If I am late coming to a review of Judith Valente’s new book — which is currently being featured in the Patheos Book Club, it is only because the pope keeps all of us very busy these days, and Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home and a Living Faith is too good for a slap-dash mention. After reading, it needed time for absorption, and even some revisits, to do it justice.
People are fast to make comparisons between Atchison Blue and Kathleen Norris’ beloved modern classic, The Cloister Walk, and it’s not unreasonable if they do. Both books are lyrical, poignant, and heart-achingly honest. Both concern a professional woman spending time among Benedictine monastics in the American mid-west, and re-discovering the power, beauty, and sanity that keeps monasticism alive when everything in our culture suggests it should have died out, by now. Both women have become Benedictine Oblates since discovering the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict and the way it manages to slowly, carefully upend one’s life — scraping off the rust “without breaking the vessel” and all while requiring “nothing harsh or burdensome” of anyone.
Where the two books differ greatly, is in the presentation of players. Perhaps because Norris was a non-Catholic coming into deep intimacy with both monasticism and Catholicism all at once, The Cloister Walk keeps the monastics she writes of relatively anonymous. Norris, a poet, in no way diminishes their influence upon her life, but the book is not really about them. Atchison Blue is not narrowly “about” the players, either but — perhaps because Valente is a trained journalist whose reflexive habit is to profile and present others — she details her Benedictine companions of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in affection and a bit of awe, and the reader begins to feel like an intimate, as well.
The book sucks you in like that. It is like a lighted candle placed between two friends, illuminating each so one may better appreciate and know them. It is very beautiful.
You get to know the Benedictine nuns of “The Mount”; the younger ones, the older ones, the tractor-driving ones, the mortician ones, the just-professing ones. My favorite of the sisters is Sister Lillian Harrington, the community’s “Pilgrim Minister” and story teller: her peaceful centeredness slips right off the page and into the reader’s central nervous system, and then — when one sees her photograph, deep in the book — one says, “oh yes, of course. That’s precisely what she would look like: grounded and plain and glowing like the sun.”
One of Sister Lillian’s stories really stayed with me, too — I hope I am allowed to share it here because I’m going to:
The Cracked Water Pot:
A water-bearer in India had to large pots. Each hung on the end of a pole, which he carried across his neck. One of the pots was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of a long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The other pot had a crack in it and arrived only half full.
For a full two years, this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and half pots of water to the master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. It succeeded at the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and considered it a bitter failure that it was able to accomplish only half of what it was created to do. In its embarrassment, the cracked pot spoke one day to the water bearer.
“I am ashamed of myself and want to apologize to you,” it said.
“Why?” asked the bearer. Of what are you ashamed?”
“I have been able for these past two years to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out.”
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and i his compassion, said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, ,the cracked pot noticed the sun warming several bright flowers. The sight of the flowers cheered the pot.
At the end of the trail, the water bearer asked the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, and not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted seeds on your side of the path, and every day when we walk back from the stream, you water them. For two years, I have been able to pick beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. If you were not the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
— Wisdom story as told by Sister Lillian Harrington, OSB
Valente’s emphasis in the book is on the practice of conversatio, the “constant turning” that is part of the vow — peculiar to Benedictines — of “conversion of manner” or of one’s way. Conversatio is one of those disciplines that constantly trips you up, because our need to turn, and to be open to change within ourselves, is ever-present. Each chapter of the book begins with one of Sister Lillian’s stories, and then steps right into Valente’s clear prose, and in the beginning that threw me off balance a bit; in the way of conversatio, it was a little disorienting, and I would check the pages to make sure I hadn’t missed a transition. But the disorientation is deliberate, I think; it reflects how disorienting it can be to slip away from the busyness and noise of our everyday lives and enter a cloistered silence, or that moment when one steps away from the desk and silences the cell phone, and is suddenly alone with the Alone.
The disorientation is not a bad thing at all; it simply tells you, for a second, that you and Toto are not in Kansas anymore.
Except of course, you still are. You’re just seeing it through a pane of glass the locals call “Atchison Blue.”
This video is about five or six years old, but you can meet some of the women in the book, here: