We live in a world of superficiality, a world where Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are flooded with selfies and soundbites, where we communicate in “textese” only as much as our data plan will allow, and where our “race to the top” is a contest to see who can have the biggest (or smallest, if you’re into the tiny house movement), the fastest and newest car, and the funnest vacation. Parents throw exorbitant Pinterest parties for their toddlers, and “creating fun memories” is on the cover of every family life magazine. Pleasure and enjoyment has become the end in life, and we slog through our daily lives just to get to the next fun activity.
But the house leaks, the car breaks down, the toddler screams while sitting in a messy diaper, the boss is making work life miserable, and the 4,307 “friends” we have on Facebook aren’t there when the fun ends. Our personal life planters have beautiful blooms for everyone to see…but when the scorching heat of difficulty and pain bigan baking us, we discover that there is no root system, and everything we think is secure withers and dies. Our faith, along with everything else, fizzles, and we wonder what the point of it all is.
Sister Joan Chittister, in her inimitable fashion, has the answer. It’s not a new pop psychology theory, or a 3-step system to self-fulfillment. No, in her newest book, Radical Spirit, she presents truth that is thousands of years old, and is as generally ignored as it is old.
What is “radical spirit”? Both words are so overused and colloquialized in modern language, I decided to look them up. Based on the primary definitions of each word I found, I translated the title to this: “Thorough Soul”. That still didn’t satisfy my curiosity, so I followed the word “thorough” back to its Latin roots. Thorough, from the Latin radicalis, meant in middle English, “forming the root.” And there I had it: forming the root of the soul. In our rootless, groundless, modern existence, finding a stable root system for our lives is exactly what we need…and this book delivers.
Based on the Benedictine Rule of Humility (and who better to bring this into the modern era than a modern Benedictine nun?), Sister Chittister walks us through the remarkably radical – that is, countercultural and counterintuitive –Twelve Steps of Humility (strangely similar to the twelve steps of recovery…) established by St. Benedict himself. She paraphrases the process like this:
- Recognize that God is God.
- Know that God’s will is best for you.
- Seek direction from wisdom figures.
- Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
- Acknowledge faults and strip away the masks.
- Be content with less than the best.
- Let go of a false sense of self.
- Preserve tradition and learn from the community.
- Never ridicule anyone or anything.
- Speak kindly.
- Be serene, stay calm.
In a world that encourages self-promotion and promises reward for climbing to the top, this Rule – based entirely on the Holy Scriptures – encourages self-effacement and full reliance on and obedience to God, and those whom God places over us in our lives. Just as Christ taught in the Beatitudes, “the meek shall inherit the earth” and as St. Francis prayed, “It is in dying that we find eternal life”, these 12 steps guarantee exaltation not through self-effort and striving for praise and glory, but through the pursuit and practice – yes, practice – of humility.
If relief from the rat race and refreshment from the unending, empty cycle of self-fulfillment is what you seek, read this book. Then start with Step One. Although each step is a greater spiritual challenge than the one before, you will sense a freer, calmer, and more grounded sense of being. Your life will have a well-developed root system, protecting it from the harshness and heat of life’s difficulties. You will find freedom. From the introduction:
It is humility that stands to set us free. Free from the ambition that drives us, from the angers that rule us, from the greed that consumes us, from the chains we have mistaken for success and superiority.
I loved this book, and will read again and again as I, in my midlife years, search to achieve a sense of authenticity and true meaning for the rest of my life. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10, KJV).
(Chittister, Joan. Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life. 2017. Convergent Books: New York. ISBN 978-0-451-49517-4. $22.00. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)