I very much appreciate reading and thinking for some kind of project and run across an interesting idea for one of these inspirational pieces. That happened last night. I am reading some material for a presentation I have to make in the near future. Some of the material I need to read is from the literature of the monks. I enjoy reading some of that.
I was reading one of my favorite contemporary monastic writers, Sister Joan Chittister. I have not met Sr. Joan, but I feel like I know her. She is a fairly famous Benedictine nun from the Benedictine monastery in Erie, PA. I have been to that monastery and know a couple of the Benedictine nuns. They are full of stories about Sr. Joan. She is a prophetic figure within Catholic circles. She is a tireless worker for social justice issues. She is a product of the 1960s and those kinds of folks are dear to my heart.
She has a book penned in the 1990s that I like and which still speaks powerfully to me. The book is entitled, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. It focuses on the important wisdom and practices that she distills from the Rule of St. Benedict. As a Benedictine, this is the guidebook, so to speak, for her life. I also am a follower of St. Benedict, so it also informs my own life---but not to the degree it would for a monk or a nun.
I had some rather specific things I was looking forward to as I read through her book. Actually, I had read her book earlier in my life. I had used it in a group I led. So this time, my reading was pointed and quick. I was looking for specific things around two or three particular themes. So I would not even call my approach broad and open. It was narrow and focused. I am surprised that it happened…but it did.
At one point, my eyes ran across a sentence and my mind was captivated. It was as if I had found a glitter of gold in the midst of the mud. Perhaps it was because my life needed this kind of advice that my eyes were captivated by a single sentence.
The sentence was simple, but profound. Sr. Joan says, “It is time to realize that it is not what happens to me in life that counts, it is what I do with what happens to me that is the measure of my happiness.” I wanted to take a few minutes and let that thought sink into my brain and into my soul. It felt important, but I needed to take the time to figure out why it was important. And then more importantly, I needed to begin to figure out what I could do about it. So I began to unpack the sentence.
Perhaps it was the beginning of the sentence that arrested me. The nun says that it is time to realize… That always provokes my attention. To say that it is time to realize means I have not been realizing! It is time to realize that it is not what happens to me in life that counts. I think this must be vintage Joan Chittister. It is so anti-American. What happens to me in life does not count! How could that be? If you are like I am, you assume that what happens to you in life counts. We are important. What happens to us is important. Of course, it counts! It could be great; it could be awful. But it counts! I am sure there is a nun somewhere smiling at our dismay that what happens to us in life does not count.
The second half of the sentence is Benedictine wisdom from a Benedictine sister. In effect, she is going to tell us what counts. It is what I do with what happens to me that is the measure of my happiness. That what struck me as profound. Sr. Joan is making an important, but subtle, distinction. The distinction is between what happens to us and what we do with what happens to us. I understand the distinction and it makes sense.
It fascinates me that she talks about “the measure of my happiness.” Probably many of us feel like what happens to us in life is the measure of our happiness. If good things happen, we are happy. If bad things happen, ugh---no happiness. What this means, however, is that we are slaves of whatever happens to us in life. We have no freedom; we are victims of our circumstances---good or bad.
No doubt, this does describe the lives of too many people. We live through our time, vulnerable to being delivered or dashed by our destiny. But Sr. Joan and, I’m sure, St. Benedict says it does not have to be this way. In fact, the measure of our happiness is figuring out what to do with what happens to me in life. Here we always have a choice. In this perspective we are always free. We are free to respond and to garner some happiness.
Even if seemingly bad things happen to us in life, we are not condemned to unhappiness. We have a choice. What we do with these seemingly bad things is a choice we make. Perhaps it is possible to find a measure of happiness even in the midst of some bad things. I am sure Sr. Joan says, “of course.” I think this may be a secret of all the spiritual giants.
We are not slaves to what happens. We are free to choose what to do with what happens to us in life. We may not be masters of our own destinies, but we do have the power to affect the measure of our happiness. Glory be!