The Monastic Heart

50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life

About the Book

The activist, nun, and esteemed spiritual voice who has twice appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday sounds the call to create a monastery within ourselves—to cultivate wisdom and resilience so that we may join God in the work of renewal, restoration, and justice right where we are.

“Essential reading for anyone wishing to find the compass of their heart and the wellspring from which to live fully.”—Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries and New York Times bestselling author of Tattoos on the Heart

“In every beating heart is a silent undercurrent that calls each of us to a place unknown, to the vision of a wiser life, to become what I feel I must be—but cannot name.” So begins Sister Joan Chittister’s words on monasticism, offering a way of living and seeing life that brings deep human satisfaction. Amid the astounding disruptions of normalcy that have unfolded in our world, Sister Joan calls all of us to cultivate the spiritual seeker within, however that may look across our diverse journeys: “We can depend only on the depth of the spiritual well in us. The well is the only thing that can save us from the fear of our own frailty.”

This book carries the weight and wisdom of the monastic spiritual tradition into the twenty-first century. Sister Joan leans into Saint Benedict, who, as a young man in the sixth century, sought moral integrity in the face of an empire not by conquering or overpowering the empire but by simply living an ordinary life extraordinarily well. This same monastic mindset can help us grow in wisdom, equanimity, and strength of soul as we seek restoration and renewal both at home and in the world.

At a time when people around the world are bearing witness to human frailty—and, simultaneously, the endurance of the human spirit—The Monastic Heart invites readers of all walks to welcome this end of certainty and embrace a new beginning of our faith. Without stepping foot in a monastery, we can become, like those before us, a deeper, freer self, a richer soul—and, as a result, a true monastic, so “that in all things God may be glorified.”
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Listen to a sample from The Monastic Heart

Praise for The Monastic Heart

“This mystical wholeness aligns our souls with our spacious God. Seeing as God sees is within our reach, and this book helps us find our true selves in loving.”—Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries and New York Times bestselling author of Tattoos on the Heart

“One of the Church’s contemporary prophets teaches us, simply and clearly, how to cultivate our inner lives, and so encounter the One who desires to encounter us.”—James Martin, SJ, author of Learning to Pray

“Refreshing, practical . . . We learn that the ‘monastic heart’ is a portable thing, a heart that we all can carry in our busy lives as we respond deeply to the suffering of Mother Earth and the world around us. . . . A beautiful, handy guide to bringing out the best in ourselves as we try to serve the future charged with the wisdom of the past.”—Rev. Matthew Fox, author of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen

“A beautiful and wonderfully useful book for introducing the wisdom and peace of the monastery into our daily lives. . . . I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to bring the joy of St. Benedict’s Rule into their hearts.”—Philip Freeman, PhD, professor of humanities at Pepperdine University

“To engage these pages is to hear a grateful hymn to the monastic life Sister Joan has known and loved. I notice particularly how often in this book Joan uses the word you. She seems to be handing over the baton, asking each one of us who listen to pick up our own share of the will of God for the world.”—Norvene Vest, editor of Still Listening

“[An] impeccable guide . . . Filled with many suggestions for ways to forge greater connections with one’s community and God’s will, Chittister’s program will serve as a powerful corrective to those looking to slow down.”Publishers Weekly
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The Monastic Heart



On Remembering

In every Benedictine monastery around the world, bells and bell towers are a common part of the architecture—­even now when bells are no longer a common part of human communication.

Every afternoon, as I sit in my upstairs office, I hear the old monastery bells begin to ring in the once Benedictine church that then adjoined this inner-­city monastery. In fact, the bells from Benedictine monasteries everywhere still peal out around the world. Our original monastery moved over 50 years ago from an in-­town property to the edge of the city. So we have another bell tower and a new electronic carillon. The big old brass bell, “Theodore,” shipped here from Germany ages ago, now rests retired and reverenced on a brick base in the memorial garden of the new monastery. New bells go on ringing over our lakeside property daily, just as the old one did here in the inner city for more than 150 years. No bedroom clocks, no personal watches take their place as harbingers of spiritual time.

But why?

The monastic heart is a heart that goes through life on a wave of common time. Its hours are counted out and set up in unchanging and perpetual order. In the monastery, over and over again, every day of a monastic’s life, the community bells mark the passing of the moment, of the work, of the hours of prayer, of our lifelong promises, of life’s important things. No, we don’t ring bells because monastics can’t tell time. We ring them because we are as prone to being swept away from the center of life by all its tempest and trivia as is anyone else in the modern world.

