THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending two new books by poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. So, you’ll want to read our full interview with Judith. In addition, we invited Judith to write this column describing some of the basic steps toward rediscovering peace in our lives. This personal story by Judith opens with a scene from her new book Atchison Blue and then shares 10 insights to ponder.
A Pilgrimage Toward
By JUDITH VALENTE
If we are very lucky in life, we arrive at a moment that launches us on a journey of discovery. Having grown up in the shadow of New York City and spent much of my career in Chicago, I could never have imagined that my journey of discovery would lead to a place as strange to me as Atchison, Kansas, and to a Benedictine monastery on a hill.
In the spring of 2007, I was feeling very dry in my spiritual life. Like many Catholics, I despaired over the clergy abuse scandal and the increasingly politicized statements by our bishops that seemed aimed at pointing to the splinters in everyone else’s eyes but their own. In the public arena, so-called Christians seemed bent on dividing the world between insiders and outcasts.
More to the point, perhaps, there were many broken places in my own life that needed healing. As a new wife, I struggled in my relationship with my adult stepdaughters. At work, I found myself embroiled in a silly, totally unnecessary conflict with my supervising producer. My weekends were occupied with travel to different cities to give presentations on my first book, Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul. All of these commitments left me with little time for prayer, reflection or rest.
Then a door opened. I was invited to give a workshop on “Touching the Sacred through Poetry” at the retreat center of Mount St. Scholastica, the Benedictine women’s monastery in Atchison. I arrived feeling exhausted—mentally, physically and spiritually. The morning I was to give my presentation, I sat alone in the oak-limned chapel. I wondered how I was going to speak to a retreat group later that day about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks.
Sunlight streamed in through beautiful blue stained glass windows. Silence saturated the room. I happened to look up at the stained glass window in front of me. There was an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms. Surrounding him were some words in Latin: omni tempore silentio debent studere. I reached back into my high school Latin and did a rough translation. “At all times, cultivate silence.”
Suddenly the paradox I had been living stared me in the face. I had been traveling around, talking and talking, trying to help others live a more contemplative life. But in my own life what was missing were moments of silence and solitude when I could simply listen and be. Without those moments, I was losing drop by drop the inner resources I needed to do my work well and cultivate an interior life.
I didn’t have any grand plan for changing my life. I only knew that something nameless had shifted inside of me that morning in the chapel. Whatever it was, I wanted more of it.
I began carving out a few days each month to spend at Mount St. Scholastica, learning from the Benedictine sisters what it means to live a truly contemplative life. I don’t profess to have arrived (Eureka!) at the truth. As a Desert Father once told a young monk, “The spiritual life is this: I rise and I fall, I rise and I fall.” That is also the way of conversatio morum, what Benedictines refer to as conversion to the monastic way of life. And that is perhaps what I felt the first stirrings of that day in the chapel.
Since then, I’ve come to understand conversatio doesn’t spark a sudden tectonic shift in the way we live our lives. It isn’t an earthquake, but more like the slow etching water makes on a shoreline. It is, as my friend Sister Thomasita Homan once put it, “a continuous conversation with life.”
Conversatio involves developing certain habits of the heart that then inform our daily living. Every day, as I read the newspaper and listen to NPR, I think the same thought. How different the world would be if each one of us was living out just one of these monastic habits of the heart. Would we have experienced the reckless self-interest that led to the economic collapse a few years ago if we did as The Rule of St. Benedict urges, what is best for others first? Could we avoid the vitriol that poisons our national discourse, that paralyzes our democracy if we practiced the principle: Be the first to show respect to the other. Would corporations drop their employees’ insurance coverage simply because they can, if their managers understood that the true task of a leader is the care of souls. Would the immigrant stranger be walled out, or welcomed as The Rule says all guests should, as Christ? Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they truly may be served as Christ is the kind of health care reform The Rule envisions. Would the current debate over “Obamacare” change in tone if the monastic view of care of the sick became society’s as well?
It seems facile to try and reduce Benedictine spirituality and a monastic view of life to a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People-type list. Conversatio is, after all, not a to-do list, but the work of a lifetime. Still, there are certain Benedictine values I try to keep daily before my eyes, like guideposts on a long, narrow and sinewy road. It is that spirit that I offer a few of them here.
See if one in particular fits your life right now. Sometimes one will speak to us at a certain time of life, others will appear more meaningful at a later period. Conversatio is never static. The way is always unfolding before us. I rise and I fall. I rise and I fall.
It has always intrigued me that the first word of The Rule of St. Benedict isn’t pray, or worship or even love. It’s listen. And St. Benedict takes it a step further. He asks us to listen with “the ear of the heart.” We tend to talk at and over one another. Just watch any cable news channel. During the government shutdown, some political leaders suggested what was needed was more talking. I believe what is needed was more listening. St. Benedict wisely suggests we listen to the youngest voice as well as the voice of experience.
Prayer and Praise
Work and pray, Ora et Labora, is the Benedictine motto. And prayer is the main work of any monastery. Monastic men and women begin the day with the moving gesture of running their fingers across their lips in the sign of the cross. They pray, “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the first words they utter each morning and it’s a call for praise. For me, it’s a reminder that our days are made not for grumbling, self-criticism or worry, but for praise. How can we make all of our actions a form of praise? Can we make of our day one extended prayer?
