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Climbing the Eight Mountains of Religious Life


This reflection on contemporary religious life is made from two perspectives: the first social, the second spiritual. One without the other, I believe, is always bogus.

The social perspective is a demographic one: Social statisticians tell us that if the earth’s population were a village of 100 people, there would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans and eight Africans. Only 14 people in the village would be from both North and South America combined. Seventy of the people in this village would be nonwhite. Seventy would be non-Christian. Seventy would be illiterate. Fifty of them would be malnourished. Fifty percent of all the money in the village would be held by six people -- and all of them would be white, male Americans. And only one of them would own a computer -- the gateway to the future. No wonder those six buy so many guns.

Point: If religious life is going to be religious, it cannot be a business-as-usual life in what is not a business-as-usual world.

The second perspective out of which I fashion these reflections is a spiritual one. There are three insights from ancient religious literature that may best describe the situation facing contemporary religious life today.

The first is a Jewish proverb that teaches that the farther away a person is from Sinai, the more they are diminished. The second is a tale from the Hasidim that tells of the disciple who was puzzled by the phrase in scripture that says that the children of Israel, at the foot of Mount Sinai, stood afar off from it. “Why would they do that?” the disciple asked the master. And the rabbi said, the children of Israel stood at a distance from Sinai because they knew that miracles are for those who have little faith. And so, in good heart, they avoided them.

Finally, another rabbi taught that we must each think of ourselves as standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. For us there are past and future events, but not for God. Day in, day out, God gives the Torah.

The meaning of that kind of spiritual insight for religious life today is profound if not startling. First, the rabbinical notion that those farthest from Sinai are most diminished teaches us that it is what we are inside that determines the value of what we do. The farther removed we are from the real meaning of our lives, the more religious life is diminished.

The second tale tells us that we must not rely on miracles to save us. We must spend our lives in the dry, dark and demanding ecstasy of faith.

Finally, the rabbis teach us, the past is past. What we were intended to do in the past is now done.

We are not in transition to a new form of religious life because we failed in the past. It is not that we must try harder now to accomplish what we have previously failed to achieve. No. We are in transition to a new form of religious life precisely because we succeeded in the past.

We succeeded in our schools and now education is mainstream. We succeeded in our hospitals and now health care is mainstream. We succeeded in building systems that made immigrants members of the establishment and made Catholics part of the mainstream in a Protestant culture.

Now, we must find new meaning, new purpose, a new place in a world totally mainstream and totally other at the same time, if the law of God -- given newly every day -- really means anything to us today, now and here.

The spiritual life, not simply good works; the challenges of faith, not simply the comforts of ritual; the needs of the present, not simply the achievements of the past; these are the things that will make religious life religious again.

Anything else will only distance us from the real center of our lives and diminish us. Anything else is simply a plea for plastic miracles designed to save us from what we fail to do for ourselves, rather than a commitment to the sometimes baffling and even inscrutable demands of faith. Anything else is an attempt to pass off as viable the responses of the past rather than accept as Torah the present will of God for us.

Old styles of life, old criteria for service and old ways of relating to the world -- good as all of them once were -- cannot build for us the new Jerusalem on the new Mount Zion in this place at this time.

“If you wish to see the valleys, climb to the mountain top,” the mystic Kahlil Gibran wrote. “Then, close your eyes and think!”

Religious life now -- as religious life has always been -- is about being taken up mountains by the God who leads us always beyond ourselves. It is about reaching heights we thought we could never achieve, by contemplating the valleys below us in the gleam given off by the vision of the heights. Indeed, think about mountains we must.

Mountains -- in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature -- were those places on earth that were nearest to heaven. Mountains were places where the human could touch the divine. Mountains were places where people could contact God. Mountains were places where a person would go who was seeking a special relationship with God.