The purpose of Benedictine bells is not to spell out the hour of the day at all; that task is left to horologists. Our bells, on the other hand, are there to wrench our attention back to what is ­really important in life: The memory of God in our midst. The memory of the purpose of life. The memory that time is moving on and so must we. The recognition that life today is different than life was yesterday and we must not try to hold life back. The bells jog the memory that there are actually more important, more meaningful, more demanding dimensions of life than anything ordinary we can possibly be doing as they ring.

The bells stop us in midflight to prod us to ask ourselves again if what we are doing is what we are really meant to be doing. But most of all, they are begging us to listen to the great issues of life, to the rest of life. They are asking us to hear the cries of those in need, to confront our own reservoirs of pain.

When loss drains the dregs of the heart, the bells remind us that another day is coming and with it the grace we need to confront it. When fear captures us, the bells are there to remind us not to be afraid. When the past has disappeared from our sights and there is not even a glimpse of the future to be found, the bells remind us that the only way to deal with the future is to accept its call to shape it.

Integrating the Practice

It’s what you pay attention to in life that determines both your commitments and your inner happiness. Time is its indicator. One of the most important questions of life is surely, Where do I spend my time and what am I doing there? The second is, What calls me back to where I’m meant to be? Money? Work? The crowd? What . . . ?

Monastic bells can draw your attention again and again to what is really of great concern: the call of God in you to remember the suffering; to comfort the grieving; to feed the underfed; to continue the work of God’s love for all the earth. If those are the bells of life that waken our hearts, then, perhaps, we will finally become a country again, a people again, families again, and reflect more signs of humanity than of nationalities and clans and colors.

Monastic bells are meant to remind you to get back up on your feet and go on.

It is time to reach across borders and backyard fences and family separations and refuse to allow politics and viruses and the hurts of the heart to destroy your humanity, your community, your role in life. The bells you choose to listen to deliberately interrupt what you’re doing and make you listen to life as it goes on around you, to make you think again about what must be dealt with now if you are ever to go beyond the chaos that threatens you, beyond the pain and confusion within.

The questions should nag at you: What needs are around me? What pain, what sorrow, what grief must be dealt with before life can ever become life again? What is weighing me down? Here. In my private little world? Now.

The truth is that what consumes your thinking controls you. What is getting your attention now? Status? Personal success? Loss? Fear? Better yet, what should be getting your attention now? The Benedictine bell is there to interrupt your distractions, to put you back on course.

When the sound of these bells rings in your heart a message of obligation, a signal of God’s call to you to be aware of your task in life, then you shall have come to the point of spiritual adulthood. Then the presence of God will be a living, breathing grace in you. You will know that, whatever the struggle of doing what must be done, you are being called to do it. And doing it will change your little part of the world and make it better in the end.

Then the world will grow on because you have been here and listened to the bells call you to that other part of yourself where what you do really means something to someone. The bells remind you that though God created the world, God did not finish it. That part of creation was left to you and me to do for ourselves. For that great enterprise we all need a bell to ring us awake.

Bells and gongs bring the soul to attention. But they do more than that; they interrupt the purposeless in life and focus your heart. They make you ask yourself what it is that is absorbing you now and, then, what it is that should be centering you now.

In every life there is something that takes more of your attention than anything else. Which brings you to the real question: Should it? What is really important now? What means more to you: the value of your work or the amount of money you get for doing it? Or, better yet, what is really more important to you: what you do to make a living or the way you live life when you’re not working?

The truth is that we all need a bell: the one we set on our watches, the chime we put on the windowsill to invite the call of the wind. The one that’s programmed on our cellphones to remind us to say a prayer for strength before we begin the first effort of the day. We need some kind of bell that not only distracts us from the worry, the irritation, the boredom, the fear, the disappointment of the day. We need something that calls us to something greater than the little worries of life and so brings our soul to its center again.

The important thing is that you put some sound into your life that stops you and turns you toward the real purpose of life. Then, when the tiny ring of it comes, you will pause long enough to thank God for life, to ask for the strength to commit yourself to a greater question than what the daily brings.

We each need a personal call at specific moments to point us to life as it should be, not simply life as it is. The bells remind us that though God created the world, God did not finish it.

About the Author

Joan Chittister

JOAN CHITTISTER is an internationally known author and lecturer, and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality. She is past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Her books include The Gift of Years, The Breath of the Soul, Called to Question, and Following the Path. She is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania.

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