In the age of 24-hour TV, silence is a disappearing commodity. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter are a form of visual noise. The Rule encourages esteem for silence. My friend Sister Micaela Randolph of Mount St. Scholastica once taught me this handy practice. Before you open your mouth to speak, she said, ask yourself three questions: is what you are about to say true, is it kind, and is it necessary? “There is so much talking that goes on that is utterly useless,” the great monastic writer Thomas Merton once said. “The redwoods, the sea, the sky, it is in these you will find answers.” In other words, in the silence, everything begins to connect.
Interestingly enough, the longest chapter in The Rule of St. Benedict is on the practice of humility. The very word runs counter to our American instincts. But humility isn’t the same as humiliation. It derives from the Latin root humus, which simply means “of the earth.” There is a wonderful custom at Mount St. Scholastica in which before they pray, the sisters bow to one another. In the land of the easy handshake and the quick hug, the bow says, “I recognize the gifts in you, and I acknowledge my own limitedness.” There was also an old and beautiful custom at Mount St. Scholatica in which a group of sisters, assigned to a task, would first bow to one another and ask, “Have patience with me.” I often muse how pleasant my work day would be if at the start, I bowed to my colleagues and they to me and we asked each other to please have patience with our human failings.
Like many professionals, I suffer from a chronic condition: over-achieverism. That is why I’m so drawn to another Benedictine motto, succisa virescit: cut back, it will grow stronger. Whenever I visit Mount St. Scholastica, I love to visit the vineyard. The grapevines are wonderful plants. They will grow and grow without much outside help. But they won’t produce much of value without the careful attention of the vinedresser, who must periodically radically cut back the vine’s branches. For someone like me, always trying to accomplish five tasks at once, it’s a reminder to regularly survey my life and cut back on excess activities so I can re-focus on what’s essential. Succisa virescit. Cut back, it will grow stronger.
Our society puts a premium on mobility. Perhaps because of our frontier history, mobility often equates with progress. Monastics turn that idea on its head. They each take a vow of stability to remain at one monastery for life. As someone who’s lived in four U.S. cities and three European cities over the course of my adult life, I’ve developed an appreciation for stability. It’s the idea of grow where you are planted. Or as a Benedictine friend once told me. “You do not need to go elsewhere because everywhere is here.”
There was a lovely tradition in ancient monasteries that whenever a stranger appeared at the door, the gatekeeper was to respond, “You blessing, please.” Visitors received this greeting regardless of whether they were perceived as friends or suspected of being enemies. Of all the mandates in The Rule of St. Benedict, the call to treat all guests as Christ is one of the clearest. No matter what our politics, The Rule calls us to respect the immigrant, the refugee, and all of society’s marginalized people. Hospitality in The Rule also extends to a compassionate concern for the sick. But hospitality does not end with works of mercy. The Rule also calls us to a hospitality of spirit and of mind. Can I be hospitable to ideas that don’t fit neatly into our established world view? Can I listen with the ear of my heart to people with whom I don’t usually agree?
Often you will find lovely gardens surrounding monasteries. I once asked the prioress of Mount St. Scholastica why that is so. Benedictines have always cultivated gardens, she said. Gardens remind the world of the need for beauty. Gardens require care and The Rule asks us to bring that kind of careful attention to all areas of our lives. Regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected,” St. Benedict says. It is a reminder that everything we encounter deserves our attention. Our natural world, most especially, is ours in trust. As the writer John McQuiston notes, “Everything we have is on loan. Our homes, our businesses, rivers, closest relationships, bodies and experiences. Everything we have is ours in trust and must be returned at the end of our use of it.” Nothing is to be neglected, most especially, beauty.
A recent study found that America is becoming a politically segregated society. Red states are becoming redder, blue states bluer. Americans increasingly live amid others who look, think, and vote just as they do. St. Benedict eschewed the solitary life as a hermit in favor of living in community, but the kind of community he envisioned was quite different. It was one where members checked their wealth and pedigree at the door. Age and education didn’t matter either. What mattered was that a person was willing to join hands with others within community in seeking God. Each was to receive according to his need, bearing each other’s weaknesses with patience. It is what still matters in monasteries today. Is each member seeking to build the others up, rather than tear them down? Are decisions made through consensus, not conflict? Is each member helping the other find the true self? St. Benedict recognized that we don’t become fully ourselves alone, or solely in the company of like-minded individuals, but in a community of many different kinds of people, each adding their own foibles, perspectives and strengths to the mix.
We know it when we experience it. But contemplation is one of those words so hard to define. “Living mindfully, looking beyond the obvious” is how the Benedictine writer Joan Chittister once defined it. For me, the life of contemplation is a lived life. It’s a promise of not arriving at your death bed wondering what the heck this life was all about. “Be where you are and do what you’re doing” is the description Mount Sister Imogene Baker once assigned to it. I like what my friend Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani once said. “Contemplation is just a big fat word for gratitude.”
Care to read more?
ReadTheSpirit magazine is recommending two of poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. You’ll want to read our full interview with Judith to learn about these two inspiring books.