What Is Prayer? A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister

Sister Joan Chittister, a visionary spiritual voice in our times and an advocate for peace and justice around the world, offers a full and rich perspective on prayer.
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The word "prayer" is frequently used among believers and non-believers, but what exactly does it mean? Most of us have a concept of prayer that is limited to supplication for our needs with the expectation that a Higher Power will intervene in our lives and do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Yes, this is one way of understanding prayer, but it is not all that prayer is. Like many other values, our understanding of prayer is filtered and shaped by our experiences. Sister Joan Chittister, a visionary spiritual voice in our times and an advocate for peace and justice around the world, offers a full and rich perspective on prayer. Sister Joan is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, founder and executive director of BenetVision, and an internationally renowned speaker and the author. The text of the following interview first appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Sacred Journey, the quarterly multi-faith journal of Fellowship In Prayer. Sister Joan will also be presenting at Fellowship In Prayer's 60th Anniversary Conference, June 24 to 27, 2010 at Princeton University. To subscribe to the journal or to register for what promises to be a landmark event, visit www.fellowshipinprayer.org.

Fellowship in Prayer: How do you define prayer in your life?

Sister Joan Chittister: After more than 55 years of growing into a life of prayer through a lifestyle based on it, my definition of prayer is consciousness, immersion, and relationship. Prayer makes us aware of the elements of the divine in human life, bringing us into contact with the God-life in and around us. Prayer is not personal devotion; it is personal growth. Prayer brings us to the ultimate and the eternal, the daily and the regular, the total consciousness of God now. Prayer enables us to be immersed in what is fundamentally and truly divine in life right now. It is not meant to be a bridge to somewhere else because God is not somewhere else. God is here. Prayer is the act of beginning the process of becoming one with the One we seek -- eventually, melting into God completely. This can be accomplished through immersion in the Sacred Scriptures. As Christians, what drives us is not has Jesus died but who Jesus is and why Jesus died. How he defines life and death will become our own understanding if we live prayerful lives.

Did you feel this way about prayer from early on in your life or is this something you have slowly developed over time?

Well, there was certainly a time in my very young life, when prayer was an exercise. However I wasn't long in monastic life when I realized, like a teabag, I was being steeped in an environment that spoke to me of another layer and level of life. In this environment the notion that prayer is somehow or other an exercise in words simply dissolved very quickly. You know, in the Catholic tradition, around the 15th or 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church began to talk about prayer in different forms -- prayers of adoration, prayers of contrition, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of supplication. These are types of formal prayers, based on words, but they are not prayer. Prayer moves us from the level of personal consciousness to God-consciousness, union with God or what we call the mystical life.

The Sufis tell a wonderful story about a seeker who one night hears a voice saying, "Who's there?" and the Sufi seeker answers with great excitement, "It is I, it is I, Lord! I am right here!" And the voice disappears. Years later, the Sufi again hears the voice calling, "Who's there?" The Sufi thinks, "Here's that voice again!" and he gets very excited at yet another opportunity, and responds, "It is I, Lord, and I seek you with all my heart!" Once again, the voice disappears. Some years later he again hears the voice calling, "Who's there?" This time, the Sufi replies, "Thou Lord, only Thou!" This story clearly describes the process of moving oneself into the mind, heart, and consciousness of God. It comes, yes, little by little, but it also comes instantaneously, once we move into what the ancient mystics call "prayer without words." This prayer is the prayer of consciousness. This prayer is the very breath of life. Consciousness that the breath I breathe is the breath of God is the sum total of an attitude of prayer.

So are you saying if we are sitting in chapel and just consciously breathing, we are praying?

Absolutely, you are. And you may be praying with more prayerfulness than the person who is sitting right next to you reciting words and thinking of nothing but the baseball game that night.

What if more often than not we are distracted?

It happens. Quit trying.

Quit trying -- that would be your advice?


How is it that you manage to lead a contemplative life with all the demands on your time in our fast-paced world?

For me, leading a contemplative life is being a person who sees the world as God sees the world; it is putting on the mind of God. The Scriptures are clear. "Put on ye the mind of Christ." What does this mean? Begin to think the way Jesus thought. Begin to think about life, about people, about issues, about everyday incidents the way Jesus thought about them. Jesus tells us over and over again how he thought about them. And he tells the leaders of the synagogue and of the state how he thought about them. Contemplation is an attitude of life. It is not an exercise. Sitting in contemplation, in prayer, is certainly a necessary part of the development of a life of prayer. But it is not the end; it is simply the means. Let me put it this way -- some people use contemplative as a synonym for cloistered, a definition I completely reject. Why? If cloister is the essence of contemplation, then we are saying the Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem, raising the dead and curing the sick, was not contemplative. Are we saying that Jesus was only a contemplative for forty days in his life when he was off in the desert, separated from everyone else? We know the minute we hear this kind of thing it is pure unadulterated nonsense. Yet when we apply being contemplative to our own lives, we sometimes act as if it means we have to be totally removed from the rest of the world. No! Being contemplative means that I live totally immersed in the presence of God with the rest of the world around me. I keep coming back to the word consciousness. There is no substitute for it. Consciousness is the essence of contemplation--consciousness of the presence of God -- of the mind of God -- of the will of God, and consciousness of God working in and through us.

