Any time I see something new written by Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun from Erie, PA, I immediately want to read it. Chittister has been a prophetic voice in the Catholic Church and for Christianity for decades. While I have spent some time in her monastery in Erie and even was invited to speak there in the recent past, I count it the highest privilege to be in the same place she is.
Sr. Joan Chittister is one of those rare human beings whose faith seems so deep that she is given a different set of eyes to see things than most of us. It is as if we only see things. She sees into things. She has a kind of penetrating gaze into the reality of life that give her the capacity to articulate things so that it comes to us as a form of revelation. I am left with a sense that “I have seen that, but I have not seen THAT!”
And so it was when I began reading a Catholic journal that I regularly read. Chittister is a frequent contributor to that journal, so I know I am going to get her gems on occasion. The most recent one has an article by Chittister that focuses on the nuclear treaty talks the US and Iran has been holding. She revealed things I did not know. I know that the Vice-President Biden and Mohammed Zarif, chief Iranian negotiator, were engaged at the highest level.
What I did not know was there also was a team of six religious folks sitting across the table from each other. All six happened to be representatives of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. How cool! I did not know it, but I was not surprised. Clearly, Biden and Zarif were working on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. In Chittister’s words, the group of six “were hoping to find the common ground that makes having weapons of mass destruction unnecessary.”
I hope they succeed. And if they don’t, there will be precedent for another place and another time. My faith holds that finally love has to triumph over hate. Finally, peace has to derail war. Hope is future tense. But the work for hope is a present tense activity. That is why I am sure Chittister is a hopeful person. She is hopeful because she is a woman of faith. I want to be one, too.
What became clear to Chittister and others over time was the fact that all major religions can be perverted. Some people who claim to be Christian do things in that name that no sane Christian would accept as Christian. The same is true for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Most of us would agree to that. Chittister puts it boldly. “The message is clear. The Crusaders did not carry the heart of Christianity. The Taliban does not bring glory to Islam when it murders Christians and destroys the shrines of Buddhists. The Koran does not accept the persecution of Jews who, like us, are ‘the people of the Book who deserve respect.’”
The nuclear talks are a specific situation and will soon be history. But at the end of Chittister’s article, there is a sentence with a wonderful gem that I pick out that will serve countless situations for a long time. Speaking of the kind of work and words that were being shared, Chittister comments, “that's the kind of holiness that invites us across the drawbridge of differences carrying the best of the faith that is in us.” The phrase, drawbridge of differences, leapt out at me and arrested my attention.
I am sure that phrase fits the US-Iranian talks. But it fits so many other situations---globally and locally. It fits church contexts and equally fits the context of my own college campus where there can be serious differences. And we all know that differences can lead to misunderstanding and that can spiral downhill to nastiness and, unfortunately, sometimes violence.
The image of a drawbridge is a powerful image. A drawbridge goes across a river or gorge. There are two sides. And so it is in so many of the contexts in which we live. There are two sides---race, gender, generations, etc. There is always the “other side.” Too often, this becomes “us” and “them.” There may be little traffic to the other side. Without a bridge there can be no movement.
But I noticed that Chittister purposely used the image of a drawbridge rather than a simple bridge. Obviously, a drawbridge can be lifted and no traffic can go across the bridge. This suggests to me there are times and situations in which a drawbridge is the beginning bridge that can be built. To contact the other side means we put down the bridge and cross over. But there are also times when the bridge goes up.
The drawbridge is a very hopeful image. When it becomes a drawbridge of differences, my hope turns to confidence. It fits a myriad of situations. It provides hope for crossing over, for understanding, for reconciliation and for peace. Building bridges is a spiritual work to do.