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Kansas Nuns Teach Journalist to Sit Still, Be Quiet, and Find Home

September 4, 2013

When Judith Valente, award-winning PBS religion journalist and celebrated poet, arrived at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Kansas, she came prepared to lead a workshop on poetry and the soul, but she faced a dilemma.

“I wondered how I was going to speak to a retreat group about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks.”

Valente was in a rough patch, both professionally and personally, when she began visiting “the Mount.” Her otherwise successful career was complicated by a difficult professional relationship. In her personal life, she confronted the complex terrain of forging a blended family. On top these challenges, she was increasingly haunted by a fear of dying with regrets. Valente soon found herself the student at the Mount, taking lessons from the Benedictine sisters in the healing nature of silence, the habits of mindful living, and the freeing realization that failure is just as much a part of the spiritual journey as success.

Atchison Blue maps her unlikely way forward: she went backward. By spending time with women often thought to be living in the past, Valente encountered a portal to the future and a healing balm for her soul in the present."I used to think of monastic life as a hopeless throwback to the past, a case of 'let the last monk or sister turn out the lights,'" Valente writes, "Now I look at it as the window to a future we so desperately need."

The way of life Valente encountered at the Mount was in stark contrast to her professional environment, where, as a journalist, she has a front-row seat to the tragedies, violence, and political rancor that plague American discourse. Valente’s sojourns with the sisters transformed her personal and professional lives and in studying Benedictine monasticism, Valente realized that this sixth-century way of life speaks directly to the problems facing twenty-first century people as they dash about with their smart phones. At the monastery, she entered a world that stresses:

• community over competition

• simplicity over consumption

• humility over self-aggrandizement

• silence over constant chatter

After her first visit to the Mount, Valente realized that something had shifted inside her: “It wasn’t as if the sisters had suddenly presented me with a neatly-wrapped gift box of answers. Rather, they seemed to draw out the inner questions I had silenced.”

Among women whose Christian witness has recently come under Vatican scrutiny, Valente was challenged to look beyond the obvious. She uncovered much-needed guidance for today’s world and a revitalized personal vision—a vision she imparts to readers facing similar challenges.

About Judith Valente

Judith Valente covers the religion beat for PBS-TV's national program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. Her reports have also appeared on The News Hour on PBS and on Chicago Public Radio and National Public Radio. She has worked as a news producer for WTTW/Chicago and is a former staff writer of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, where in 1992, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in in the feature writing category. She has won nine broadcast awards and was twice nominated for an Emmy.

Valente is a speaker, retreat leader, and the author of two collections of poetry. In 2004, she won the Aldrich Poetry Prize, which was judged by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. She is co-editor of the anthology Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul. She has been a frequent guest on WTTW's weekly program 30 Good Minutes to talk about monastic wisdom for the modern world. She recently became a Benedictine Oblate. Valente and her husband Judge Charles Reynard live in Chicago and Normal, IL.

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