Judith Valente, a resident of Normal, Illinois, is an award-winning author, journalist, and a sought-after speaker and retreat leader on contemplative life. She is also a lay associate of the Benedictine monastery Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas.
We met in 2013 when we began corresponding about her work on monastic life and Benedictine spirituality. Valente has also been a great supporter of my own creative endeavors. She served as a judge for my GunPlays competition and interviewed me for the Gunplays project back in 2014.
As the “When Faith Speaks” series has evolved, I reached out to Valente by phone to discuss her recent travels to Rome, the impact of global political tensions on Catholic communities, and to find out what her latest book How To Live: What The Role of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community might offer us in 2020.
Smile Politely: Remind me again, what kind of international conference did you attend in Italy?
Judith Valente: I was at a planning meeting for the International Congress of Benedictan Oblates. “Oblates” are essentially a fancy word for a lay (non-clergy) associate of monasteries, which are people who promise to live monastic values — listening, community building, consensus-building, hospitality, humility, prayer, praise — in our secular lives outside of the walls of the monastery.
So every four years, there is a congress in Rome that brings together oblates or lay associates from all over the world. I am on the planning committee for the next congress which is in 2020.
SP: Is the oblate community quite active in the U.S.?
JV: Yes, it is very vibrant in the U.S. to the point where in American monasteries, it’s not unusual to find only a dozen monks or 40-50 sisters, but that same monastery might have 300 lay associates.
SP: Wow, that’s amazing.
JV: Yes, oblates outnumbering vowed religious in monasteries is a major shift in the religious landscape for the first time in human history, and we are talking about 2000 years of church history!
SP: Do you feel that oblates outnumbering clergy is a positive development in Catholicism...or is it a commentary on the decline of religious orders in the church?
JV: The answer is “yes/and” (laughing). The positive thing is that increasing numbers of individuals who are considered oblates or lay associates in monasteries commit to taking the values of monastic life into the lives we live, into our workplace, to implement them within our family lives, neighborhoods, our communities. So that is an extremely positive development and it is a recognition of the enduring wisdom of the value of monastic life for clergy and lay practitioners.
Now, about the decline in monasteries, it is particularly acute in Europe where it is not unusual to be down to eight monks, eight vowed sisters in the monastery. Here in the U.S., we are not quite there. There are many monasteries that still have over a hundred monks or sisters living in monastic communities.
So what does that say? I think there is always going to be a place for monastic life for people who want to seek God alone with an undivided heart in their lives.
SP: In regard to the international oblate gathering, what were some of the issues being lifted up at this conference? Specifically, how is Brexit, rising extremism, anti-immigation sentiment that is again sweeping across Europe impacting oblates globally?
JV: Well, I think a lot of lay people are drawn to monasteries and the Benedictine way of life as an anecdote to just such societal pressures all over the world. I mean look at Italy. Up until August 2019, they had leadership that was was very anti-immigrant and putting an “Italy First” type of agenda out there and that attitude still exists in a lot of parts of Italy.
Furthermore, you look at what has happened in Germany with the rise of supremacists and Neo-Nazi Groups. You look at Hungary and Poland. Look at Austria electing right-leaning governments. This has also happened in France. I mean they have a right leaning anti-immigrant party that can take part in the next round of elections.
There is also a lot of labor turmoil in France and, of course, who do you blame? You blame the immigrant. You blame poor people as irrational as that may be. So many people see that the Benedictine response is so necessary to disrupt the extremism so prominent in our world right now."
In monastic communities, the most important thing about you was the day you came to the monastery; not how you were educated or how rich you are, not what class you came from. The door was open to peasants, to the children of peasants, to highly educated people, and to noble people. But once you crossed that threshold of the monastery, every person was equal and unequal in terms of the date that they arrived. Every person cleans the latrines. Every person helps serve food. Every person takes turns at the chores that need to be done, as the residents live by the labor of their own hands.
SP: You have talked about the vibrancy of the American oblate community. How do you negotiate our current political climate as an oblate? How do you pay attention to the ins and outs of our very fraught, divisive media landscape while walking in this contemplative calling?
JV: Actually, it is even more necessary to be a contemplative at this time, as I find myself glued to the impeachment hearings; checking my phone for new developments constantly.
But on the other hand, it reinforces to me how much we need monastic values in today’s world and how important it is to stress community over competition, consensus over consumption, and quietude over this constant bickering that is taking place. Somebody said to me that it is like the 2016 election unleashed a genie into our collective society allowing us to be our worst selves.
In our society, whether you are looking at the Democratic presidential debate or you are looking at impeachment hearings, there is constant bickering, and even the demonstrations and rallies happening in our communities are often very very ugly. So, I think we must take contemplative stances to counteract this.
How do you do this you ask in a practical way?
One of my friends is a great spirituality writer named Jim Forest who worked with Dorothy Day, the great social activist, that founded The Catholic Worker. Jim always reminds me to “be an island of peace” wherever you go.
SP: Hmmmm...alright! How does one do this exactly?
JV: To me, that means “random acts of kindness...simple ways that you can counteract ugly energy that has been released. A couple of little things I do that probably don’t amount to much, but if I see a woman walking on the street or supermarket with a Muslim hijab or burka, I try to smile. I do that because I think it takes a heck of a lot of courage to walk around in these garments in our crazy American culture right now. I try to be very respectful when I am interacting with people of color, especially people who may be immigrants, because it has been horribly unjust how they have been portrayed.