There are eight mountains in Israel’s history of life with God, where the people are brought to challenge and to growth -- Sinai, Gilboa, Olive, Moriah, Carmel, Hermon, Gerizim and the Mount of the Beatitudes. It is these mountains that yet today, I believe, challenge us, too. Some of them we climb with daily devotion; some of them, I believe, we have yet to scale if religious life is to be the catalyst, the presence, the prophetic voice in this time that it once was in the past.


Israel’s greatest mountain was Mount Sinai. It was on Sinai that God flamed in the burning bush and said to Moses, “Moses, come no further. Take off your shoes, for where you are is holy ground.” It was on Sinai that Yahweh gave the law that would lead Israel beyond narcissism to its best and truest self. It was on Sinai that God spoke to Elijah, not in bluster and in noise but in the contemplative silence of his own heart.

Sinai is the mountain of spirituality. It is the mountain religious know well. Yes, for many years, a spirituality centered in negation eclipsed the learnings of life around us. But the mountain of spirituality also told us that there was a great deal more to life than negation. There was the love of God and the presence of God, the call of God and the goodness of God to taste.

The mountain of spirituality was the mountain that magnetized us, that centered us, that promised us life. That mountain we explored with surety and abandon. We know faith-sharing now as well as the discipline of private prayer and communal rituals. We know scripture study and liturgical theology. We know that the spiritual life, the Jesus story, the gospel trumpet is well and wellspring, ground and magnet, without which we die from dryness or drown from lack of soul, without which we are nothing more than social workers who live together for no totally compelling reason. Sinai, the mountain of spirituality, is what keeps our eye on the beckoning footsteps of God.

The second mountain of religious life is Mount Gilboa, where Saul, Israel’s king, dies and Jonathan, his son, with him -- making way for David and new life. On Gilboa, the old world, grand as it was, fades from view and turns from one vision to another: from Saul’s vengeful rigor -- of whom scripture says that God regretted having made Saul king -- to David’s delight in life. Gilboa is the mountain of letting go.

For almost 30 years now, religious have been scaling this mountain of renewal. We have re-evaluated every phase of life, re-examined every schedule, rewritten every document, restructured every organizational jot and tittle of our lives. We have brought ourselves to new ways of seeing new things and new ways of seeing old things as well. We, too, have said yes to a future based on the delights of God: delight in the people we serve, delight in the things we do, delight in the spiritual life itself.

We have let go of one kind of religious life in order to say yes to a religious life worth calling others to and worth living ourselves with harp and dance, like David, to delight, delight, delight. Mount Gilboa is the mountain of the delight of letting go.

Solidarity with the poor

The third mountain challenging us again today is Mount Olive. On Mount Olive, with the crucifixion of Jesus, Israel found itself faced with a choice between the establishment rabbis in old temples and dimmed prophecies about a suffering servant and a meek messiah. Clearly, Mount Olive is the mountain of solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

Religious life has long claimed its beginnings at the foot of the cross, in the slums of the world, with the forgotten of humankind. What religious charism is there that did not spring out of care for the abandoned, compassion for the rejected, concern for those denied the staples of the body and the development of the minds of those left to linger -- for whatever social reasons -- at the bottom of the bottom?

And today we see it yet. There are religious in soup kitchens and shelters, in hospitality centers and courts, in television and media, in research and law, on militarized borders and in bad neighborhoods where nice people do not go -- to be a voice where the voices of the poor are never heard.

Religious life, heavy yet with the ministries of the previously poor, is struggling to climb Mount Olive once more. Mount Olive is the mountain that reminds us for whom we exist and keeps our eye on the oppressed.

Sinai, Gilboa and Olive -- spirituality, renewal and identification with the poor -- we have climbed with a degree of alacrity, a sense of destination. But there are other mountains up which God is leading us that must be scaled, as well, I think, if religious life, like Israel, is ever to come singing to Zion again.

Gibran wrote in another place, “the difficulty we meet within reaching our goal is the shortest path there is to it.” If we want to complete the renewal of religious life, we must, in other words, like the children of Israel, brave those other mountains where miracles have not happened to rescue us from their demands, and only faith can persuade us to continue the journey.

