Living with Jesus?: chapters 3-4 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Andrea Tisher

I don’t think of myself as particularly spiritually-disciplined. My prayer life is never what it could be. My reading habits are varied and irregular. I do attend worship regularly, but then, that’s kind of built into my job. :) The basics of Christian discipleship from my tradition of evangelicalism are not things I’ve gotten very good at. And so I often wonder if my life is being formed by Jesus’ life as it should be.

So when Joan Chittister tells me that “the liturgical year is the arena where our life and the life of Jesus intersect. (p.16), I sit up and pay attention. Maybe because most of my life, I’ve been taught that the only way to connect with Jesus is through early morning prayer and lengthy bible study and generally just being very spiritual in my approach to life. While I don’t mean for a minute to say that prayer and bible reading and study won’t aid someone in their pursuit of life with Jesus, I’m immediately struck by Joan’s claim that the liturgical year is also key.

And the truth is, even in my ‘Christmas and Easter only’ version of the calendar that I grew up with, I did encounter Jesus. During the past fifteen years or so, as I’ve paid a little more attention to more of the calendar, this encounter has broadened and deepened. I suppose you could say that it has helped to form me in that I have not been allowed to determine for myself when I want to think about Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. I have submitted to the story being told and have had to wait for the next part of the story to unfold, often not according to the timetable I would choose. For instance, I would contemplate Jesus’ Passion in an hour or two. Not a whole week with a season of preparation during Lent. Other times, Holy Saturday seems the most relevant part of the story in my life or in the life of someone I know. They are not experiencing resurrection joy in the circumstances of their lives, and yet Easter Sunday has the audacity to come anyway. Christmas approaches whether I’m ready for the coming of Jesus or not. Ascension and Pentecost arrive even when I’d like to stay in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his buddies. The calendar pulls and pushes me through the story and doesn’t let me call the shots. It makes me tell the whole story and not at my own pace.

Joan says at the end of chapter 3: “the liturgical year is the voice of Jesus calling to us every day of our lives to wake our sleeping selves from the drowsing effects of purposelessness and meaninglessness, materialism and hedonism, rationalism and indifference, to attend to the life of Jesus who cries within us for fulfillment.” (p21-22)

She continues on in chapter 4 with the Components of the Liturgical Year…where she boils the whole sequence down to “one beam of light called the death and Resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for us here and now.” (p.24)

Chittister helpfully describes how the whole year hinges on this main event, but that the rest of the events help us to live out the death and Resurrection of Jesus, that the living the calendar is “a catechesis as we celebration, a spiritual adventure as well as liturgical exercise.” (p.27) She identifies four kinds of celebrations: Sundays (or as my boss calls them, “Lord’s Day”), seasons, sanctoral cycle (saints), and Ordinary Time. I am least familiar with the sanctoral cycle, but love how she describes its merit in how it shows us that a faithful life is possible to be lived by all kinds of people in all kinds of places throughout history.

I think that living the calendar one year would be informative in some way, but living the calendar year in and year out is formative. It begins to shape my soul in ways that I wouldn’t choose on my own. Left to build my own calendar, I might avoid lament and waiting or get stuck there for entirely too long and without hope of redemption, wholeness and resurrection. The calendar teaches my soul to tell the whole story and to expect that light does shine into darkness. Those dark days of the calendar – Advent, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, and especially Holy Saturday teach my soul to pray the darknesses. They are preparation for dark days that are sure to occur in my life. They will prepare me to live my life. In the same way, the high feasts will prepare me to celebrate, here and ultimately in the Kingdom that is not yet here in full.

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.)