Have an Uncomfortable New Year: chapters 1-2 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

As you know, I celebrated New Year’s Day on November 27th this year, having decided to practice the liturgical cycle in a conscious and considered fashion (at least once in my life). Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure I fully considered the consequences.

Thus begins a new blog series, which will include posts from two thoughtful friends of mine: Ian Walden, and Andrea Tisher. Ian and Andrea have consented to read with me through Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year,” at a pace of two chapters every week (although we may skip a week here or there). Each week, one of us will write a blog entry and then we will proceed to have a comment conversation in which you are welcome to participate. These post are not intended to read like book reviews (although taken as a whole, I’m pretty sure the book will be thoroughly reviewed by the end). Instead, we will use Chittister’s work as a jumping off point for wider ranging discussions about the Liturgical Cycle and its effect on our lives, and the life of the church. Please do consider picking up a copy of the book and joining the discussion.

Now back to the first two chapters.

Near the beginning of her first chapter, Chittister states: “The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it.” She speaks about the different ways we have of defining our years: fiscal years, school years, planting and harvest, cycles of the moon, etc. As I thought about this, I realized that my life has been shaped by the educational year. September 1 feels far more full of promise and newness than January 1 ever did (and certainly more than November 27th!). I tend to make resolutions every Fall (“I will stick to a new schedule,” “I will write for an hour every morning,” “I will get every paper in before its due date,” “I will keep my life more balanced, and eat and exercise to fuel my study”), and I also follow the New Year tradition of breaking each resolution, almost ritualistically, one month in.

What Chittister’s first two chapters made me consider, however, was how this view of my year has caused me to evaluate my life. She says, on page 6, “Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.” Huh. Can we derive from that statement that whatever “year” we choose to make the driving force of our life also has something to say about the way we measure our progress though life, and the way we value ourselves and others?

It’s completely natural for kids to look up to kids in higher grades (and I had three older brothers to catch up to!), but with me it went beyond this. I remember watching one of my brothers colour a map as part of his homework. I wanted so much to know enough (and to have the colouring skills) to be able to do the same thing. In fact, I even planned out how I would colour the map. In detail. A plan I brought to fruition five years later when I was given a similar assignment. In university, I shuddered every time I failed to reach above the class average on an assignment or an exam. When I reached grad school, each course I completed was one more notch on my educational belt, and my heart sank every time I received a B. My ritual of counting my years by the academic calendar has resulted in a life measured according to knowledge and skill.

So what would it look like to count my years as Chittister suggests: as levels of our spiritual growth? This is where things become uncomfortable.

In chapter 2, Chittister describes the liturgical year as “a lesson in life” (pg. 10). She states: “Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same” (pg. 10). *Insert swear word of your choice.*

So living the Christian year over and over again will make me more like Christ. *Repeat swear word.*

How many times have I said/sung that I/we want to be more like Christ? How many times have I really meant it?

Quite honestly, if I measure my life by the standard of spiritual growth, I’m afraid I’m more than a bit stunted. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m fearful. The list is longer than a chimpanzee’s arm in that direction, and shorter than my own pinky in the other. The fact is, if I’m really committed to Christ, if I really live his life each year through the liturgical cycle, I would have to give up an awful lot of things and activities. And I would have to do an awful number of things I’d rather not. I’d rather not go out of my way to speak to people on the margins. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to confine my conversation to people I already like. I’d rather not take Jesus’ attitude toward the poor seriously. It’s much more comfortable to save up my wealth to buy things I “need.” I’d rather not govern my time more effectively so as to use it in service of others. It’s much more comfortable to take a morning off here, and an afternoon there, to indulge myself.

So it seems, from what Chittister has said, that I’m about to have a very uncomfortable new year. Terrific.

Ian and Andrea – over to you.

(note to readers: I strongly suggest that you subscribe to the comments for these posts about Chittister’s book, as that is where we will be engaging in further discussion.)


  1. Stacey, I’m just glad I’m not the only one! It seems Chittister is on to something here – the kind of ‘years’ we measure our life by does seem to have a bearing on our definition of ‘progress’ in life.

    Like you, I find myself very comfortable measuring my true age through qualifications gained (“that was the year I graduated with my BSc/MCS/whatever”), through professional skills gained, responsibilities accorded, or promotions given. But I’m very UNcomfortable defining my progress (or my friends’, or my church’s) around measurable, observable growth in Christlikeness.

    Chittister says the liturgical year “calls us to face the distance between the ideals we see in the life of Christ and the pale ghost of them we find in our own.” I have to wonder whether I (and the various churches of which I have been a part) have, by paying little heed to this vision of time, often been able to avoid this awkward confrontation…

    There is a second area of discomfort I have with Chittister’s first two chapters, a knee-jerk reaction coming from free-church circles: is this ‘retracing’ of Christ’s own earthly life really the best/only way to make me a better disciple? What’s wrong with systematic, book-by-book exploration of the bible?

    Chittister’s answers will come in future chapters, no doubt. For now my quibbles are on hold, as initial experienced has shown me (oh ignorant me!) that very little of the liturgical year is about following Jesus’ earthly footsteps: only Christmas Day to Ascension Day; well under half the year! Much of it centres on Jesus’ Spirit-conveyed life in us. It turns out to be not just the life of the Galilean ‘do-gooder’ (to paraphrase Chittister), but “the presentation of the Christian mysteries and their eternal place in life, both in His life and ours as well.”

