Television reporter Judith Valente’s first visit to Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas, was supposed to be a routine speaking gig at a retreat center. But within a few hours on site, she began to feel a different pull: to be changed, on a personal level, by the cloistered community.
“I realized I wasn’t really feeding my own soul,” recalls Valente, a correspondent for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS. “I was running around the country giving all these programs; I wasn’t taking care of my own sense of the sacred in daily life.”
Valente was so impressed by the sisters, who had “such an ease with which they walked through their days,” that she became a pilgrim. Traveling six hours each way from her home in Normal, Illinois, she visited the Mount for several days per month from 2008 to 2011.
The experience left her changed. Abiding by the fifth-century Rule of St. Benedict, whose precepts teach “esteem for silence” as well as humility and patience, changed her habits of heart and thought in ways she recounts in her new memoir, Atchison Blue (Sorin Books).
More self-aware and slower to anger than she was a few years ago, Valente believes the Rule could transform more than individuals and religious communities. It could also be a key, she says, to overcoming America’s all-too-familiar dysfunctions in government and public discourse.
Valente cringed this fall as political leaders traded barbs and blame throughout October’s 16-day government shutdown. She wondered: What if they borrowed a page from Christianity’s Benedictine tradition? She expects they would have seen the folly in “speaking at and over each other.” They would have gotten much further by following the wise abbot’s admonition to “listen with the ear of the heart.”
“In our American culture, we think we need to be talking all the time, and the person who’s talking the loudest and the most wins the argument,” Valente says. “Benedict turns that on its head. It’s the person who listens who’s the real winner. It’s the person who helps arrive at consensus who is the real leader.”
Valente’s journey involved baring fears and letting down her journalistic guard. She’d been told in her early days as a Washington Post reporter: never let anyone see you cry. At the Mount, she cried in her room at night as she pondered how committed the nuns were to each other. One former leader in the community, who had reached her late 80s, tearfully lamented that now she could only sew for her sisters. Yet she was determined to sew for them until her fingers wore out.
The reporter pilgrim, who is married and has two adult stepdaughters, came to terms with her short-fuse temper and her longstanding fear of death. She remains inspired by 90-year-old Sister Lillian, who said when Valente confessed her fear of dying, “I don’t think about dying. I think about living.”
This year, Valente became a Mount St. Scholastica oblate, which means she lives under vows to heed the Rule in all areas of her life. She hopes the Benedictine way will curry favor elsewhere, especially in Washington, where she says elected leaders would do well to adopt some Benedictine practice.
She notes, for example, how sisters greet each other with a humble bow. Before embarking on a task together, they make a request of one another: “Have patience with me.” Similar steps might be worth trying on Capitol Hill, she says, since endless gridlock makes for a poor status quo.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald