A couple of years ago, I attended a virtual talk by Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, theologian and prolific spiritual writer. I’ve always looked to Sister Joan for wisdom about the inner spiritual life, but this time her theme was more justice oriented. She spoke of her “ministry of irritation” and offered a parable about an oyster to explain.
During the spawning season, when sand invades the oyster, the oyster emits a gel to protect itself from the sand. The more sand that comes in, the more gel is excreted. So at the end of the process, after layer and layer of gel, you have a pearl. Thus the oyster has become more valuable. Chittister likened herself to the sand and the oyster to the Catholic Church, specifically with regard to sexism. Both are improved in the pearl-making process and both become closer to what God intends them to be – “followers of Christ, who listened to women, taught them theology, and raised them from the dead.”
Joan Chittister reminds me of the widow who continually appeals to the unjust judge in Luke 18. He finally relents and grants her request for justice against her adversary so he won’t be worn out by her persistence. Jesus completes the telling of the parable with these words: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7).
This is an auspicious time to celebrate the ministry of irritation. Today is Juneteenth — or June 19th — the day in 1865 when slavery finally fell in Texas as the last state to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This is also Pride Month, when we affirm the LGBTQ movement. The fight for equal rights continues for many people, and the ministry of irritation is inherent in it.
Irritation is uncomfortable for the irritating and the irritated alike. I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of that equation, whether at the interpersonal or the institutional level. But when irritation is a faithful response to God’s call, it gets us all one step closer to liberation and transformation.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a pearl. (Matt. 13:45-46).