Yesterday I overheard my colleague Shari describe our parish library to a prospective student as “one of the best theological libraries in Iowa.” That may be right. It also has amazing spiritual riches, like this book by the poet and journalist Judith Valente, Atchison Blue.
What will future generations think of today’s spiritual memoir? Henri Nouwen’s most popular books were of this form. I was first introduced in my late college days to Genesee Diary. The initial fascination was: I know that place! It’s where we students go on retreat. But Fr Nouwen was so flawed, silly and petty. I wanted to follow him, but I also recognized my own faults through his.
Before him was Thomas Merton, not quite so personal, but still chafing under abbots and wanting to be off to a hermitage.
One attraction is that so many of today’s spiritual guides are unedited by hagiographers. Petty intrusions on life pepper these books. Ms Valente is unseated by struggles with her family, with her anger, and with her demanding career. These spot the landscape and punctuate the narrative as she explores Benedictine monasticism and wrestles with the question: can one bring the monastery into the world?
This book gives another window into the heritage of Saint Benedict: community life, hospitality, and a way to God that has been traveled for fifteen centuries. The author finds the daughters of Benedict trusty guides. I think the reader could easily agree.
Near the end of her book, Ms Valente writes:
I used to think of monasteries as hopeless throwbacks to the past, a case of “let the last sister standing turn out the lights.” Now I see them as windows to the future, a future we desperately need in our society–one that stresses consensus over competition, simplicity over consumption, service over self-aggrandizement, quietude over constant chatter, community over individual gain. There will always be a place for monasteries, Thomas Merton once said, because the world will always need “signs of contradiction.”
Quite right. This is a great book to read, rich and surprising, and most of all, typical of Benedict: full of hospitality. It pulled me out of my doldrums this week. And whether you have great need or small, I think it will reward a thoughtful reader. It will challenge any seeking soul to ponder how to bring the monastery into the world. Through Saint Benedict and his 21st century daughter of lay life in the world, we are given a window here, and we can wonder.