Judy Valente Looks to the Monastic Life for Simplicity
To arrive at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison Kansas, you must cross over Contrary Creek, pass a place called God's Mountain, turn at the Broken Spoke Café and negotiate a wobbly bridge named for Amelia Earhart, the town's most famous daughter. Then you will see it: the familiar Benedictine cross wrapped in a circle, rising from a hilltop tower. Soon the cloister itself ascends into view, its two red brick wings stretched out like arms embracing the city.
About a year and half ago, I began spending a few days each month at this monastery in the heart of America's heartland. I was captivated by the Sisters I encountered … their graciousness, their wit, the ease with which they strode through the day. I sensed that they had something of value to teach a modern, married, professional woman like me. One of the first Sisters I met was 90-year- old Sister Lillian Harrington. I asked Sister Lillian, if at her age, she ever thinks about the end of life. She drilled her pale blue eyes into mine and said, “I don't think about dying, I think about living.”
On my first visit, I remember sitting in one of the oak stalls in the main chapel, waiting for morning prayers to begin. Silence seemed to saturate the walls, the wooden rafters. I was tired from traveling, and felt spiritually exhausted as well. My eyes rested on the stained glass window in front of me. There were some words written in Latin: omni tempore silentio. “At all times silence.”
I realized just how ‘talked out' I had become. What I needed was the rejuvenating salve of silence and solitude. Later I was struck by something that the Trappist monk Thomas Merton had written. After a rare visit outside of his cloister, he said, “I get the feeling that so much talking goes on that is utterly useless. The redwood forests, the sea, the sky, the waves … it is in all this you will find answers.”
Stability is a word I hadn't much thought of before my monastic visits. But it's the sacred glue that holds together monastic life. The Sisters commit to live – and grow – with the same group of people in the same community for the rest of their lives. I've lived in five states and three European cities over the course of my career. I'll admit that the notion of spending a lifetime in one location with the same group of people confounded me. But I've come to see the beauty of committing to a place. This kind of commitment challenges us to confront problems, not run from them.
Monasteries are, above all else, communities. I like the fact that each person takes a turn at cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors and doing the dishes. Even the Ph.d's and the prioress are not exempt. It's a way of saying all work is sacred. Ora et labora. Work and prayer is the Benedictine motto. I can't help but wonder if we could have avoided the reckless practices on Wall Street if more people felt this sense of shared responsibility.
There are some monastic customs that the Sisters don't follow anymore, which frankly I wish everyone would practice. My friend Sister Thomasita Homan told me that for many years, whenever a group of Sisters was assigned to work together on a project, each would bow to the other and say, “Have patience with me.” Imagine how much more pleasant the workplace might be if each day, we bowed to our bosses, bowed to our coworkers, and they to us, and we asked each other to ‘have patience' with our human frailties!
Perhaps the most important word I've learned is that of conversatio. It refers to a specific vow the Benedictines take, of ‘conversion of life.' But I like the definition Sister Thomasita once gave me. Conversatio as a constant turning, a continuous ‘conversation' with life. I like the idea of turning, because it connotes change. And there a many things about myself I'd like to change! Like my quick Italian temper.
With a dwindling number of men and women willing to enter monastic life, it's easy to dismiss monasteries as hopeless throwbacks to the past. But for me, monasteries offer a window to the future …a future our world so desperately needs. One that stresses community over competition, service over self-aggrandizement, quietude over chatter, and simplicity over constant consumption. It's what keeps me coming back again and again to these incredible Benedictine women, and to this monastery tucked away on a hill.
Judy Valente has a new collection of poetry titled, Discovering Moons. She's also in the process of writing a book about her experiences at Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery.