Interview with poet and PBS journalist Judith Valente

Overworked? Overwhelmed?

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Overall, you need Judith Valente.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, my own long career has been blessed by working with other journalists around the world. I have known Judith for decades and she was among our first author interviews when we founded ReadTheSpirit magazine in 2007. At that time, we were recommending her book Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul.

You may feel that you know Judith, already, because of her many appearances as a journalist on PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly and because of her occasional NPR stories that reach a national radio audience.

Today, we are talking with Judith about two new books, perfect for the depths of mid-winter. In them, Judith writes from two perspectives about finding peace in the midst of a chaotic world. The books’ titles capture these themes. The first is, Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith. The second is, The Art of Pausing.

AND—Don’t miss the links at the end of this interview, which point to two inspiring columns about steps you can take to find greater peace in your life.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JUDITH VALENTE

DAVID: Let’s start with the dramatic scene that opens Atchison Blue: your first morning at the Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. You arrive as a polished, veteran journalist and speaker, who the sisters have brought in as a teacher. Yet, you find yourself overwhelmed.

JUDITH: I went to the monastery in 2007 to give a presentation on poetry and the soul, both at the retreat center the monastery operates and at a Benedictine college down the road. But, I was arriving at the monastery during a very hectic period in my life. I was working so hard and doing so many things that, when I arrived, I realize now that I was exhausted—mentally, physically and emotionally. On the morning I was supposed to start speaking to this retreat group, I went into the chapel alone and just sat there surrounded by these beautiful blue windows. I wondered how I was going to stand up and tell people about nourishing their souls when I hadn’t nourished my own soul in weeks.

In the chapel is an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms and the words, “Omni tempore silentio debent studere,” or “At all times, cultivate silence.”

The paradox I had been living stared me in the face: I had been traveling across the country and talking to people over and over again about the need to cultivate a contemplative life—without making time to develop my own interior life.

Something very strange happened at that moment. I began to weep. That is totally out of character for me. I don’t do that. And, in that moment, I realized: This monastery has a way of reaching out to me that I can’t get from the self-help books lining the shelves at Barnes & Noble that argue we can have it all if we just keep charging forward. As a result, I began working on these new books about how important it is to cultivate silence, or pausing, to nourish the contemplative side of life.

DAVID: I’ve known you for years and you are the very definition of a senior journalist: smart, self-assured and articulate. It’s a remarkable image to think of you sitting in this chapel, weeping. As our readers are thinking about this interview, they probably can envision a moment when they were trying to keep their own self-assured world together—and things just overwhelmed them.

JUDITH: That was a huge moment for me as a woman and as a journalist. I’ve always understood that we must keep our emotions in check. What I discovered in the monastery was that the women living there were not afraid to be vulnerable. They have almost zero façade in their lives. Here I was: a journalist who is used to meeting people every day and trying to spin whatever they’re telling you into a good story. Suddenly, I was surrounded by women who have no spin. They’re completely open about their own flaws and shortcomings.

DAVID: We meet some of them in this book.

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

JUDITH: Yes, I write about an early encounter with sister Lillian Harrington, this 90-year-old sister who was so honest with me about her own life. She understood that she was talking to me, a journalist, and yet she didn’t hesitate to say that she had misgivings about her choice of a religious life. She doesn’t always find it easy to believe there is a life after death, she told me. We can’t be sure of it, she said. She was so open that I found this refreshing. That honesty opened the curtain for me to be a little more vulnerable myself. I was not prepared to be so deeply moved both by the stories that the sisters told and the lives they lived.

DAVID: Readers will find themselves swept into the pages of Atchison Blue, I think, by just this kind of story. And, along with our interview, we also will publish that column you’ve written about your visit to the monastery and 10 insights to ponder about finding peace in one’s life.

JUDITH: Here’s something that isn’t in the book, which we had to cut out to make the book a manageable length. I spent time with one sister who had been a well-respected part of the community for many years: Sister Loretta Schirmer. She had held a number of leadership positions and, at one point, I went into her room to talk with her. She was nonchalant and almost dry in her recitation of all the positions she had held over the years.

