Prayer ought to disturb the peace

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Joan Chittister that appeared in the March,1989 issue of SALT, a magazine for justice-hungry Christians. The contents of this interview are still relevant for today's readers.

Q. You do a lot of traveling and writing about peacemaking. You’ve probably had many ups and downs along the way. What keeps you going?

A. I always maintain that those who break the word well—who are able to bring the Scriptures to life—break the bread even better. It’s the power in the word that takes you deeper and deeper into the subject of peace.

I really believe that everybody should be reading the entire Scripture, and I have this private little theory that says that nobody dies until they’ve had the opportunity to live all dimensions of the human condition as presented in Scripture. When I feel this terrible anger in myself, for instance, I ask, “Which Scripture am I living now?” Maybe it’s Samson. I have a big choice to make, then, about whether or not I’m going to pull the ceiling down on myself and others. And if I make that choice, what will I have done? What will I have proven?

Q. Is that the mark of a true peacemaker? That one doesn’t separate prayer and action?

A. I like what the Moses story says about that. Moses sees the burning bush and says, “Wow, I’ve got to get closer to see this amazing sight. That bush isn’t being burned up.” The minute he starts toward the bush, toward the mystical, God’s voice says, “Moses, draw no nearer. Take off your shoes—where you are is holy ground.”

The next thing God says is, “I’ve called you here, Moses, to give you a message. I have heard the call of my people in Egypt, and I understand their sufferings. I mean to deliver them—so I’m sending you to Pharaoh.” God has a wonderful sense of humor: “I’ve got a great idea—you go.”

I think that prayer should be something one works at. The whole notion that prayer is a comfort, a consolation, the crowning event of my day—frankly, it’s a joke. There’s no reference in Scripture that this ever happened with God’s people. Think about it: not one of the miracles took place in the Temple. How come Jesus didn’t cure and cast out demons before the Holy of Holies? Why did he work his wonders in the mud, downtown, or on the roof?

Q. What about prayer for interior peace?

A. Surely God’s will is love. Surely God’s will for each of us is peace, and that each of us will bring that spirit of peace into every situation. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t also bring truth or resistance. You try to bring the hope of peace; but you also hang in, you commit, you stand your ground.

Q. Lots of people would say, though, that spirituality is for solace or comfort.

A. There wasn’t much comfort for St. John of the Cross. There was very little solace for Teresa of Avila. Somebody once said that the function of prayer is not to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. I go to prayer to be called to something better in myself. I pray to know the will of God, and that will always push me a little further up the road.

Also, your question depends on what is meant by “comfort.” If the usual definition of comfort is implie—meaning massage therapy—then that type of prayer is going to be heretical for a serious Christian. But if what a person seeks is growth in the mind of Christ, following the Christian tradition and living what that tradition indicates is a quality life—that’s comfort. Comfort comes from knowing that you are not bereft in your solitary commitments. Burnout occurs when you try to go it alone.

Christians don’t often like what Marx said about religion being the opiate of the people. But spirituality can be used that way: when, for instance, one says, “Prayer is where I get away from the rest of the world, all that awful stuff, and have my own private time with God.” As long as that kind of religion is in operation, then anything can go on out there in the world—anything at all, and even in the name of God.

As you hear in almost every Gospel story, Jesus goes away to pray only to find himself surrounded by the needs of the people. Jesus gets in a boat to cross the lake. He says, “Fellas, get me out of here. One more cocktail party, one more interview, and I’m gonna go nuts.” So they hop in the boat and take off across the lake; and there are throngs of people who heard that he was coming.

Q. Maybe people don’t speak up because questions are uncomfortable—questions “disturb the peace.”

A. No, no, no. That may be what people feel; but questions never disturb the peace. Never. Questions only disturb the mind.

Those who say that questions disturb the peace are defending a false peace. False peace is complacency; it’s saying, “I can’t afford to think about this. It’s too much for me. I live a happy life; whatever happens, happens. Besides, God won’t let nuclear destruction happen…” That’s false peace. Why? Because it’s not God’s peace.

Just before the Passion, Jesus’ final words to the disciples are, “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you. Not peace as the world gives.” True peace comes out of an awareness: not that I will succeed at something but that this must be done, that this is God’s will.