a fifth-century monk in Palestine.

Abba Zosimas taught his followers, "The soul has as many masters as it has passions."

Chittister wants her readers to look "gently, kindly but clearly" at those masters and passions in their lives, she said.

For the popular activist and author, freedom from those things comes from living out the 12 degrees of humility found in the Rule of St. Benedict, which guides her life as a Benedictine nun. And they're just as applicable today as they were 1,500 years ago, as she explains in"Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life," which will be published April 25 by Convergent.

"The one phrase that I've come to in my own life is these 12 degrees of humility are a veritable program of liberation," she said.

Chittister talked to Religion News Service about how St. Benedict of Nursia's words about humility apply to a culture of self-promotion on social media, what role wisdom has amid fake news and alternative facts and where she sees religious life going in the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q • Your book goes through the 12 degrees of humility in St. Benedict's Rule, and yet the subtitle isn't "12 Ways to Live a Humble Life." It's "12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life." Why?

A • Humility is authenticity. It comes from the (Latin) word humus, meaning "earth." As the church has taught, we're made of dust, and unto dust we shall return.

The God who made us dust knows we're dust. We don't have to feel like perpetual failures because we aren't more than we are, and we don't have to be in contest and contention with everybody around us, because once I know myself and realize I have limitations, then two things happen: I realize my need for you, and I do not expect more from you than I expect from myself. So mercy comes with it, joy comes with it, authenticity comes with it and freedom comes with it.

Q • You write that the quest for a free and authentic life is common to everyone in every generation and era. How do you think the internet has contributed to this, or does it?

A • It has contributed to certainly a new kind of communication among us — not all of it good; a lot of it, dangerous. When we talk about human community, we certainly now have a tool in our hands that enables us to reach out as we never have before. It broadens our sense certainly of what community is and even of our own place in it.

When I get on the internet and hide behind a false identity and then allow that hiding to free me from the standards of decency to begin to use language I would never use in front of my mother, all of a sudden, there's nothing between me and you, but worse than that, there's nothing between me and my worst self.

So is this an instrument of community? Yes, it is, but it depends on the kind of person I am when I come to it, and that's where the 12 degrees of humility are absolutely essential. They create a windowpane through which I see the world, but in that windowpane, I also get a reflection of myself and the way I'm seeing the world and interacting with it.

Q • You encourage readers to seek wisdom, rather than facts. In a culture of alternative facts and fake news, what does this look like?

A • I have to be honest with you, it never occurred to me as years went by that my country would look like this as I grew into it and as it grew into a different world. That's why I keep pressing the notion that we must seek wisdom.

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