A new series written by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister OSB is exploring the question of institutional breakdown through the Rule of St Benedict.
In her fortnightly column, ‘From Where I Stand’ published in the National Catholic Reporter, renowned Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister OSB delves into the anatomy of western institutions and examines their demise through “the vision of the man formed 20 centuries ago who set out to restore the heart of the human enterprise”.
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, Chittister is an author and international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women’s issues and contemporary spirituality in the church and in society.
In her introduction to the series, Chittister reflects on the similarities observed in the decline of institutions – whether church or state – and the inevitable collapse of these “once great” establishments.
“The interesting thing is that governments and churches decline in exactly the same way: first the people, the body of the institution, begin to cast off, to disappear; then little of importance is heard from the leadership,” she writes.
“Collapse is obvious and immanent. What is difficult to figure out is why once great institutions suddenly begin to sink. Even more disconcerting is the notion that nothing could have been done to stop the implosion in the first place.”
Chittister argues that despite our protests that “it’s not our fault”, and that the cause of the collapse is somehow “outside ourselves — in the institution itself”, she believes the “truth is that very great social debacle starts with us, with the people who look away while it happens, who allow the attitudes that feed it to prevail”.
She writes that the crumbling of the Roman Empire in the 6th century prompted a young student, Benedict from Norcia, who was “disillusioned by the low moral condition of the much-heralded Rome” to turn his back on the system.
“He dropped out. He left school rather than commit himself to the goals and desiccant values of a place that had squandered its wealth and its purpose on itself. Rather than pursue the priorities of the then society, he began to teach another way to live.”
“Benedict developed small communities and, in a world where power and bullying, egregious greed and pathological individualism, authoritarianism and narcissism left a sense of community behind, taught that pride is the basic flaw in the human system. Humility, the cornerstone of society, of civilisation, of the social order, he taught, is its corrective.”
Looking through the lens of St Benedict and his 12 principles of humility that “historians say to this day, saved Western Civilisation”, Chittister offers a panacea to what she calls the “highly polarized — and sinking world — around us”.
Reflecting on modern politics and what she calls the “foot-stomping and harrumphing going on”, as well as narcissism and patriotism, and the aggrandisement of the individual over the common good, Chittister offers a pathway to society to realign its moral compass through teachings of St Benedict.
“It’s those principles of life that need to be revisited in our own time if either church or state can possibly lead the world through the self-centeredness of society in our own time.”
“From where I stand, it is those 12 principles of life — recognition of my place in the universe, the need for wisdom rather than power, self-revelation rather than self-aggrandisement, and right relationships — that are badly needed now. If we are ever to recover from the twisted and contorted systems that pass for church and state at the present time, we must begin to examine the assumptions and attitudes that we are allowing to creep into our institutions and, worse, into our own souls.”
“Maybe if we can discover what is undermining our best efforts we might at least arrest our present plunge to the depths.”
This article was published in Good Oil, the journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters in Australia