'Alleluia' Welcomes Both Faith And Doubt

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In places of worship all over the world this Easter Sunday, Christians are singing "Alleluia." It is an ancient word of praise, and one used in the subtitle of a new book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Benedictine sister Joan Chittister. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Chittister about Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is


This is WEEKEND EDITION From NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. On this Easter Sunday, in places of worship all over the world, Christians are singing Alleluia.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Alleluia, alleluia.

HANSEN: It is an ancient word of praise and one used in the subtitle of a new book by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. "Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is" is a collaboration on a collection of essays. Sister Joan has been a guest on our program before, and she joins us again from the studio of member station WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania. Happy Easter, Sister Joan.

Sister JOAN CHITTISTER (Co-author, "Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is"): Thank you, Liane, and to you, too.

HANSEN: What is your definition of alleluia?

Sister CHITTISTER: Well, alleluia is the word that means praise to God in the Christian tradition. It means God is with us, as well. It's an amen to the work of God in the world, whole and entire.

HANSEN: There are various essays written by both you and Archbishop Rowan Williams. It's a procedural question: how did you collaborate? Who decided, like, that you would write on conflict, and he would write on sinners?

Sister CHITTISTER: We sat down in his office, and I said to him, after a bit of preliminary conversation, Archbishop, what are you most interested in at the present moment in the spiritual life? And he paused that quiet way he has, and he looked at me, and he said, well, he said, I like alleluia.

So I said, all right. So we decided that I would go on looking at these opposite dimensions of life and that he would look at what he knows are major issues for people.

HANSEN: It is interesting the juxtaposition of two things. I mean, I'll take two that you wrote about: faith and doubt. You know, faith being is kind of hard to define, perhaps, it's a belief in a mystery.

Sister CHITTISTER: Yeah.

HANSEN: Why is doubt worthy of an alleluia?

Sister CHITTISTER: Oh, doubt is a wonderful thing, and it's what people fear most and what people castigate themselves about most. Doubt is that moment in the faith life when we put down everybody else's answers and begin to find our own. We look at everything we've been told is holy, is true, and we test it.

HANSEN: One of the things about your writing, Sister Joan, is that it's always peppered references from what's called wisdom literature, in many Western and Eastern belief systems. I'd like you to end, and to just tell the story that you've included in your essay on peace, and it's actually a story that you've told before. You wrote it ages ago when you wrote a book on the rule of Benedict, who is the patron of your order of nuns. This is the story of the attack on a village by a very nasty man and a monk who remains in the town against all odds.

Sister CHITTISTER: That's one of my favorite stories. It's one of my own driving, spiritual stories. They tell the story about a Chinese warlord who was rampaging through the mountains in the most brutal, horrendous way.

And as the word spread up the mountain of his coming, people simply began to abandon their villages. Finally, when he got to a village at the top of the mountain, and he said to his first in command: and the village is empty, I presume.

And the lieutenant said: ah, yes, Lord, everybody's well, no, not everybody is gone. There's an old monastic here who simply refuses to go. So they drag the old monastic, threw the old monastic at the feet of the warlord, and the warlord looked down and screamed: Do you know who I am? I am he who can run you through with a sword and never even bat an eye.

And the old monastic lifted her head, looked into his eyes and said: And do you know who I am, sir? I am she who can let you run me through with your sword and never even bat an eye. That's faith.

HANSEN: Sister Joan Chittister who, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, wrote the new book of essays "Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is." Sister Joan joined us from the studio at member station WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania. Thank you very much.

Sister CHITTISTER: Thank you, Liane, very much.

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