Then, she began talking about working as a seamstress and that, very late in life, she was now helping her community by sewing and repairing altar cloths and garments for the sisters. As she talked about this work, she began to cry. “My sewing is the one thing I have left that I can give to my community,” she said.

And, I began to cry, too. At that point she was 87 and was still determined to serve her community. I remember the tears were just streaming down my face. That was totally unprofessional to be crying like that, while I was talking to her as a journalist. Yet, I was just moved to tears by this women who had held so many very important positions over the years—and, yet, even at the point in life when I met her, she still was focusing her life on service, the service she could still provide.

DAVID: I just typed her name into Google and we’ll share a link to her obituary with our readers. Sister Loretta died in May, 2013.

A TIME-TESTED SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE

DAVID: You explain in Atchison Blue that the whole culture of these communities dates back many, many centuries. We really are reaching back to the early men and women who went out into the desert to achieve more spiritual focus in their communities. In other words, this isn’t some kind of new spiritual technique you’re teaching.

JUDITH: That’s right, this isn’t some new-wave-voodoo we’re discovering. This really is the art of our faith that dates back to within a few hundred years of Jesus living on this earth. Monastic life was a reaction against the codification of Christianity by the state. These desert fathers and mothers were trying to get back to what was essential in Christ’s message: service, prayer, praise, and simplicity. This is what Jesus emulated in his time on earth and they were trying to remove themselves from the system that was emerging as the state, the Roman Empire, legitimized Christianity.

DAVID: It’s rather surprising to many people to discover that these communities have survived—and many are thriving—all over the U.S. They’re in other parts of the world, too. Most of us have simply overlooked them.

JUDITH: I would put it more strongly: Monasteries are the best open secret in our world. They’re right there, yet many people do overlook them. Or, people may be aware of them, but may think that these are people who want to be completely removed from the world.

In fact, hospitality toward strangers is a major monastic value. People can go to virtually any monastery in America as a guest. Try it. Ask to stay there as a guest for a few days, or even a few weeks. You can participate in the prayer life of the community, the Liturgy of the Hours. This is even true at Trappist monasteries, some of the most cloistered monasteries. And, of course, most monasteries welcome people as volunteers for short periods and even for long periods.

THE ART OF PAUSING
SHARING PRAYERS IN HAIKU

Click on the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: This leads me to your other book, The Art of Pausing. If Atchison Blue is an introduction to the whole idea of visiting monasteries—then The Art of Pausing is more like a little spiritual toolkit to tuck into your bag as you go about a busy day. Is that fair to say, do you think?

JUDITH: Yes. As a really busy person myself, I saw the need for people like me to have a little book we can carry around to read bite-sized bits of contemplation in the middle of our jam-packed days.

DAVID: You say “bite-sized.” We should explain that the book’s format is a short haiku on the left-hand page, matched with a short meditation in prose. The titles of each two-page set is an attribute of God. This idea cuts across religious boundaries. For example, Muslim devotions revolve around the 99 Names (or attributes) of God.

Some of your titles are God, the Straightener; God, the Protector; God, the Unity; God, the Patient; and God, the Opener.

JUDITH: I am a poet, but it takes a long time to write a good poem. There are poems I’ve worked on for more than a year and I’m still not satisfied with them. But I can write a Haiku every day. So, in working on this book, each day I would pause for a short period of time; I would try to connect in a deeper way with the world around me, and I would write these three lines of a haiku.

DAVID: Tell a little bit about how this idea took hold.

JUDITH: As a reporter, I was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemane to do a news segment on the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. I was introduced to Brother Paul Quenon who also happens to be a poet. He had known Merton. He told me that one of the things he does as part of his daily practice is to write a three-line haiku. After meeting him, I asked if we could exchange haikus; and he thought that was a fabulous idea. So, we would send each other our daily haiku.

The two books actually are interrelated. While I was with the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica, at lunchtime they would begin eating with a reading from what they called the Book of Days. Each one was a couple of lines from scripture and a brief reflection on it. This was just enough—a moment of contemplation—in the middle of each day.

That’s where I got the idea that we should put a haiku together with a brief reflection and, with Brother Paul Quenon, we finished this book for busy people who need a way to offer just a moment of contemplation in their otherwise hectic day.

