The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

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