A Letter to the Pope from the Archives of Sister Joan Chittister
: Thank you, I understand the question and it’s a very familiar question.
Let’s start with the attitude ‘what will be will be’ – let’s call that fatalism. In the Mesnevi Rumi uses an old philosophical term called necessitarianism – but when you run into this word what is meant is fatalism.
Rumi and all the great teachers always come down strongly on the side of human responsibility. We have to assume some responsibility as responsible human beings – this is basic.
At the same time, there is another mysterious side to this, which I’ll call ‘witnessing perfection.’ When we view ‘what is’ – whatever it is – when we view it with the eyes of the Spirit, we are witnessing perfection. And we’re witnessing perfection in this sense: we find ourselves in the perfect situation for the development of our own soul’s qualities.
There is imperfection from one angle – there is dire need, people are suffering – and we develop our souls by relieving suffering, not by saying ‘what will be will be.’
We’re called forth to serve, to heal, to wage the struggle for justice, for well-being, for all goodness and beauty. This is our work and this is why we’re here. The ‘what will be will be’ only comes in in accepting our starting point. And also being willing to accept and let go of the results of our actions – we cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged or disappointed in the efforts we make.
I heard this expressed very beautifully by a wonderful catholic nun and activist named Sister Joan Chittister, who is one of the shining lights in North America, and she said every activist must also be a contemplative, otherwise you’re going to be so destroyed and so disappointed if you depend only on seeing results from your actions.
It’s being a contemplative that puts us in touch with the Divine and instills in us the patience and the hope to make our efforts no matter what appearances may be. There’s no conflict between being a contemplative and being an activist. One of the cheapest criticisms of Sufism that some people level against it is that we withdraw from the world and into our own narcissistic spiritual endeavors. That has never been true of Sufis. Generally speaking Sufis have been traditionally the activists and the people who have created culture and civilization and have worked for justice.
So the activist and the contemplative in our view are one. It’s our deep rootedness in Divine Being out of which flows our call for justice.
I hope that begins to answer what is a continual question. We are witnessing perfection in the sense that yes, there is profound suffering and cruelty in this world. Cruelty comes from human beings who choose to be cruel. God is not cruel. We have hurricanes and earthquakes and illness and difficult conditions on this Earth, but our souls develop. These conditions, in a way the sometimes-dark conditions, become a way to reveal our light.
The pain of life becomes the opportunity for altruistic expression. So in that sense, all of the light and dark, expansion and contraction, sorrow and joy of life is the perfect situation for the Divine to be revealed through us.
So I hope that begins to at least put this into perspective.
We can get lost in outer activity and then we do nobody any good including ourselves. But we have models of this ‘activist/contemplative’ balance. Certainly the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, was a great model of that balance.
JHT: In fact the Arabic word for choice (ikhtiar) is related to the word for ‘good.’ It comes from the same root in fact, so although the human being is forgetful – nisyan, which is also related to the word insan – the natural inclination, the fitrah, is to choose what is good.
SKH: And I’ll just add one thing to that. . . that which most characterizes the human being is will. We talk about God’s will and merging with God’s will. The Divine has given us the power of choice, and ‘free will’ can be defined as the power of ‘conscious choice.’
In every moment we face an opportunity for conscious choice. To choose in a way that is not coerced by our own egoism – to choose the good even when it may not be advantageous for ourselves, or appears not to be, as of course ultimately it is. That moment by moment ability to choose consciously is the height of Divine will and it will be enhanced by the degree and capacity of our love.
As our love grows and becomes more comprehensive so does our will and our ability to choose the good and the beautiful. There’s a great responsibility on our shoulders to choose justice, to choose peace, to choose the common good.
It’s an important question. Thank you for asking it.