Journalist finds spiritual home with Benedictine Sisters in Kansas
by Jessica Langdon
ATCHISON — Some people see life in black and white, others in shades of gray, and some through rose-colored glasses.
You might say Judith Valente views life through a lens of blue — “Atchison blue.”
The phrase describes the background color of the stained-glass windows over the chapel at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery.
The Kansas elements weathered the original blues over the decades into this unique shade of gray-blue.
“Atchison Blue” is also the title of Valente’s recently published book, which invites readers to experience monastic life through the moments and conversations she shared over several years with the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.
“You hear these stories all the time of people going to a place and it changes their lives,” said Valente, a journalist who covers the religion beat for “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” on PBS TV.
“That really happened to me at Mount St. Scholastica,” she said.
Valente first met the Sisters when she and her husband, Charles Reynard, presented a workshop on poetry and the soul in Atchison in 2007.
She had been invited by Sister Thomasita Homan, OSB, of the Mount, who had learned of her through her brother, Dick Homan.
Homan knew Valente through their shared time at The Washington Post and had recommended that his sister invite Valente to give a poetry workshop at the Mount.
And that’s how it all began.
The trip to Atchison, Valente recalls, fell during an exhausting stretch.
Valente and Reynard — a circuit court judge in Illinois — focused on their careers during the week and packed their weekends with poetry presentations.
“I wondered how I was going to speak to a retreat group later that day about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks,” Valente wrote in the book.
She visited the chapel, where her gaze fell onto a window image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms.
A few Latin words traveled straight to her soul.
“At all times, cultivate silence.”
“And it occurred to me I had really been living a paradox,” she said. “I had been talking and talking to help lead other people in a more contemplative life. What was missing in my own life were moments of silence.”
When her stay at the Mount wrapped up, she offered — not really envisioning a specific project — to return to the monastery to interview more Sisters and do some writing.
In 2008, as the Sisters started planning ahead for their community’s 150th anniversary celebration, they asked Valente if she was serious.
She was, and readily immersed herself in this centuries- old way of life, lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict.
Valente moved into the community for a week or two about once a month over the next three years.
“I was impressed by their love for community,” said Valente. “The love that they had for one another was very palpable.”
The Sisters kept to their daily routines of prayer and work, not altering a thing for their guest during her stay.
“She fit right in,” said Sister Thomasita. “I think a lot of things were a surprise to her — she had such a fast-paced life. . . . We slowed her down a bit.”
Valente found tremendous value in their simplicity, and now seeks to apply it to her everyday life.
“I grew up in an area that’s about as far from what Atchison, Kansas, is as can be,” said Valente.
Raised Catholic in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, she was used to a hectic pace.
Her career in journalism, which eventually landed her in Chicago — her first taste of the Midwest — brought more of the same.
“I slowly became aware there was a whole other Midwest out there that was not Chicago,” said Valente, who today resides in Chicago and Normal, Ill. “I really took to the Midwest — the bluffs and the plains and the rolling hills.”
And in Atchison, of all places, she fell in love with the community — and found a spiritual home.
She discovered the value of silence in a place where Sisters seemed to live out a maxim attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.”
The ease with which they carried out their days came in sharp contrast to her own angst-ridden journey, filled with worries about work, family and needing to be everything to everyone.
“They had a sense about them that everything was going to be OK, “ said Valente.
She sees prayer as the root of that.
“They’re pausing several times a day for prayer. And what are they praying? They’re praying the psalms,” she said. “It’s every emotion known to man.”
The Sisters’ prayers for everyone — the suffering, the war-torn, political leaders of every party — touched her deeply.
Everything about their lives emphasizes balance, she found, and their encouragement to stop working and enjoy leisure time seemed foreign at first to her work-focused mindset.
“I began to write up my own reactions to what the Sisters were telling me,” she said.
The insights wove their way into her life — whether she was dealing with a difficult relationship with a colleague or trying to connect with her adult stepdaughters.
“More and more I was thinking: This applies in my life, too,” said Valente.
Her reflections became the basis for her book.
The monastic spirituality emphasizes stability, listening, humility, simplicity, hospitality, prayer, praise and other values that can guide everyday life in today’s world, discovered Valente.
St. Benedict’s Rule reminded her to show respect first, and to listen to the youngest person.
And “day by day, remind yourself you are going to die,” reads the Rule of St. Benedict.
“That’s a very powerful thing,” said Valente. “You want to do things that will make you proud on your deathbed.”
Though death had always terrified her, Valente came to understand it differently during her time with the Sisters, especially through the way they lovingly tended to a Sister who was dying.
“The Sisters believe so greatly in eternal life,” said Valente. “They use an expression that the Sister has ‘entered eternity,’ and that’s a way I can look at it now.”
Valente came home to Atchison again this fall, this time as the featured presenter at the annual Fellin Lecture on Sept. 22.
The lecture coincided with the community’s yearlong 150th anniversary celebration, and the auditorium at Benedictine College was packed as she shared passages from “Atchison Blue.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” said Sister Thomasita.
But it won’t be Valente’s last trip to the historic town on the Missouri River.
Valente has become a lay Benedictine Oblate.
To her, the Sisters are now family — and they feel the same way.
“Judy was a special blessing to us,” said Sister Thomasita simply.