You’d be surprised how many people are telling me that this book inspired them to try writing a Haiku every day!

DAVID: It’s a form of poetry with a mixed heritage. Students in school are assigned to write them by their teachers. Sometimes, I think, people wind up pretty skeptical of this form of poetry. But, I like the form. In fact, I’ve taught workshops for journalists on long-form writing that start with assigning each writer to summarize his or her project in a haiku. If they can accomplish that, then the long-form prose they are writing flows naturally from a central focus.

JUDITH: As ancient as haiku is—it’s a perfect art form for the Twitter generation. There are a lot of people who’ve contacted me through Facebook just so they can send me their haiku.

I’m very pleased to see this catch on—and it’s a point I make in the introduction to the book. We hope people will start writing these little three-line holy sentences everyday and will begin to exchange them. We hope people will find a friend who also likes the idea. If you don’t know each other very well, you will after the daily haikus go back and forth.

SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES FOR THE FUTURE

DAVID: I find both of these books inspiring, because they demonstrate the vitality of monastic wisdom for our contemporary world.

JUDITH: That’s something I hope more people will understand. And I admit that I used to think of monastic living as a throwback. It was like: “Will the last living monk turn out the lights.”

Now, I look at this wisdom and these experiences as a light into the future. These men and women represent a window into values we desperately need in our society. They emphasize community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over consumption—and silence over the constant nattering that surrounds us today.

DAVID: Let’s close with another example.

JUDITH: Here’s one I can share: There’s this little saying I learned at the monastery: Before I begin speaking, I ask myself three questions. Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? And, is it necessary?

Now, when you start applying that standard to what comes out of your mouth, you’re going to be a lot more quiet than you might have been.

And here’s another one: They don’t do this anymore, but for decades the sisters had a practice whenever two or more sisters were assigned to perform a task. They would bow to each other and say: “Have patience with me.”

I’ve often mused on how much more pleasant my work would be if, before I start an assignment, I bow to the producer, to the audio technicians and to each person I encounter and ask, “Have patience with me.”

That’s such a counter-cultural idea, yet it is so central to monastic communities to see and to honor the sacredness in the other person.

DAVID: And that’s a perfect sign that I should stop asking you questions and recommend that our readers learn more from your wonderful new books Judith. Plus, you’ve sent us a column that shares even more of these insights about finding peace. So, let’s move right to the next links …

Care to read more?

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

GET THE BOOKS! Click on either of the book covers shown with today’s story—or there are text links to Amazon in the introduction to today’s interview.

JUDITH’S REPORTING: Make a point of finding and watching PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly. In addition, Judith works both regionally for public radio and occasionally you will hear her reports on NPR stations nationwide.

CONTACT JUDITH: Her personal website, www.JudithValente.com, has more information about her books, the events where she appears, and also contains further information about contacting her and following her on Facebook.

PLEASE SHARE THIS INTERVIEW WITH FRIENDS: Click on the blue-“f” Facebook buttons or the small envelope-shaped icons to share the news about Judith Valente and her work with others.

Looking for renewal close to home?

FROM JUDITH VALENTE: We’re very pleased to share a special column by Judith Valente, today, that describe 10 Steps Toward Peace that you may want to ponder in your own life, this year.

FROM CINDY LaFERLE: This week, we also are publishing a column by author Cindy LaFerle about a simple solution she has found to making retreats a more regular part of her life, each year.

(This interview was originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Comments

  1. Geri Larkin says:

    Wow, wow, wow, what a wonderful person and interview. Thank you. The questions Judith learned about asking oneself before speaking reflect a teaching of Buddha’s as well. Apparently he taught his monks to ask themselves if their words were kind, true and necessary, mostly in the sense of being timely. Plus: if I wasn’t too old and chicken to get a tattoo I would absolutely get, “Please have patience with me” inked onto a forearm.

  2. Ruth Everhart says:

    Love the interview, David and Judy! I purchased both books, read them, loved them! I think you hit a lot of the high points here.

  3. Linda Herndon, OSB says:

    Judith, thank you for your kind words about our community of Mount St. Scholastica. We’re glad you found S. Loretta’s obituary to share here, too.