A Feature Review of
Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith
The stained-glass windows of the Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery chapel are a striking grey-blue. They were made in the mid-20th century by a German immigrant and artist who intended an altogether different shade of blue. But the fierce wind and sunshine of eastern Kansas bleached that color into “Atchison blue,” a shade of blue which “exists nowhere else” (2) according to author Judy Valente. (I wish I could find a photo of the color of these windows – I’ve looked online to no avail.)
The windows, of course, are a metaphor of Valente’s own journey with the monastery and also of Benedictine life. Benedictines make vows to conversatio morum: often translated as “conversion of life” or allowing the self to be changed over time by monastic life and the Holy Spirit. They also make a vow of stability, or a commitment to remain in one place and be committed to that place for their entire lives, no matter what. The stained glass of “the Mount” has gone through its own conversatio, shaped and transformed over time by its stability and steadfast exposure to Kansas weather!
Valente, a TV correspondent and poet, chronicles her journey of change and the fierce effects the Mount and its sisters have on her life. Their Benedictine values of conversatio, stability, humility, and silence are a shock and a relief to her harried soul, pummeled for so many years by the fast-paced competition of corporate television and media and bumps and disappointments from her experiences in Roman Catholic churches.
The bones of Valente’s book are the stories of her conversations and interactions with the sisters. She says, “With each sister I encounter at the Mount, I seem to discover another strand of conversatio” (31). She identifies almost all of them by full name (some changed), often age, and their role and work in the monastery. She often references her spiritual director, Sister Thomasita. She describes sisters who are former teachers, activists, and prioresses of the Mount, and sisters who now work as nurse, undertaker, retreat center director, vinedresser and editor of the journal Magistra, psychologist, maintenance director, and massage therapist. Her favorite seems to be Sister Lillian, a 90-year old nun who has become a storyteller and whose stories (spiritual fables from various traditions) make frequent appearances between chapters. All these sisters have stories to tell and wisdom to share. Even their varied work and hobbies, it seems to me, speak to Valente and us as readers that the work of God is not only in churches or retreat centers. Driving a tractor, fishing, or playing the violin can be holy, and even part of the work and ministry of a monastery.
Valente must make this discovery in her own life as well. She fears that many things in her life are somehow separate from God and the sacred. She has regrets and anxieties that frustrate and grieve her. She shares an ugly confrontation she had with a rigid producer that changed her career in a way she thought could never be mended; she confesses her quick temper and her fear of death; she describes her anxious and often angry struggle to form relationships with her adult stepdaughters. Her recounting of her relationships with her stepfamily are particularly vulnerable and painful to read. Valente describes two awkward Christmases, whether neither she nor her stepdaughters were well-behaved, and confesses harsh criticisms she has had for her husband and the way he handles his relationships with his daughters. Valente’s candor about her sinfulness was something I found refreshing in this book. As a result, her slow, halting steps toward conversatio feel hard-earned and real and not just spiritual idealism. There is a confessional quality in Valente’s account of Benedictine spirituality that I have not seen in the works of other Benedictine writers; for instance, the more famous Kathleen Norris or Esther de Waal.
This is very much a book of stories, both Valente’s and her dear Sister Lillian’s. Here we can see Valente’s journalism background at work. This journalistic quality is a strength of the book. She creates a window that allows us to see deeply into her life. The window she gives us into the monastery made me feel I knew it even better than the monastery where I’m becoming an oblate, a place I’ve been visiting for 15 years! Valente tells us she spends, on average, a week a month at the Mount, which certainly makes her a qualified correspondent. Her descriptions of personalities and major events in the community are broad-ranging, fun, poignant, and sometimes breath-taking: the death of an elderly sister, a past financial crisis, a sister’s relationship with Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa, a sister who brings her ailing, biological sister into the monastery to care for her, a passing tornado, and detailed descriptions of holy days like Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and Christmas. Admittedly, her stories and observations can drift toward the trite like an easy, cozy feature story on the 5 o’clock news. Finally, Sister Lillian’s stories were almost all ones I have heard before (as most wide-readers of Christian spirituality probably have) so it was hard to appreciate the special wit and wisdom Valente appreciates in her.