Judith Valente had achieved a stunning amount of worldly success as a high-profile journalist and prize-winning poet, but something was missing. That something — a sense of connection with her inner life — hit her during a visit to the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kan., to lead a retreat on — of all things — achieving balance in life.
That irony was not lost on Valente, a correspondent for PBS’ “Religious & Ethics NewsWeekly.” She used that revelation to seek a more contemplative outlook through monthly visits to the Mount. Those visits are recounted in her recently released book, “Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home and a Living Faith.”
During her time at the Mount, Valente learned about conversatio morum, a vow that’s unique to the Benedictines that’s roughly translated to “conversion of life.” Conversatio, one of the sisters explains to her, “is a call to listen carefully, to love deeply, and to be willing to change as needed.”
Valente, who is now a Benedictine oblate, beautifully details her struggles to apply conversatio to everyday life, particularly to her work life and her personal relationships, especially with her two adult stepdaughters who have yet to accept her after her marriage to their father a few years earlier.
As she collects nuggets of wisdom from many of the sage sisters in the community, she wonders if a truly contemplative life is within reach for a person out in the world. Sister Thomasita, her monastic guide, lets her in on a little secret. “Some of my most contemplative moments have come to me when I’m dancing,” she says, laughing.
“It’s often the times when we feel completely empty or when we think we’ve turned completely from God that we’ll find God,” Sister Thomasita continues. “I tell people to look for the coldest and the hottest moments in your life. Look carefully at those moments. God is there.”
One of the most appealing aspects of “Atchison Blue” is Valente’s honesty about her thoughts and emotions during her journey.
Readers should know, though, that Valente makes it clear up front that before her visits to the Mount, she had felt a loss of connection to the Faith: “Like many Catholics, I despaired over the clergy sex abuse scandal as well as the increasingly politicized statements made by our bishops — pronouncements that seemed geared at pointing to the splinters in everyone else’s eyes but their own.” Although her writing at times can be critical of certain aspects of the Church, her visits with the sisters clearly helped her reconnect with at least some aspects of her faith, even inspiring her to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation after a long absence.
Valente’s journey is unique, of course, but many readers will identify with her search for deeper meaning in contemporary culture. And they need not travel to the nearest monastic community to learn the wisdom that she has gleaned from Mount St. Scholastica’s sisters.
Sarah Hayes is executive editor of OSV Newsweekly.