August 2020

Let your soul catch up with the rest of your life

One of the features of How to Live, a new book by Judith Valente, is her ability to articulate truths the reader has sensed but never encapsulated, writes Tracey Edstein.

The timing of my reading of How to Live could not have been more apt. It accompanied me on cold, grey days when diary entries were postponed or cancelled, only essential outings took place and there was plenty of time for reading and reflection. Yes, coronavirus days.

By the time you read this life may have changed, but read How to Live anyway! The title and Joan Chittister’s endorsement were all I needed to immerse myself in Judith Valente’s generous sharing of her exploration of the Benedictine Rule which has become so dear to her. I would have completed the book more quickly if I hadn’t had to keep stopping to record significant quotations in my commonplace book.

As I read, I felt that both Judith and Benedict were quickly becoming friends. There is so much that is wise, insightful and practical in the Rule, and Judith’s contemporary illustrations of its application, personally and professionally, bring it to life.

For example, she acknowledges, “Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of regularly stopping for prayer in the normal course of my day. Like most of us, I can’t live full-time in a monastery. But I know I need a daily rhythm to live in a more intentional way. The experience of the early desert monastics offers some comfort. Ensconced in huts or grottos without benefit of clocks or calendars, they didn’t follow the official liturgical seasons. They didn’t know if it was Lent or Ordinary Time… How then, did they do it? They wove their baskets and prayed. They ate their dinner and prayed. They meditated and prayed…” And so on.

The Benedictine motto is Ora et Labora. Pray and Work. It is a call for balance in a Western world that sorely needs balance, because after all, the work will never be finished. Judith admits her tendency to workaholism, and this admission is the beginning of a pendulum swing. She cites the familiar story of Mary and Martha and quotes Benedictine Sister Lillian Harrington, “If we are all Marys, we will never build the kingdom of God, and if we are all Marthas, we will never understand the kingdom of God.”

Judith’s chapter on leadership, or in Benedictine terms, ‘care of souls’ (changes everything, doesn’t it?), is salutary reading for bishops, parish priests, principals and diocesan and congregational executives as well as CEOs, GMs, PMs and anyone who has responsibility for others. “Whether one works in the business world, in education, politics, the not-for-profit sector, or as head of a monastery, a leader’s foremost concern is people. Or as Benedict puts it so beautifully, the care of souls.” Examples from Judith’s work life as a journalist demonstrate the consequences when this approach is adopted – and when it isn’t.  

Mount St Scholastica Monastery, Atchison, Kansas. Photographer: Kathy England.

A feature of How to Live is Judith’s ability to articulate truths the reader has sensed but never encapsulated. This was the case for me in the chapter titled, “The Guests at our Door: On Hospitality”. Here Judith concludes, “The more I think about hospitality, the more I realise that it isn’t only a matter of courtesy. It isn’t only what we do for others. There is such a thing as hospitality of mind. How open am I to new ways of thinking, new ideas that knock at the door of the mind?… Benedictine hospitality calls on me to question whether I am at home enough in my own beliefs to disagree with others without feeling betrayed by them.”       

I have an abiding interest in the troublesome notion of forgiveness and it’s hardly surprising that Benedict shares that interest. Life in a monastery surely requires much forgiveness! It’s part of the section of the Rule that Judith terms “relationship repair” and her words ring true: “What The Rule makes clear is that forgiveness is not a bolt of lightning in the night, it’s a slow, steady slog through sand. It’s why St Benedict was willing to forgive several times over… He kept the door open, not once, but three times, to anyone who left, then wanted to return. In my marriage, I’ve found the most powerful words aren’t ‘I love you.’ They’re ‘I’m sorry.’” 

Stained glass window of St Benedict. Image: Mount St Scholastica Monastery, Atchison, Kansas.

How to Live draws on the wisdom of a cornucopia of sources. Judith reminds her readers that “African tribesmen know the value of pausing. They stop often in their travels and sit quite still, listening to the beating of their hearts. They say they are trying to let their souls catch up with them on the journey. Sooner or later, we all need to let our souls catch up with the rest of our lives.” If you feel the need to let your soul catch up with the rest of your life, this engaging and charming book will set you on the right path.  

The message of How to Live is summed up in three words: “Now. Here. This.” For lovers of the God of the Gospels, it is that simple and that complicated. Live now. Live here. Live this life that is yours, not someone else’s. It will more than suffice.      

How to Live: What the Rule of St Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community, by Judith Valente, Hampton Roads Publishing, now available through Amazon and Audible

Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and editor based in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.