    So, while recognising that I’m not one of those privileged ones “who squirmed through Lent as children and stood only half aware through long Easter readings as young adults, who wore Ash Wednesday’s ashes with equal parts of pride and embarrassment as adult sophisticates,” I hope that this year will nonetheless enable me, not to imitate Jesus’ first-century deeds woodenly, but to “become conscious as the years go by of the tendrils of hope and desire, of commitment and conviction such practices have rooted in our hearts.”

    May this year be to all of us what Chittister proclaims it to be: both guide and goad, the “participation in the Christian life that we must bring both to be called Christian as well as to become Christian.”


    1. Ian, I knew I’d be happy to have you as a conversation partner on this journey! I had a similar knee-jerk reaction to you. Even as I acknowledged that I have not measured my life well, and have not (even remotely) looked to my spiritual growth as a measure of my life’s work, I wanted to cry out: “But I have grown, haven’t I? At least a little?” I do think Chittister comes dangerously close to proclaiming that this is the only way – and perhaps that is an echo of her life as a Benedictine nun. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to read this book. I wanted the perspective of someone who has consciously lived these rhythms over and over – and the monastic life should provide that perspective. I’m interested, however, to see if she addresses other means of growth in future chapters.

      Your phrase “measurable, observable growth in Christ-likeness” has also prompted some thought. How does one measure such a thing? I had a friend (who really should have commented on the blog rather than emailing me – shame on her) ask me that very question this week. She felt uncomfortable with the idea of comparing ourselves to others in respect to spiritual growth. Definitely a valid concern. I told her that for me, measuring my spiritual growth would consist of phrases such as: “I think I’m a little better at reigning in my own expectations of what God should do, and just letting him get on with it;” or “Maybe I’ve become a bit more gracious;” or “I managed to be genuinely happy for x more people this year, rather than sinking into envy.” Comparisons seem so useless when our target is so far away. It’s like a group of ants travelling from Vancouver to Toronto. One ant may be a full mile ahead of another, and that might look like a long way from the perspective of those two ants but, considering the distance they have to travel, they are pretty much in the same place.


      1. I definitely agree spiritual-progress-measurement should be relative to my own past rather than to others’ lives! Chittister herself gives a handy rubric for thinking about this when she notes that “every different kind of year demands different strengths of us, provides different kinds of gifts for us, enables different kinds of sensibilities in us.” This is also true, surely, of each liturgical year – each Advent, each Christmas, each Lent, and so on. For me, it prompts helpful questions such as “what has this year demanded of me, and where have I / will I find resources to meet those demands?” or “what gifts has this season brought – and how quick was I to notice and appreciate them?” or “what have I become more sensitive to during this particular Advent season?”
        These questions might well work just as usefully in congregational worship or in small-group settings as for personal devotions. Worth a thought!


  2. Such great initial responses…

    My gut response to the ‘how to measure time’ bit was to see how overlapped the ways of measuring time are. This became more real for me when life milestones all happened during memorable seasons of the liturgical calendar. Gordon and my first date (after chatting via the internet for a few weeks) came on the Wednesday of Holy Week. We married during the week between Christmas and New Years (the same year!) and so Christmas had a presence in the wedding ceremony itself in the decor and even some of the music. I don’t think we would have sung Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day if our wedding had been in May. And then, our daughter Emily was born on the Tuesday of Holy Week. Easter Sunday came a little too soon for us to be ready to venture out to church, but I will always remember singing Christ the Lord is Risen today with my Mom who was in town, while the newborn lay in a little bassinet… What’s interesting, then, is that I have come to associate particularly our first date and Emily’s birth more with Holy Week (whenever it occurs) than with their calendar dates.

    The next ‘layer’ I was aware of was of how my experience of “covering the same liturgical landscape over and over again” (ix) has become such a touchpoint. And also coming from the free church tradition, my early years only had two landmarks along the way. Christmas and Easter. It seems that with 37 trips through the landscape, I have gradually been given the gift of seeing landmarks that at one time I didn’t know existed. And that has generally become my approach to the calendar. The seasons exist. Our participation in them is optional and our level of participation could be anything from an intellectual nod, to an intense (perhaps monastic?) experience of fasting, feasting and reflection.

    As a worship planner and facilitator, I’m very struck by one other phrase from the acknowledgements section (ack! it seems I didn’t even get past the acknowledgements!) where Chittister is speaking about the people who helped her to learn the landscape of the liturgical calendar. She’s speaking of her formation directors at the monastery, but she describes what I can only aspire to achieve in my work in the area of worship. She writes, “because of them we learned to breathe the spirit of the seasons.” (x)

    I trust that our reading of her book and the discussion that will come from it will enable each of us (and any readers we acquire!) to breathe more deeply…


  3. I grew up Catholic in the Philippines and my community now here in Southern California is from the Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition. Last Sunday in our home group, I shared a bit from the Liturgical Years. The families are stunned how they blindly follow a season. What I realized is not much converting them to the Catholic jargon tradition as much as understanding, reflecting and give time for the family to debrief a passing season-through ceremony, rite, etc- before moving into the next season, otherwise, they suffer the ills of a shallow and unexamined life.


    1. It’s the attentiveness that creates meaning, isn’t it. Taking the time to consciously and carefully walk through the Christian seasons makes a difference – blindly following tradition, and mouthing words without bothering to think about them doesn’t affect any transformation at all. Thank you for your comment, Archie.


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