Messy Life, a Monastery, and the Color Blue: Reading Atchison Blue

When it arrived, I thought it had a pretty cover. And then, given the pile on my recently-downsized-but-still-daunting to-review shelf, I promptly put it on my giveaway shelf.

And then my fine contact at the Patheos Book Club showed up in my inbox.

So here I am, having read the book with the pretty cover.

cover-atchisonblue

And it was a complete surprise to me. A whap-to-the-side-of-the-head walloping shocker. Why? I’m not completely sure, but the surprise was delightful and refreshing. It’s good writing, for one thing, and it’s also honest in a way that I appreciated. So much of Valente’s story and struggles resonated with me.

Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith, by award-winning PBS correspondent Judith Valente, is, at heart, a story well-told. It’s a story of struggle, of questioning, of seeking. It’s a tale of lost and found, with a Benedictine monastery at the center.

I find myself with a growing curiosity of monasteries. I’m tempted to ask what you do in a monastery, but I suppose that’s like my family member asking what I do all day.

Maybe, I write after reading this rather remarkable book, it’s not about what you do, anyway. Maybe I have my focus shifted slightly the wrong way.

I haven’t figured out how Valente spent so much time with the sisters at the Mount St. Scholastica monastery, but I’m glad she did, and I’m glad her journalistic training prepared her to capture it to share with me.

[Sister Thomasita] explains that conversatio morum refers to a vow specific to Benedictines. Its most common translation is, “conversion of life.” “Conversatio,” she says, “is with us day in and day out. It is only possible with careful listening and profound love—God’s love and ours for one another.”

I don’t quite get what this means, but then she tells me something I can grasp. “Conversatio also applies to people outside of monastic life, whether married or single. It’s a call to listen carefully, to love deeply, and to be willing to change as needed.” Almost as an afterthought she adds, “It’s a constant conversation with life.” I find myself returning to her afterthought even more than her definition.

This book spoke to my heart and applied to my experience. Valente faces a challenge, and the challenge is life. She carries a burden, and the burden is hurt. She seeks a solution, and the solution is Jesus.

Atchison Blue is part memoir, part guidebook, part something I don’t know how to name. It explores difficult questions of faith and hard experiences of life. It’s raw and gritty and fun to read, somehow. There’s laughter, but there are tears, too.

[T]he next morning’s gospel reading is the familiar story of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary announcing the coming birth of the Christ Child. I’ve often wondered how Mary remains so sanguine. Though she witnesses life-shattering events, she seems to barely lift an eyebrow. Sometimes I wish Mary would show a little more fight. I want her to talk back to the angel and say, “Give me a break!” I want her to get angry with Joseph for taking her on a trip when she’s nine months pregnant and then not planning ahead for lodging. I’d even argue that on the afternoon of the Crucifixion, she would have been within her rights to express what St. Benedict calls “the wicked zeal of bitterness,” maybe establishing a protest group such as MACC (Mothers Against Criminal Crucifixion). Instead, we read about a woman who ponders the incomprehensible in her heart, who says, “I am the handmaid of the Lord…May it be done to me according to your will.” It would hardly have been my reaction.

But what strikes me most in hearing this familiar gospel once again is that the angel doesn’t come when Mary is cooking or washing clothes or working in the fields or even praying. He comes when she is apparently doing nothing in particular. She’s at leisure.

Highly recommended. It’s a book that I’ll reread and reference, because it’s full of gems.

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