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Let the Call Be Heard

“You are meant to give new life, new space, new stretch to the charisms of the spirit and the religious congregations.”
Source: Let the Call Be Heard, NACAR Conference Milwaukee May 2002, Joan Chittister, OSB

Fifteen years ago in Milwaukee, NACAR, a fledgling membership organization invited Joan Chittister OSB, a renowned author with a prophetic vision, to speak to a national conference of associates, oblates, affiliates, or by whatever name, and religious. She was to delve into the question of “why do ‘associate’ programs exist?” Her response was this: “you are meant to give new life, new space, new stretch to the charisms of the spirit and the religious congregations whose task it is to proctor their treasures for the rest of the world.”

Joan Chittister’s insights and analysis invigorated that Milwaukee gathering and recently her words did again at the Fourth International Oblate Congress which took place in Rome in November. She reminded us then and now that “Each of us carries within us a piece of the truth – but only a piece, it is by absorbing the wisdom of others that we ourselves become wise. Associate programs make evident that each of us is on the way to the same God-the only difference in our journeys is the way we choose to get there.”

The 2018 theme for The Associate is “Creating the Future in the Now.” To launch that theme, we have included the original 2002 text from Joan Chittister to remind us of her words: “Why do you exist? You are to embody and extend the charisms or gifts of the spirit long embedded in the great spiritual religious traditions in new and richer ways. You exist for one reason, and one reason only: to become the blazing, flaming, searing torch to others that you are really meant to be. You are gifts given by God for today.”

NACAR gives you Joan’s words again beginning the text in this issue and continuing it on our website. We think this message to associates, oblates, affiliates, or by whatever name, will remind us to be “the other gospel voice, to brave witness, to risk new life everywhere.”

 Associate Conni Dubick, Dominican Sisters of Peace, NACAR Board

Let the Call Be Heard

Conference of Associates - Milwaukee May 2002
Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister answering questions
Sister Joan Chittister responds to questions during her address at the 2002 NACAR conference in Milwaukee, Wisc.

There are several ancient stories that indicate best, perhaps, both the purpose and the spirituality of these groups we newly call “associates”—as if we were in the process of discovering for the very first time the truth holiness has known throughout history: that the purpose of charism, the very purpose of the gifts of the spirit—is to share them, not to hold them captive to some kind of ecclesiastical elitism.

The first story is from the tales of the desert monastics: one day Abba Arsenius was heard asking an old Egyptian man for advice on something Arsenius was deliberating about. Someone who saw this said to him: “Abba Arsenius! Why is a person like you, who has such great knowledge of Greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this for advice?” And Arsenius replied, “Indeed I have learned the knowledge of Latin and Greek, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Abba Arsenius knew what as religious communities, as church and as people we have forgotten for centuries: life is the world’s greatest spiritual director and each of us learns something from it.

Each of us carries within us a piece of the truth—but only a piece. A measure of the wisdom toward which we all strive lies in learning the language around us—in hearing the wisdom of the other. It is by absorbing the wisdom of others that we ourselves become wise.

The second story comes from the Tales of the Hasidim. A seeker traveled miles every week, the sages say, to learn from the Holy One on the other side of the mountains. “What does the Holy One preach about,” some friends asked, “that could possibly cause you to make such a long and arduous journey so often?”

“Preach?” the seeker said. “Why, the Holy One never preaches to me at all.”

“Well, then, “the friends asked, “What rituals does the Holy One do that are so important to your soul?” And the seeker answered, “The Holy One doesn’t do any rituals for me whatsoever.” “Well, in that case,” the friends persisted, “What potions are you given there that make life holier for you?” And the seeker answered, “I’m not given any potions at all.”

“But if the Holy One doesn’t preach to you, and the Holy One doesn’t do rituals for you, and the Holy One doesn’t provide you with potions, why do you go there?” And the seeker said, “I go there to watch the holy build the fire.”

The seeker here knows what every truly spiritual seeker everywhere knows: there are some spiritual truths we come to understand only by seeing them done by another—only by doing what others do who have already gone before us and know the value of going this way.

Finally, the Zen masters tell the story of Tetsugen, the goal of whose life was the printing of seven thousand Japanese copies of the Buddha’s sutras, which until then were still only available in Chinese.

Tetsugen traveled the length and breadth of Japan to collect funds for this project. But after long years of begging, and just as he collected the last of the funds—most of them from the peasants of the country—the river Uji overflowed, and thousands were left homeless. So Tetsugen spent all the money he’d collected for the translation of the scriptures on the homeless.

Then he began the work of raising funds again. But the very year he managed to raise all the money he needed for the second time, an epidemic spread over the country. This time Tetsugen gave the money away to help the suffering.

Finally, once again, he set out on another fundraising journey and twenty years later, sure enough, he’d raised enough money for the third time to see his dream come true: the scriptures would finally be able to be printed in Japanese.

