Susan Baller-Shepard: Going Monastic: Thoroughly Modern Woman Experiences an Ancient Rule


Judith Valente is an award-winning journalist, poet, speaker and retreat leader. She is an on air correspondent for WGLT Radio in Normal, IL, Religion & Ethics News Weekly on PBS-TV and a contributing correspondent for Chicago Public radio. A Benedictine Oblate, she has also authored two poetry collections, co-authored the book The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed and co-edited the anthology Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul.

Indeed, Judith wears many hats in this life. One hat she wears is that of good friend to countless people, and, to Judy, I'm her "first friend in this town." I am proud to have her as my friend, proud to see her work come to fruition, whether that is her work as a journalist, writer or poet. Below is an interview Judith granted me about her book, Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home and a Living Faith.

Atchison Blue is a book about sisters at Mt. St. Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas, and the lessons Judith learned from witnessing their lives as they live out The Rule of St. Benedict.

As a journalist who spent her life in urban areas, what role does the flat land of Kansas and the setting of your monastery play in your sense of spiritual growth there?

Mount St. Scholastica is actually in northeastern Kansas, in Atchison, which offers a more rolling landscape than what one usually associates with Kansas, especially western Kansas. One of the striking features of the landscape as you head toward Atchison are the ancient, tree-studded bluffs that rise above the Missouri River. The bluffs were carved out by ancient glaciers and so to gaze on them is to look at a part of the earth's body that is tens of thousands of years old. So it is quite fitting that this ancient landscape would be a reminder of the timeless wisdom monastic life has to offer. When you are at the monastery, you are participating in a way of life and in a set of values that has endured for 1,500 years. The bluffs too are a reminder that the land is ancient but we, we are fleeting.

How does your sense of doing or being change when you are at the monastery, or does it?

Yes, it certainly does change! I will tell you a funny story. In my regular life, am usually operating on all cylinders at once. Everything is set on to "go." I carried that routine to the monastery on my first visit. But one night, around 8 p.m., the prioress, Sister Anne Shepard, saw the light on in my guest room and knocked on the door. She saw that I was still at work at my computer. She invited me to shut down the computer and join her and some visiting prioresses for a glass of wine. I stupidly declined, and said I still had some writing I wanted to finish. But now I see she was trying to show me that there is a time for work and a time to quit work. "The Rule of St. Benedict," that ancient guide to monastic living, stresses moderation in all things. There is to be eight hours of rest. Each is to receive food according to his or her need. The Benedictine motto is "ora et labora," work and pray. And I think that motto says to us that our lives have to consist of work, yes. Work can be sacred. But we also need to leave space for times of silence and contemplation.

In one of our prior Spiritual Book Club books, A Crime So Monstrous, journalist E. Benjamin Skinner writes, "to be a moral witness is perhaps the highest calling of journalism." What are you, as a journalist in a monastery, witnessing to?

I do think I am witnessing to the fact that there is a group of people willing to engage in an enterprise that is almost completely counter-cultural and counter conventional wisdom. It is a life that stresses the good of the many over individual gain, simplicity over consumption, community over competition and quiet over the constant chatter of our lives. I believe I am witness this for all the people who buy into the false values of the world -- the big house, the big paycheck, the prestigious job.

What does the monastery teach you about power?

That is a very interesting question, because I think power, even in a monastery is a very dangerous thing. The Rule of St. Benedict sets a pretty high standard for the person who is elected by the community to be the abbot or the prioress. But everyone in a monastery takes a vow of obedience to the abbot or prioress, and therefore there are ample opportunities for misuse of that power if one is not careful. St. Benedict says the greatest responsibility of the people in leadership positions in a monastery is not how to make the place more efficient or financially stable. But the main responsibility is "the care of souls." The vow of obedience comes from the Latin word, to listen to, and it requires both listening by the person who has vowed obedience, but also careful listening on the part of the monastic leader who is making decisions that affect the lives of member of the community.

How does time feel when you are at the monastery? Does it go by quickly? Slowly? At a normal pace? 

