WISDOM: Openness by Joan Chittister

Openness by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light

It was said about a disciple that he endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week.  He asked God about certain words in the Holy Scripture, but God did not answer.  Finally, he said to himself: “Look, I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress.  So I will go to see my brother and ask him.”

When he had gone out, closed the door, and started off, an angel of God was sent to him and said, “Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God.  But now that you are humble enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to you to reveal the meaning of the words.”  Then the angel explained the meaning which the old man was seeking, and went away.



o close ourselves off from the wisdom of the world around us in the name of God is a kind of spiritual arrogance exceeded by little else in the human lexicon of errors.  It makes of life a kind of prison where, in the name of holiness, thought is chained and vision is condemned.  It makes us our own gods.  It is a sorry excuse for spirituality.

The sin of religion is to pronounce every other religion empty and unknowing, deficient and unblessed.  It is to ignore the call of God to us through the life and wisdom and spiritual vision of the other.  The implications of that kind of closing out the multiple revelations of the mind of God are weighty: once we shut our hearts to the other, we have shut our hearts to God.  It is a matter of great spiritual import, of deep spiritual summons.  Openness to the presence of God, the Word of God in others, is of the essence of contemplation.

Learning to open the heart requires first that we open our lives.  The home of whites that has never had a person of color at the supper table is a home that has missed an opportunity to grow.  People of color who have never trusted a white have missed a chance to confirm the humanity of the human race.  The man who has never worked with a woman as a peer, better yet as an executive, has deprived himself of the revelation of the other half of the world.  The comfortable contemplative who has never served soup at a soup kitchen, or eaten lunch in the kitchen with the cook, or clerked in a thrift shop, or spent time in inner-city programs lives in an insulated bubble.  The world they know cannot possibly give them the answers they seek.  The adult who has never asked a child a question about life and really listened to the answer is doomed to go through life out of touch and essentially unlearned.  “When someone comes to the gate,” the Rule of Benedict instructs, “say ‘Benedicite.'”  Say, in other words, “Thanks be to God” that someone has come to add to our awareness of the world, to show us another way to think and be and live beyond our own small slice of the universe.

Openness is the door through which wisdom travels and contemplation begins.  It is the pinnacle from which we learn that the world is much bigger, much broader than ourselves, that there is truth out there that is different from our own.  The voice of God within us is not the only voice of God.

Openness is not gentility in the social arena.  It is not polite listening to people with whom we inherently disagree.  It is not political or civil or “nice.”  It is not even simple hospitality.  It is the munificent abandonment of the mind to new ideas, to new possibilities. Without an essential posture of openness, contemplation is not possible.  God comes in every voice, behind every face, in every memory, deep in every struggle.  To close off any of them is to close off the possibility of becoming new again ourselves.

To be a contemplative it is necessary to throw open the arms of our lives, to take in daily one experience, one person, one new idea with which we have no familiarity and ask what it is saying to us about us.  Then God, the Ultimate Reality, the Life beyond life can come to us in deep, in rending, new ways.

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