Well, the printing blocks from that first edition of Buddhist sutras into Japanese are still on display at the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. But the Japanese tell their children to this day, that Tetsugen actually produced three editions of the sutra and that the first two editions—the care of the homeless and the comfort of the suffering—are invisible but far superior to the third.

Clearly the Zen masters know what we know: witness is the measure of the spirituality we profess. What we do because of what we say we believe is the real mark of genuine spirituality.

From the desert master who listened to the laity, to the seeker who recognized holiness of life in the sheer reverent dailiness of the Holy One, to Tetsugen who knew that no spiritual book is equal to one spiritual act, the link between deep spiritual development and a profound spiritual life has been a constant. The ancients are clear: there is a common bond between conscious carriers of the great spiritual traditions and seekers of the spiritual life in every age that is both necessary and empowering.

One enlightens the other. One energizes the other. One empowers the other. The tradition enlightens the time, yes, but seekers re-energize a tradition, as well.

Point: Religious and associates need one another. Why? Because true companions make possible the growth of the other, that’s why.

The questions today, then, are simple ones:

  1. Why do you exist?
  2. Where did you come from?
  3. Who are you?
  4. What must you do?

Why do you exist? is a question of purpose. Associate programs—by whatever name they have been called through time: Oblates, a Benedictine term as old as the sixth century; Confraters, in medieval monasteries; the lay preacher tertiaries of thirteenth century France; Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite Third Orders of the later Middle Ages; or groups like the Jesuit volunteers, the Mercy Corps, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners of today—are simply meant to give new life, new space, new stretch to the charisms of the spirit and the religious congregations whose task it is to proctor their treasures for the rest of the world.

Where did you come from? is a question of legitimacy that goes back to the roots of the church and the tradition itself. Paul is very clear about it in Corinthians: “To each one,” he teaches, “the manifestation of the spirit is given for the common good....to one is given wisdom, to another knowledge, to one faith, to another healing, to one power, to another prophecy....all these are the work of one and the same spirit and given to each one as the spirit determines” (1 Cor. 12: 3) for the sake of the body, the whole!

No doubt about it: charisms are gifts given to each one of us for the sake of the whole church, and so they must be given away for the sake of the whole church! The day we keep our charism to ourselves, that very day the charism dies in us and the spirit goes seeking for softer sand through which to run.

Clearly, the spiritual channel of religious charisms or gifts is meant to be an unbroken one—through the keepers of the wells of those traditions: the religious congregations themselves, to the keepers of the byways of the world: the associate members who live in the vortex of it, and it has clearly been forever thus.

Scripture itself is full of companionship models of spirituality: Ruth and Naomi; Judith and her maidservant; Paul and Timothy; Elisha and Elijah. In every case it is the blend of differences, the meld of diverse gifts that makes possible the final miracle of faith. In every case it is the linking of unlike life experiences through the binding of common commitments that gives new life to the faith.

In every case it is the listening, the learning, the loving attachment of their spirits, that takes two weaknesses and makes them strong together. In every case, these companions, who come from different perspectives in life and spirit, make it possible for themselves to do together what neither of them could possibly do alone.

Thanks to Ruth, the Moabite, the foreigner, the outsider, Naomi, the Israelite, can return to Bethlehem. Confident of support now, Naomi is able to complete her part in the economy of salvation when, through her lineage, Obed, grandfather of King David (and so ancestor of the Jesus who fulfills the word of the prophets) is brought to birth by the foreigner Ruth.

The life of each of them comes to fullness and the word of God becomes flesh because of them then— just as it does because of religious communities and associates today.

Thanks to her maidservant who risks her own life to accompany her, Judith can go in disguise to the tent of Holofernes. Together, they plot the doom of the one who holds Israel under siege. Together they saved the city from the sure destruction which its practical, political and frightened officials were unable to avert. Religious and associates must do the same today for our cities under siege.

Judith and her maidservant, a pair of indomitable women, do what women are not supposed to be able to do because each uses her gift to double the power of the other.

Thanks to the prophet Elijah, Elisha is recognized— strange as he may seem to be for the task, remote as he may be from the prophetic tradition—as the one who will carry on the prophetic work itself and so redeem the conscience of Israel.

Elijah, the established one, recognizes in Elisha, the timid one, another voice of God and gives it stage for its own message. You and I must do that same thing for one another, and so for the voiceless of our time.

Thanks to Paul himself who recognized in Timothy’s youth and women’s vision and his Greek ancestry, the bridge he himself needed to preach Jesus to a whole new non-Jewish population, the work of the early church was able to thrive in regions far beyond the sound of Paul’s own voice.

Now we— you and I— must raise our voices together— you in your world, we in ours— where the gospel is seldom heard.

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