When television reporter Judith Valente first arrived at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas, she expected to give a talk at the retreat center and return home to Illinois. She had no idea she was in for a life-changing experience. But the stained-glass atmosphere and community of Catholic nuns awakened in her deeper longings for calm, peace, and freedom from fear of death. The nuns longed to know her better, too--not merely as a hired speaker, but as a fellow seeker of God. Within weeks, this contributing correspondent for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly had a new status at the Mount: pilgrim. From 2008 to 2011, she made the six-hour interstate drive from Illinois on a monthly basis, each time spending several days wrapped in the sisters’ prayer, love, and silence. In 2011, Valente began writing a memoir about how the experience impacted her on a soul level. The result is Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home and a Living Faith (Sorin Books, Sept.). This year, Valente became a Mount St. Scholastica oblate, a lay associate who’s taken vows to live by the Rule of St. Benedict, the fifth-century monk who founded the Order of St. Benedict.
When you began pilgrimaging to the Mount, did you have a particular goal in mind?
The hospitality at Mount St. Scholastica is palpable from the minute you walk in the door. I became enthralled with these particular sisters. What was it that made them love life so much and seem to be living life so fully? That caused me to ask if I could come back after my presentations were over.
How are you a changed person as a result of your experiences at the Mount?
I’m much more aware of my own flaws. I’m a very impatient, sometimes high-strung, often excitable human being. What the monastery helped me see is that I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be human, to be aware that that’s my nature. If I lose my temper now, it’s a very short time before I apologize and go back and try to heal the damages.
You write about living every day according to St. Benedict’s Rule, which says, “At all times, cultivate silence,” and speak only when the message is “true, kind and necessary.” Is that really possible on your job?
It’s very countercultural. Society tells us to let it all hang out, and if you’re not constantly venting, then you’re repressed. St. Benedict turns all that on its head and talks about “esteem for silence.” He says, “Listen with the ear of the heart.” It’s the person who helps arrive at consensus who is the real leader.
People get rewarded with attention online, on TV, and with book sales when they’re constantly talking and shouting over one another. How do you get them to follow St. Benedict’s Rule when they’re being rewarded for defying it?
We need to stop rewarding that behavior because it’s getting us nowhere. A perfect example is the shutdown of the government in October. St. Benedict in the rule talks about how much energy is expended on grumbling and murmuring. If we expended that same energy in trying to build up consensus rather than conflict, think of how much more quickly we’d progress.
How do people learn this way of St. Benedict, in which individuals subordinate self-interest for the good of the whole?
At the basis of Benedictine spirituality is the belief that there is enough for everybody. We don’t have to guard what we have so jealously and zealously that we have to take away from our brother or not give to our brother. There’s enough to go around, but we seem to have gotten away from that concept in our country.