There is a certain rhythm to time in the monastery. We stop for prayers four times a day, Morning Praise, Mid-day Prayer, Evening Praise and Compline at the end of the day around 7:15 p.m. That means at those hours, you pause in the middle of whatever sentence you happen to be writing or whatever you are doing and you go to prayers. St. Benedict called prayer the opus dei, the work of God and said no work was to supersede it. These pauses help connect me to the different rhythms of each part of the day. When I worked for the Wall Street Journal in Chicago, I had a desk near a window on the 21st floor. I would arrive for work around nine in the morning and stare at my computer, make phone calls and bury myself in work. At some point, I'd look up and out the window and it would be dark. The day had passed and I'd missed it. The monastic pauses slow me. I end each day with a greater sense of having lived the day.

Did you ever consider being a nun?

No, not really. Perhaps the thought crossed my mind as a freshman at a Catholic girls' academy because the nuns were terrific there too. But by the time I was in high school, there were so many opportunities for lay women to serve in the church that it didn't seem necessary to enter religious life to do that. 

If you were single, do you think you could live there full time? Why or why not?

Since I am very happily married; that thought doesn't enter my mind very often. However, if I were to suddenly, and God forbid it, find myself widowed, I might want to return to the monastery as a lay volunteer. Lay men and women can do that, spend weeks, months or even up to two years as an unpaid volunteer and receive room and board at the monastery. 

Is there anything at this landlocked monastery you wouldn't get somewhere else? Do you think you'd have a similar experience at another monastery?

I have visited a number of monasteries to give presentations. Each has its own aura and rhythm. I can say most are very hospitable, but Mount St. Scholastica especially stands out in that context. A vibrant spirit of hospitality infuses the place.

What in your upbringing prepared you for this adventure with the monastery?

Well, being a lifelong Catholic helped, but certainly a non-Catholic could go there and have just as powerful experience. I truly believe that. Also, I had a wonderful experience with the Sisters of Charity who had taught me in high school in New Jersey. So I have always been favorably disposed toward the sisters.

What is the point of this sojourn at this juncture in your life?

I really don't know how to answer that. It's all very mysterious what led me to this particular monastery and not another. I think the wisdom I drew from there will continue to impact my life in myriad and mysterious ways.

How does time at the monastery affect your poetry writing?

When I was at the monastery, most of my time was given to writing prose, the prose that became my book. However, as a result of meeting Brother Paul Quenon at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I began a spiritual and poetic practice of writing a three-line haiku everyday. Brother Paul told me he did this as part of his meditation practice. We began exchanging our poems everyday for about three years. That became the basis of my book, The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.

How do you think your experiences are different/similar to Kathleen Norris' in The Cloister Walk?

Kathleen's books about monastic life are excellent, but very different. In The Cloister Walk, she wrote about monastic concepts. You rarely got a sense of the individual monks she met at St. John's Abbey. My book is much more about gaining wisdom through the personal relationships that unfolded with individual sisters. It is much more of a personal journey book.

What made you want to do this?

I went to this monastery originally to give a workshop on poetry and the soul, and was so impressed by the sisters, the near-complete lack of façade, the ease with which they walked through their days and their seemingly innate sense of the right thing at the right time, that I asked if I could come back and do some lengthy interviews with some of the sisters I had met. I didn't have a book particularly in mind. I guess I thought I could just do these interviews for the monastery archives or some such thing.

You live a full life as a poet, journalist, wife. What lessons do you still hope to learn at the monastery if any?

There is a Benedictine saying that we are all beginners on the path to a spiritual life. I truly believe that. The Benedictines also talk about conversatio morum, or "conversion of life." Conversatio isn't some miraculous, spur of the moment conversion, but rather the slow, day to day process, of trying to live the gospel message. So I daily face my own conversatio and uncover new lessons to learn.

Who has been the most formative/informative person for you at the monastery?

That is a hard question to answer because so many of the sisters touched me deeply. I remember Sister Thomasita Homan who told me conversatio is like a "constant conversation with life." And 93-year-old Sister Lillian Harrington, who said, "I don't think about dying, I think about living." And Sister Kathleen Egan, a tireless advocate for peace and non-violence, who helped me see that personal transformation counts for little if it doesn't extend outward, if it doesn't ease the plight of others.

Do you think monastic traditions are similar across religious traditions?

Yes, what I know of Hindu and Buddhist monastics suggest their lives, their values are very much the same.

As a Christian, what writings informed your desire to go and learn at a monastery?

I have always been an avid reader of the works of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani and died in 1968. He was in many ways the quintessential 20-century man -- cultivated, well-traveled and extremely curious and restless. At a certain point, he turned his back on everything the world defines as success and entered a cloistered monastery. I have read most everything Merton ever wrote and highly recommend reading his personal journals, which comprise seven or eight volumes. It is really the story of the 20th century.

What Scripture lessons have been most informative for you during your stay?

Of course, the Psalms, which form the heart of monastic prayer. I found I didn't have to start my day with NPR or the New York Times at the monastery because I could find everything that passes for news today in the psalms: conflict, betrayal, disappointment, war, murder and every emotion known to humans. I also deeply studied the parable of the prodigal son, which Benedictines often point out, encapsulates the gospel message.

Do you consider your trips to the monastery a pilgrimage?

Yes, certainly. I say that because pilgrimage is meant to remove us from our ordinary surroundings and offer an opening for a prayerful, contemplative time

What metaphor would you describe for your time there?

One that comes to mind is Jacob wrestling with the angel, because monasteries hold a mirror up to your soul. They reflect back to you your weaknesses, struggles, flaws. And I certainly wrestled with my own demons there -- my propensity to work too hard, to be petty, judgmental, egotistic.

How do you feel physically when you are the monastery? Peaceful, agitated, calm, anxious to get home?

The guest rooms are very well appointed and comfortable. It is a quiet place. I often find myself just sitting still and luxuriating in the silence. I would say I feel calm and peaceful. Never agitated or anxious.

What do you miss most while you are there?

If my husband can't be with me on a visit, then I certainly miss him.

What has been your darkest moment?

One time the prioress got very angry with me over something. It turned out to be just a misunderstanding. I had gone to the monastery with a camera crew from PBS to do a segment on monastic life. The prioress was upset because the cameraman had stationed himself right in the middle of chapel during morning prayers and let me know she was not pleased. It turned out that I had no idea cameras are not ever allowed at the prayer services. It was a dark moment, not so much because she grew angry, but because I felt I had not been sensitive enough to anticipate that community prayer is a very sacred time for the sisters, and I should have checked more clearly before I told the cameraman to situation his tripod right in the middle of the chapel.

Would you recommend this sort of trek/adventure to anyone else?

Yes, most definitely.

What has changed for you personally since going there?

I think I am more accepting of where I am in life on any given day. Like many people, I suffer from overachiever-ism. The monastery taught me it's okay to simply be where I am and do what I'm doing.

What will you miss the most when you stop going there so regularly?

Certainly daily prayer with the sisters. You simply cannot replicate that elsewhere -- all these women's voices singing the words of Psalms as one. It is simply beautiful to hear and experience.

What specifically do you like about The Rule of St. Benedict?

I think it offers a road map for a very sane and balanced life. It stresses balance, respect for the other, simplicity, hospitality for the stranger, care of the needy.

What specifically do you think is relevant today from this ancient tradition?

I used to think of monasteries as hopeless throwbacks to the past, a case of let the last monk or sister standing turn out the lights. Now I look upon them as windows to the future -- a future we desperately need in our society. One that stresses community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over consumption service over self-aggrandizement and quiet over the constant chatter in our lives.


Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk states,

This is a generous book about an exceptionally generous community of women. Valente allows the reader to feel the warmth of Benedictine hospitality. It is a powerful thing to be accepted as we are, with all our faults and troubles, by people who are willing to listen.

Publishers Weekly reviewed Atchison Blue, saying in part: "This honest and deeply reflective book, which implicitly critiques the myths of success by which so many live and are haunted, deserves a wide audience."

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