On Mount Moriah, Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac -- everything important in his future and his past. It was a chilling moment for him, we know, because it is a chilling moment for us. Just when things seem to be at their worst for us, when our resources are scarce, just when our numbers are lower than they have been since our beginnings, just when our energy is failing and our old age knows no heir, we are asked, like Abraham, to sacrifice -- not to protect the present, not to conserve for the future, but to risk it all.

Mount Moriah is the mountain of sacrifice. And at one level we have already climbed it. We are, after all, still here, you and I, still following in the dark, still hoping to find the ram in the bush. But it is a climb full of doubt and full of reservations. We give ourselves to these new things, but not entirely and not without caution. And definitely not without good business practices.

A story illustrates the practical hurdles sometimes involved in making the needed sacrifices. One motherhouse in the United States this year agreed to provide hospitality to a small group of six battered and homeless women. None of them had ever seen the inside of a convent before. The women were in awe of the holy place. But not a single sister bothered to talk to them there. Not once were the women allowed to watch the color TV in the sister’s lounge, even after the sisters had gone to bed -- though they were, of course, welcome, they were told, to watch the black and white TV in the attic.

When they gathered for a prayer session in one of the parlors of the residence hall an extra $40 was added to the bill for the use of the room. Because the women, thrilled as they were to be in such a place, asked to have their picture taken on the front steps of this once grand monument to religious life, they were charged another $3.69 to develop the film.

If we made an exception for you, the sister-administrator told the lay minister when she questioned the bill, we would have to make it for everyone.

Indeed. We have learned to compute pension plans; we have learned to invest retirement funds; we have learned to provide for ourselves. We have learned to cost out our ministries with professional precision, and we do that, too, very well. But the lavishness with which religious life deals with others is the lavishness with which God will deal with religious life.

Mount Moriah is the mountain of sacrifice. Mount Moriah is where we must go to spend ourselves to the end. The old religious life is not dying. The old religious life is long dead. The only question for us now is what do we want to be caught dead doing. Mount Moriah is no small mountain. If we are going to renew religious life, commitment demands that we be prepared to sacrifice it entirely.

Mount Carmel is the mountain of choice. On Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged the people to choose between true and false Gods, between what was really important in life and what was simply standard brand religious life, between the things of Yahweh and the things of religion. It is a commonplace of the spiritual life, this call to distinguish between the good and the better. And, this time, it is we who are being called to choose again.

We are being forced to make decisions about ministry all over again: Where are we really needed now? What should we really be doing now? What people really have claim on the gospel now? What publics are waiting for us to cast out demons on their behalf right now? It is no longer enough to do church in religious life. It is no longer enough to do theology in religious life. It is no longer enough even to do good in religious life. Now, we must do the gospel again.

We must face the new questions of this age in new ways. We must give the lie to the notion that the good works of the past will ever suffice for the necessary works of the present. We must not only stay with the poor. We must decide what it is that we must do that is best for them. Mount Carmel is the mountain that calls us to choose again between the commonplace and the charismatic.

Since time immemorial -- even before Judaism -- Mount Hermon, easily the highest mountain in Israel, has always been seen as a sacred mountain. It is not surprising, then, that it is on Mount Hermon that Jesus becomes manifest to Peter, James and John -- not with Nathan, the priest, or David the king, not with the leaders of either the state or the synagogue, but with Moses and Elijah, the prophets. Jesus appears with Moses the liberator and with Elijah, whom King Ahab called “that troubler of Israel.”

Mount Hermon is a siren call to religious communities to be prophetic voices in a world far too silent while global warming treaties are being ignored, civil rights legislation is being eroded away, cloning is less and less an unthinkable thought every day and laser weapons go on being developed in peacetime.

The question to religious communities from Mount Hermon is, what have you questioned lately, and who knows it? For whom have you spoken lately, and who knows it? For what have you as a community stood for lately, and who knows it?

