To join the discussion about Atchison Blue, or to order a copy, go here.
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.
Without retreats, stopping places, we become so fractured that the insanity of life becomes our own insanity.
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.
To buy A Season of Mystery or join the discussion about it go here.
A Season of Mystery is one woman’s approach to the pleasures and challenges of the last decades of life. The author, Paula Huston, is a Catholic convert who has been through a divorce, remarriage, raising a blended family and is now engaged in caring for her failing in-laws and mother.
She takes the reader through 10 times of life and discusses the spiritual dimensions of each of them in terms of the emotions and spiritual needs of the last half of our lives. She illustrates these 10 times of life and the life activitives she engaged in during them with her own spiritual practices.
Paula Huston is deeply attached to the contemplative side of Catholicism. Since she’s a writer, there does seem to be an obvious symmetry there. Her spiritual director, confessors, and most power spiritual friends are a group of monks who she evidently visits quite often.
Their quiet, reflective and indirect approach to thinking things through obviously has a great attraction for her. She relates stories about the monks, quotes the desert fathers and otherwise builds on them and their spirituality to make sense of the end years of life.
Her conclusion, that the goal of these last decades is to prepare us for the next life beyond death is a charming one with a lot of appeal and I think quite a bit of truth. However, I do tend to disagree with her a bit. I think all of life is a preparation for the next one, and at the same time, all of life, including the last years, has value in the here and now.
We are not here by accident and this life is not a way-station. It has meaning and purpose of its own. The last years of life are just as important as any other time we have.
But then, I’m not drawn to monasticism.
Ms Huston builds the book around 10 times in her own life from which she did things that she now sees as a sort of spiritual activity. For instance, when her children grew up and left home, she and her husband entered into what used to be called the “second honeymoon” and which she calls the “delighting.” It’s that easy time when you’re still young enough to enjoy life fully and suddenly free enough to do so. She calls it a “second adolescence.”
She goes through the times when maintaining what sounds like quite a lot of land and a house becomes too burdensome and she and her husband divest themselves of the things they acquired during their earlier years. She calls this “lightening.”
There are 10 such times in her life. Most people go through similar times in their lives, but I doubt if the situations fall into these exact patterns for everyone. Still, life has its seasons for all of us, and each season has its rewards and challenges.
The only way for anyone to meet these challenges is with God at their side. This book is written by a woman who infuses the times of her life with a monastic approach to God and who communicates that beautifully to the reader.
Even if monasticism and the desert fathers are not your way of walking with Christ, the book is still a thoughtful and enjoyable read.