Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, by Joan Chittister, OSB, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2010.
One year ago today, a devastating earthquake wreaked havoc on Haiti, bringing with it almost incomprehensible damage. In the days which followed, as we watched and listened through the eyes and ears of innumerable journalists, emergency workers, and survivors themselves, there was one small, quiet story which reached out and touched me, and continues to do so a year later. A very old woman, left homeless and without family, sat quietly under a tree, praying. Her prayer was a song consisting of two words, Alleluia and Amen. In a five note range, and with a chant-like movement and mode, -very unlike the energetic rhythms of Haitian music with which we might be familiar, -she repeated the words in varying sequence: first the Alleluia four or five times, followed by a single Amen, then Amen once or twice, followed by Alleluia, and so on, for several moving, gripping minutes. It was a quiet hymn, but the conviction behind it was unmistakable. This was a woman of faith.
The incident puzzled me. How could anyone, in the midst of such unspeakable horror, be singing Alleluia? Was Alleluia not a word of immense rejoicing and gratitude? I knew the word only in the context of the Lent-Easter tradition. We put it aside during our Lenten Liturgy but take it up with enthusiastic joy during the Easter Vigil when we have sung the Gloria. That rhythm was familiar to me, but it was not what I was hearing from the song of the woman. Of one thing I am convinced, however: she was not fantasizing.
Shortly after, I came across a book which shed more than a little light on the conundrum: Uncommon Gratitude had just been published, and since its subtitle was Alleluia for All That Is, it seemed a good place to start. Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine who has specialized in spiritual direction and has a long list of book titles to her credit. Archbishop Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, adds to his pastoral credentials not only significant scholarship, but also the talents of a writer, poet, and teacher. In her introduction, Sister Chittister makes it clear that the book was conceived of as a dialogue between the two authors rather than a sharing. Covering a variety of subjects, -facets of human life, their height and their depth, - they explore instances which provide opportunity within every struggle for authentic praise and gratitude, Alleluia moments, - reaching out toward the good God. The introduction makes plain
To deal with the meaning of alleluia in life means to deal with moments that do not feel like alleluia moments at all.
The chapters are divided into thee sections,
- Discovering What We Are
- Discovering Who We Are
- Growing Into the Unknown
In the first section, Chittister discusses faith and doubt, conflict and division; Williams explores sinners and saints. In Part Two, Williams begins with Genesis (biblical and personal,) and ends with Exodus. In between, Chittister tackles life, peace, otherness, and suffering. In the last section, Williams wraps up his contribution with "Friday," speaking eloquently about the death of Jesus, sin and redemption. The problems of death, future, darkness and, finally, God, conclude the sections written by Chittister.
In a dialogue such as this book is, the styles and proclivities of the authors are very apparent, as are also their varied experiences and their ways of expressing them. Perhaps because Sister Joan Chittister has the greater number of essays, there is a vague sense of repetition which comes across. For some readers, that might serve to reinforce a point made. Archbishop Williams has a way of speaking which is fluent and fluid, conveying a rich imagination as well as a compassionate view of humankind. Here too, a particular reader might prefer less subtlety, less light touch. The subject, however, is well served by the offerings of the two authors. Returning to my little woman proclaiming her praise of the loving God, I give you the concluding lines of the first chapter, entitled "Faith:
Faith is one long alleluia sung into a dark night, the only end of which is another challenging dawn.
Maureen F. McDermott
Jan. 12, 2011