When we stood for the education of Catholic immigrants and the insertion of Catholics into a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant world, everybody knew it -- and they never called it political. Once our communities, as communities, had a prophetic presence in society.

Now, we have multiple individuals doing prophetic things, yes, but little if any sign that the communities themselves raise a prophetic voice or are even noticed. If we have each emerged out of a charism that once touched society and its past needs deeply, that same charism should be heard in the group in this society now. Big buildings, architectural leftovers from past prophetic impulses, will not save an institution that fails to use its corporate power to confront the corporate powers of the world because the benefactors won’t like it or the bishop won’t approve or, worse, because the sisters themselves will be upset.

A prophetic community cares only for the approval of the poor who wait for our communities to speak for them with pleading hearts, possessed by demons but full of hope, at the bottom of Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is the mountain that calls communities as communities to prophetic presence.

Mountain of feminism

Mount Gerizim, the mount of Samaria, upon which stood the temple that rivaled Jerusalem and at which Jesus made a foreign woman six times divorced an evangelist in his name, calls contemporary religious life in strong and shocking terms to face the challenge feminism brings to a spirituality patriarchal in origin, to a society hierarchical in structure and to a world so single-sexed in vision that it sees with only one eye, hears with only one ear and thinks with only one-half of the human brain -- and it shows.

The fact is that a world that rapes its rain forests, pollutes its rivers, beats, enslaves, underpays and suppresses its women; a world that now threatens the very existence of the planet in the name of defense; needs a new world-view, needs the presence of the other half of the human race, needs the rest of the human agenda brought to the council tables of the world if the human race is ever to be fully human.

“If only you would recognize the gift that has been given you,” Jesus says to the woman, “you would” -- we can hear the implication -- “quit waiting for someone else to give you the right to use it.” A right, former Attorney General Ramsey Clarke says, is not what someone gives you. A right is what no one has the right to take away.

Until women and men together climb Mount Gerizim, women shouting the word that Christ has put into their hearts and men learning from that voice again, the word of Christ remains true but incomplete. There will come a time, Jesus promises, when we will worship -- neither on one patriarchal mountain nor on any other, including Jerusalem -- but we will worship together in wholeness and in truth.

How is it that in the face of the woman at the well any religion can exclude women from the center of the mystery -- in the name of God! -- and call themselves religious at all. Until that time, the notion that any healthy human being, either man or woman, female or male, will join in great numbers an organization that is blatantly sexist is a psychedelic dream. Mount Gerizim is the mountain of feminism.

Finally we, like Israel, find ourselves confronted today with the Mount of the Beatitudes where no one is excluded and all the world is taken into the heart of Christ. The Mount of the Beatitudes is the mountain of the hoping heart.

Faced with a society where the average person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, expects a minimum of three careers per lifetime; faced with a church where the once major evangelizing tool, the Catholic school system, is now seriously diminished in numbers, size and financial availability; faced with a moment in church where parishes -- once the spiritual centers of personal development -- are now merged, understaffed, oversubscribed or totally rejected in the parish-shopping syndrome of a transient, theologically divided and spiritually more independent world; faced with a time in religious life when many more come than stay forever, it is time to raise again the question of what religious life is really for here and now.

I am convinced that we are being led up the mountain to a new form of membership that is already with us, but that we are failing both to name and to form. We are not being called now to be the educational centers or the medical centers or the praying centers of the world. We are being called, perhaps, to become the spirituality centers of the world. But, the fact is that we are continuing to shape ourselves without learning from religious traditions even older than we that the spiritual life is a universal pursuit but not a universal vocation.

The Buddhists, the Hindus, the Sufi, all provide for intense periods of spiritual instruction in religious communities -- not for the sake of perpetual profession in particular religious congregations but for the sake of serious preparation for the development of the spiritual person in the world. Perpetual profession is not a universal expectation in Buddhism. Everyone who enters the monastery does not stay forever. And neither, anymore, do we.