Do we develop contemplation by practicing it until it eventually becomes a habit?

We do, in essence, practice it. Somehow or another, we have to get beyond the notion that life is divided into moments of going to church, saying our prayers, living in God or living our lives. There used to be a prayer in the back of the Sunday Missal called a "Prayer for a Happy Death." Somewhere along the way when I was about twenty-years old, I found myself saying this prayer, but it didn't have anything to do with death for me. It had to do with living in the sanctity of the present moment. I think the words of the prayer were, Lord Jesus, at this moment, I do accept from Thy hands with a quiet and trusting heart, whatsoever death Thou shalt choose to send me, with all its pain and grief. What this called me to at the age of 20, was the acceptance of every single moment of my life and whatever came to me as being for the sake of my spiritual development. It is what we used to call abandonment to Divine Providence. It meant that doing whatever I was being asked to do now would have something to do with the presence of God in my life. Contemplation is a practice, a practice again of consciousness.

How does your commitment to the rule of St. Benedict influence your prayer?

It is extremely influential in my prayer. Benedictine prayer is based on reading the Scriptures and praying the Psalms three to five times a day, every day. Interestingly enough, St. Benedict says "Let your prayer be short." This surprises most people because generally speaking, we think that a prayerful person is someone who spends all day in church or praying the rosary. Benedict suggests that formal prayer, choral prayer, community prayer should all be brief and what is learned in these moments of prayer is what we should carry with us throughout the rest of the day. Prayer should simply form the basis for reflection and attitude-building throughout our lives. Benedictine prayer is a provocation to reflection and reflection is the basis of contemplation. Contemplation is the foundation of consciousness and consciousness is the beginning of union with God.

In one of your reflections entitled Contemplation in the Midst of Chaos, you draw a very clear distinction between religion and spirituality. Would you elaborate on that distinction?

I realize that many people may say there is no distinction, but for me the Christian religion is the organized institutional expression of the following of Jesus; regulation for the way we go about worship. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the personal expression of that following of Jesus; of living Christian values at every level of our lives. For example, we could go to church every week throughout every year of our entire lives and never develop our own spirituality. We could jump through every religious hoop, and at the end of the day, still not have any real spiritual consciousness. Religion is meant to lead us to a spiritual life. That's why some people say they are both the same. But religion doesn't necessarily lead us to spirituality. We have to do that for ourselves. I am reminded of a story in which a Sufi Master is dying and his disciples say to him, "Oh, do not leave us master, because we won't know what to do." The master looks at his disciples and says, "You must understand that I am only a finger pointing at the moon. When I go, hopefully, you will see the moon." Religion is like that, a finger pointing at the moon.

Are you saying we need both religion and spirituality and one without the other won't work?

Right! We have to have a base for spirituality, a foundation with depth and breadth, conscience and context. It has to help us formulate the spiritual principles on which we will make choices.

Would you share a personal expression of what this means to you?

For me it is a commitment to justice, to making the good of others, the good of the world community the ground on which I make choices. Justice is more than niceness or random acts of kindness. Justice is a principle of life. For example, from a religious perspective in this day and age, I believe justice requires me to have as much respect for Islam, as I do for Catholicism. We do Islam a great disservice if we judge the entire tradition on the basis of a few radicals. My spirituality directs me to recognize the spiritual foundation, the truth and vision in every religion.

You reveal a genuine openness for different religious traditions, how did this evolve for you?

Well, I think there were several paths to my openness. First, there was my own personal experience. I was a child of a mixed marriage with a Roman Catholic mother and a Presbyterian father, in an era when mixed marriages were frowned on by all religions and the divide between Catholics and Protestants was fueled by prejudice on both sides. Going back to your previous question concerning the difference between spirituality and religion, my experience here is a perfect example. We were a deeply religious family, but our sense of what it meant to be religious did not include Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans -- any Protestants, for that matter. It was the same for them. Catholics had no monopoly on prejudice. We were all very religious people and we missed the real underlying spiritual message in the very religions we revered. As a child I knew this kind of prejudice was wrong. I knew it intuitively. Both of my parents were good. Both of their families were good. Yet both had been trained to reject the other, to diminish and degrade and even hate the other. There were wars of religion being fought in kitchens all over the world. And it was pathetic. Even as a child, I knew it was pathetic, and I wasn't going to be part of it. In a way though, my parents were also role models because even though both their families and society at large frowned on their marriage, they married each other anyway. They lived in a more evolved state and they were children of their own times. It wasn't easy for them, and there were lapses in their openness. Nonetheless they were already the vanguard for people, witnessing to and modeling a new way of being in the world. This personal experience was phenomenally important for me. It was difficult but I wouldn't give it up. It made me the person I am today.

