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Life is hard.
Life for Americans is not only hard, it is usually frantic.
We are frantic, almost driven, people. I did not realize this until I went to a country where people live by a different internal clock. The contrast was stunning.
Americans are certainly not the only people who race from deadline to goal to commitment to task. And we have a sense of self about how we do it that is our special grace among the driven places on this earth. But living here is a tough boogie.
Life is hard and it is fractured and in some ways desperate. Our nation is divided between the drop outs who just sit, and the doers who never sit at all. In both cases there is a kind of desperation and overwhelmed thing going on. In the case of the drop outs, overwhelmed is where they live and what they do. But for the doers, overwhelmed is the demon they fight every day.
Judy Valente, the author of Atchison Blue, is an overwhelmed fighter. She is an astonishingly high achiever who has managed to carve out a flourishing career for herself in two competitive worlds: free lance writing and human interest broadcast reporting.
Her private demons are a nagging dread of death and the great bugaboo of everyone; family problems. The major betrayal of her life was being laid off from her job at the Wall Street Journal the year after she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Based on what she writes in this book, losing this job was an earthquake for Ms Valente, a wake-up call about trusting career to be the all-in-all of life.
Her solution for her human woes is to seek the thing we lack in our American society: Wholeness.
It is a simple fact that the abundant life that Christ offers us is based on a spiritual and emotional wholeness that the larger society (any larger society) can never provide. Anyone who wants to be whole must find a way to retreat at intervals from the squabbling bitterness of our workaday lives. Without these retreats, we slide into a kind of fractured insanity without being aware of it. I see this insanity quite often in the exceedingly fractured world of politics. In fact, there was a time, back before Jesus rescued me, when I was pretty sick with it myself.
There is no permanent cure for this fractured-ness. It’s causes are so thoroughly woven into this fallen world and the way it treats people that no one anywhere can completely escape its pull. However, for overworked, over-stimulated Americans, it is particularly ubiquitous. We are a driven people. The fact that we in large part drive ourselves does not change this.
My retreat is simply going home. When I walk into my house and shut the door behind me, I leave the frantic outside world. Nobody inside those walls is going to attack me or betray me or go on the internet posting lies and accusations about me. Inside these walls, I am free of that.
Ms Valente sought something akin to this when she went to the Benedictine monastery, Mount Scholastica, in Atchison Kansas.
I’m beginning to think that monasticism is a particularly good fit for writers. After all, writers are already contemplatives by nature and avocation long before the monastery bug bites them.
For someone like Ms Valente, who is a poet and human observer writer, walking into the monastery must have been something akin to what I feel when I walk into my house. She must have known at some level that this was home.
Atchison Blue is a lovely book written by a journalist-poet whose writerly skills enable her to tell the story without letting the poetry overwhelm it and still keep the romance of the contemplative life in the midst of the story. It’s a delicate balance; the kind of writing that probably comes naturally to a journalist-poet.
Reading this book makes me want to pack my bags and head off to Atchison myself. I imagine it will do the same thing for many of its readers.
Love stories are like that. They make you want a love of our own.
In the final analysis, that’s what Atchison Blue is; the love story between one woman and monasticism. It is the tale of her homecoming to wholeness in the contemplative life at a Benedictine monastery.
The oblates of Mount Scholastica, Benedictine Monastery. Ms Valente is the one on the bottom right.