I've been a journalist most of my career, so i’ve had to refrain from overt political activities. But the other day, now that I am just writing books and not working as a journalist anymore, I stumbled upon a rally to protest the detention of children at the border and to defend the imprisonment of children at the border. I found myself drawn to this little protest in my little town of Normal, Illinois in the town circle shouting “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” on behalf of those children and families.
Little things like that Dorothy Day would call “ the small decencies” that create a little ripple that become a giant wave.
SP: In addition to discussing Benedictine spirituality in these times, I wanted the opportunity to discuss your book, How To Live: What The Rule of St. Benedict Teaching Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community.
Now, my copy of the book is marked up, scrawled all over, passages circled, underlined, arrows pointing to certain paragraphs. This book resonated with me, but also challenged me a lot. Was that your intention in writing the book?
JV: I wanted to introduce people to the key values of Benedictine life: listening, community building, consensus-building, hospitality, humility, prayer, praise. And whereas, the Benedictine rule is an extremely slim text — only about 76 pages total — I know it can be difficult to read without a guide of some kind. So, I hoped this book would be a useful guide.
SP: The book is also very personal, and you share your own struggles with relationships ( your brother), fears (of death and dying), moments when you have been frustrated with others (that bus trip) or overlooked others (the janitor at work) or been slow to let go of certain material thing (your parent’s car). Reading about your struggles made me feel like I don’t have to be perfect to walk the contemplative path.
JV: I felt that I needed to include my own struggles and vulnerabilities. Otherwise, what would this book be worth? Sharing these struggles is related to an idea within Benedictine spirituality called “conversatio” or the continuous turning toward God as we struggle with our own demons.
As Benedictines, we believe that our spiritual lives are not “lightening bolt revelations” where we achieve some kind of nirvana in an instant. We believe that our spirituality is like water etching against the shore line...that ultimately keeps wearing away at the shore until it changes the shoreline. Our spirituality is that etching water and we human beings are the shoreline.
I am from a long line of very generous, but volatile people. I am not just Italian, but I am Sicillian. So, back to my great grandparents were are known as a people who get angry...we get deeply angry with ourselves and with others.
What I have realized is that I have to take a step back and understand that my anger is part of my conversatio...part of my struggle.
SP: When I began reading the book I was like yep, I got it: gratitude over grace, praise each day, protect the common good and well-being will follow, GOT IT.
But how is any of this going to help me deal with big, macro, social issues like cable news, the debates, or the 2020 elections?
And yet, the more I read the book, the more I noticed the reminders in the book seeping into MY daily attitudes and MY habits.
My 80-something year old mom lives with our family now and sometimes it is very challenging to deal with someone struggling with memory loss and vision challenges and who needs lots of assistance. One recent Saturday afternoon, Mom came down the stairs and was asking me for help with something for the zillionth time and, instead of venting my frustration or lashing out at her, I recalled your discussion of the part of the rule that reminds us that children and the elderly do not have the same strength or energy to contribute to daily duties and therefore have to be met with more patience and compassion. So, when my mom asked me for help, I just responded to her and did the task without drama or blame.
On another occasion, I remembered you speaking about how you noticed the sky on the way to morning prayer. On this particular morning, I dropped my daughter at school and was on my way home and I noticed the morning Champaign-Urbana sky and it was as beautiful as I had ever seen it. I pulled out my phone to snap a few photos of this amazing sky.
Photo by Nicole Anderson-Cobb
And I laughed thinking...Oh, Judith and The Rule got me again...as I found myself appreciating the small but amazing example of the daily gifts of God to us.
Is that what being an everyday contemplative more and more means? More awareness and restraint?
JV: Too often people believe that to be an everyday contemplative does means you have to move into a monastery. But this is not what I mean. To be an everyday contemplative is to do a couple of things.
It is to adopt an attitude of wonder. It is to allow yourself to be amazed and available to the small miracles around us all the time.
Often I am up before dawn and can see when daylight occurs. What a miracle that is! What a gift. So it is to live with a sense of wonder.
Secondly, it is to live with humility. And this does not mean that we live with a sense of humiliation. But it is to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. To acknowledge that we are all a spark of The Divine and we are all in this. I like to say often: “God is God and we are not.” This helps one maintain humility and the loss of control in our lives...no more than you can control you mom’s aging.
The final characteristic of an everyday contemplative is awareness. Try to be attuned and really listen to people around you, and being truly present for them and not just waiting for your opportunity to jump in and share your comment.
These are all simple practices...all that must be steeped in a prayer life. And I admit I have trouble focusing on prayer...focusing in prayer...and my mind jumps around a lot. But at least I try to take quiet time out of the day to have moments of silence...periodic pauses...prayer pauses.
Judith Valente has been a senior correspondent for WGLT Radio, an NPR affiliate in Normal, Illinois. She has written for U.S. Catholic, National Catholic Reporter, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and appeared on Chicago Public Radio and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on national PBS-TV.
Valente is hosting a March 2020 retreat “Building A Monastery Of The Heart” at the Chiara Center in Springfield. You can find out more here.
Top photo by Carleigh Gray