A second influence in terms of my openness was the opportunity I had to travel internationally back in the 1970s -- this immediately took me out of my parochial ghetto. It became obvious to me that goodness was the essence of all peoples, cultures and traditions of the world. They were all beautiful. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that God was present in very striking and profound ways in all these different peoples and places.

Finally, literature had a great deal to do with my openness. I read deeply from all of the traditions to which I was exposed. I was astounded by their spiritual messages. They were not messages of hatred. They were not messages of prejudice. The scriptures of all the major religions carry strong messages of beauty, depth and principle, messages about love and the presence of God. It was impossible for me to deny.

Did you share the powerful feelings you had about the religious divisions you encountered as a child?

Oh yes, I shared them with my mother -- she was very, very good. I've told this story so often I hesitate to tell it again, but it had a tremendous impact on me so I will tell it once more. I was an only child and my parents and I had an early evening routine in our house. I would get home from school around the same time that my father arrived home from work. The minute I got in, I had to sit down to tell them what I had learned in my classes that day. As a youngster in second grade at the local Catholic school, I was taught, of course, that only Catholics went to heaven. On the day I was first told this, I did not stay to help Sister empty the wastebasket or clean the chalkboard. Instead, I raced home. I needed to get home before my father did because he would ask me what I learned that day. I knew I didn't want to tell him and it would never have occurred to me to lie. I came in the house breathless. My mother was washing dishes at the sink, if I remember correctly. She said to me, "Well, you are excited, and you're home early. What's going on? Did something happen in school?" I said, "Yes." "What was it?" she asked. I told her, "Sister said that Protestants don't go to heaven." My mother just stood still at the sink for a moment and then she asked, "What do you think about that, Joan?" I was about seven years old at the time, and I replied, "I think Sister is wrong." Now you have to know I was struggling to make sense of this because I loved the nuns. The nuns could not be wrong. I loved every one of them, and as far as I was concerned what Sister said had to be right. After a few minutes I finally replied "Sister is wrong because Sister doesn't know daddy." I felt quite sure that if she had all the information, she never would have made such a mistake. My mother then asked, "What did you say to Sister?" I remember feeling terribly embarrassed and hanging my head because I could not bear to look at my mother. "I didn't say anything." My mother came and put her arms around me, "You are a very smart little girl Joan and I am very proud of you. It's all right! You don't have to say anything to Sister now, you can tell Sister later." This is where I have spent the rest of my life -- telling Sister later that she is wrong. I knew at the age of seven I was living with one foot in each world, and I steadfastly refused to move either foot.

What do you think are the most important questions religious leaders should be asking of the world today?

I think religious leaders have to ask themselves some questions before they can ask anything of anyone else. I think that religious leaders, all of us, starting here in the United States, have to ask ourselves if we are simply teaching or leading. What do people see in us? Do people see in us what they see in Jesus? Are we teaching religious division or unity? Are we as religious leaders focused strictly on being authorities or are we examples of cosmic religious consciousness, of oneness in the presence of God? Once these questions are answered then I think religious leaders have to ask the rest of the world whether or not our religious traditions are helping us become one with each other and one with God? We shouldn't be surprised to discover there are similar messages in all the world's great religious traditions. Perhaps, this really means God is One.

Do you believe prayer and meditation can help unite us across religious and cultural divides?

I do. As I just said, if God is One, and if we are prayerful people, we are going to find the same vision, the same values, the same expectations about living them out in our lives in all our different religions. Then we don't have any justification for discrimination. If our prayer is real, we will become serene and just and live as equals among the peoples of the world. We must be at peace to bring peace. We must be just to bring justice. We must see all people -- old, young, male, female -- as equals, to be united.

Can our prayer and meditation also change our relationship with the earth?

Yes. We are talking about becoming one with the Creator whose creation is a reflection of the diversity and energy of God. Genesis is very clear about our responsibility for the earth. If God is Life; the earth is a living body, the handiwork of God. We cannot destroy it and call ourselves religious. That's a theology of domination. With mystical theology, we become cosmic.

What is at the heart of your prayer for the future?

Well, I hope that we will achieve human unity, not conformity -- a unity that is based on respect, on reverence for other traditions and the way God has worked within them. I hope we can come to really revere one another. The Asian Namaste means "the divine in me greets the divine in you." That is reverence, and when we embrace that reverence, we will see religion as beckoning us towards cosmic revelation and not simply the institutionalization of rituals, creeds, and canons, even in sacred scriptures. My prayer is that we can go beyond the details of religion to its depth. If we can move this subject beyond personal piety, to the whole question of development of personal divine power, we will be light years away from the puny thing that religion has been allowed to deteriorate into over the years.

Do you think this is likely?

Oh absolutely! There is no doubt in my mind. Religion beautifies. That's the glory of it. It is just that we have to get more into real religion. The notion of religion as a kind of spiritual jacuzzi does not move me. Personal comfort is not a function of religion, although religion brings great comfort personally. Religion's purpose is cosmic, to bring the whole human race to another level of development.

It would be beautiful if we could reach that point some day.

Well, I'll meet you there.

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