It is time, I think, to offer spiritual seekers the right to find with us the treasure for which they are obviously in quest -- meaning, purpose, prayer and spiritual development in a sterile and secular world -- before they are confronted with its choices, burdened by its demands or lured by its false promises. They should be able to find with us the direction they need to turn their lives into the stuff of sanctity in the face of an unwholesome age.

For the first time in history we have among our own members the theologians, the scripture scholars, the spiritual directors and the ecumenical vision to lead a person beyond the self-centered to the very core of our charisms as they are being called for in this world, here and now.

It is not true that people are not being attracted to our communities. They are flocking to our associate programs. They are pouring into our retreat centers. They are fastening themselves to our ministries, with or without salaries. They are coming to our novitiates and then taking what we give them there back to life as they envision it for themselves. And they do not leave us in anger, disillusionment, depression or despair. They leave simply because they are convinced that they are meant to be somewhere else. And then they come back time and time again to tell us proudly how Jesuit, how Mercy, how Benedictine, how Charity, how Josephite they and their homes and families have become because of those years with us.

What God is doing

Isn’t it about time that we institutionalize what God is obviously doing -- not for the sake of cheap labor in our ministries, not to engage volunteers for difficult work, not to maintain works that without them would not last. This is not a case of offering a job that comes with bed and breakfast. This is for the sake of developing their spirituality in a world awash in secularism. People are seeking what they cannot find because we give it only to those who promise to live it our way for keeps.

Where else, with the schools closed and the parishes gone and perpetual profession to anything a thing of the past in this culture, is this kind of intense spiritual development to come from if not from those who hold the charisms of Christ in trust for the world? What is true is that we are not taking them in unless they are willing -- before they enter -- to say that they will be there for life. It is an unreal, unnecessary and unproductive use of the Holy Spirit!

We have the structures, the people and the call from people everywhere to do for three- to five-year periods what the world is seeking in great numbers everywhere. Then, those who choose to stay forever -- and there will, of course, be those who do -- will know why they’re staying and those who choose to go will take with them the best of what we are.

Why don’t we take the Mount of the Beatitudes seriously? Why don’t we take all the seekers in and, in the name of each living charism in religious life today, set out consciously to develop people steeped in mercy, thirsting for justice, dedicated to peacemaking, pure of heart and alive in the vision of Christ, because they have come to us and gone away filled with the beatitudes. The Mount of the Beatitudes is the mountain of inclusiveness.

Those are the mountains of religious life:

  • 1. Sinai -- the mountain of spirituality;
  • 2. Gilboa -- the mountain of delight in letting go;
  • 3. Olive -- the mountain of solidarity;
  • 4. Moriah -- the mountain of sacrifice;
  • 5. Carmel -- the mountain of choice;
  • 6. Hermon -- the mountain of corporate prophecy;
  • 7. Gerizim -- the mountain of feminism;
  • 8. Beatitudes -- the mountain of unlimited inclusiveness.

Israel was called to be a mounting, climbing people. And so are we. The farther one is from Sinai, the rabbis taught, the more diminished they are.

“How long have you been a monk?” the seeker asked.

“A real monk? Not long,” the elder answered. “It took me 50 years to get up the mountain of decision.”

“Do you have to see first before you decide, or is it that you decide first and then you see?” the seeker asked again.

“If you’ll take my advice,” the elder said, “you’ll drop the questions and go right up the mountain.”

If religious life is not to dry up and blow away, sick for the want of faith and waiting for miracles that do not come, it is time for us to quit the questions and go right up the mountain before there is no mountain left to climb.

“Old lady,” the innkeeper said to the pilgrim stopped for the night on the way to the holy shrine. “You will never be able to climb that mountain in these monsoons.”

“ Oh, sir,” the old lady said, “that will be no problem whatsoever. You see, my heart has been there all my life. Now it is simply a matter of taking my body there as well.”

If religious life is to be religious life, my friends, form your communities to climb and climb and climb. To where God awaits us even yet, even now.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998