“Whatever slender thread is holding our planet together just might stem from these monastic women…”

An alert reader sent this my way: a reflection by broadcast journalist Judith Valente about lessons she’s learned from visiting a Benedictine monastery.


To arrive at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kan., you must cross Contrary Creek and bypass Last Chance Road. Eventually, you will see a red brick structure on a hilltop, its L-shaped wings like outstretched arms embracing the city below.

In the summer of 2008, I began making regular visits to this Benedictine monastery for women in the heart of America’s heartland. I work as a broadcast journalist for PBS-TV. On weekends, I often lead spiritual retreats for busy professionals seeking to slow down, find more balance and tap into the transcendent in the everyday. I had come to Mount St. Scholastica originally to present a program on poetry and the soul. The visit capped a particularly hectic stretch of travel.

My first afternoon there, I sat alone in the monastery’s oak-trimmed chapel. Silence seemed to saturate the walls, the ceiling. I wondered how I was going to talk to a retreat group later that day about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in months.

I looked up at one of the chapel’s stained glass windows. Some words were written in Latin, omni tempore silentio debent studere. Roughly translated: At all times, cultivate silence. I realized how “talked out” I had become. The paradox I had been living stared me in the face. I loved my work and had accomplished much in my career. What I lacked were moments of silence and solitude when I could simply be. Without them, I was losing drop by drop the inner resources I needed to do my work well and cultivate an interior life.

I began to sense that these monastic women had something to teach me that I couldn’t find in the self-help books promising married, professional women like me that we can have it all.

One of the first sisters I met was 90-year-old Sister Lillian Harrington. At one point, I disclosed to her that I’ve always had a terrible fear of death. I sometimes wake at night trembling at the thought that I, too, am one day going to die. I asked Sister Lillian whether, at her age, she thinks often about death. She drilled her pale blue eyes into mine and told me something I’ve never forgotten. “I don’t think about dying,” she said. “I think about living.”

Whenever I return to Mount St. Scholastica, I feel as though I enter a deeper reality. The sisters wake before dawn for community prayer. They pray for the unemployed, the sick, the dying, the victims of crime as well as the prisoners on death row. They pray for the current Democratic president as they did for the past Republican president. They pray for world leaders, an end to war.

Whatever slender thread is holding our planet together, preventing us from blowing each other apart, just might stem from the prayers of these monastic women and others like them across the world.

I began to see how monastic practices could have practical application in my own professional life. In the past, whenever sisters were assigned to work together on a project, they would bow to each other and say, “Have patience with me.” I often think how much more pleasant my work day would be if, setting out to report a story for PBS, I bowed to my producer, bowed to the camera person and the audio technician, and they to me, and we asked each other to please have patience with our human frailties.

Read it all. Then go and make a retreat.


  1. I firmly believe the truth of the line you quoted as your headline. That’s why I have a hard time with people who say Oh yeah, prayer is important, but it’s action that makes the difference. Prayer–especially ordered, disciplined, generous prayer like this–is the spine that allows us to act. I am grateful for the efforts of all those who minister in the world, but I am comforted no end by the notion that around the world, the work of intercessory prayer goes on unceasingly, and that in a noisy world (to the noise of which I add more than my share) there are places where silence is cultivated. That this understanding that prayer and prayerful people are the leaven of the world is found in so many traditions–the spinning of the Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel, the mystical Jewish teaching that there are 36 tzadikkim (or righteous ones) present in the world at any given time, keeping destruction at bay even though they aren’t aware of it–is fascinating. I don’t say that to be relativist, but to note that it seems to be an inbuilt human understanding that prayer may be the world’s most powerful energy source.

  2. Catherine says:

    Wonderful article. I can’t wait to read the book Judith Valente is writing. As for the value of silence, I remember my seventh grade teacher, an elderly nun, telling us of the importance of cultivating silence. That was in the pre-iPod era. She was ahead of her time.

  3. Judith Valente is also a profound poet and winner of numerous poetry honors. She has written alot about Catholic themes.

  4. I cannot wait to see the book! I was born and raised in Atchison, KS and went to grades schools run by these sisters and the college run by the sisters with their male counterparts as well. (Atchison is home to a Benedictine monastery for men as well as one for women). Sr. Thomasita is a wonderful woman!

  5. I grew up in Nortonville just 16 miles south. Sister Thomasita taught me in 6th grade at a little grade school in Nortonville where we lived only a half block from the school. My parents still live there. I took my family there a few years ago and she gave them a tour. I’m not sure she remembered me from that long ago but it is a special place.

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