At the intersection of reading and writing, in the spaces where listening, silence, prayer, and wonder happen–there is poetry. There, too, is where I find support for living as a Benedictine.
Some months ago I decided that my blog will focus on “Reading, Writing, and the Benedictine way of life.” Since then, I’ve been pondering what I want to write about the way I live now.
Judith Valente has made it easy for me. Her recently published How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community is a book I would like to give to everyone who cares to know more about why I choose to live as a Benedictine, and what that means.
This book defines and discusses the things that matter. It gives practical suggestions for making our busy, daily lives meaningful and joyful. “Community. Simplicity. Humility. Hospitality. Gratitude. Praise. These are the pillars of Benedictine spirituality,” Valente writes.
Last autumn at Saint Benedict’s Monastery, more than twenty nuns and oblates were working to beautify the woods. Judith Valente was on campus and joined our picnic lunch. I was in charge of preparing and cleaning up the meal, which meant I didn’t have the opportunity for the leisurely visit I wanted to have with this fellow poet/writer and Benedictine Oblate. In the five minutes I spent chatting with her, I recognized a kindred spirit. She had this book coming out in April, so I grabbed a card to remind myself to get a copy. It hoped it would substitute for the conversation I missed.
It isn’t enough to merely read How to Live. In this way it’s like the book it’s about, The Rule of Benedict. To gain wisdom, to apply “how” to actual living, it is necessary to turn ideas into practices. Then, over time, your understanding of what it’s really all about grows–but understanding is never complete.
I didn’t expect to give this book 5 stars on Goodreads, but I did! I’ve read a lot of books by Benedictines, and there came a point at which I started thinking, “How much more could there possibly be to say about a Rule that’s been around for more than 1500 years?” I’ve read the “major” contemporary Benedictine writers, those on the radar of many kinds of readers–Kathleen Norris, Esther de Waal, Joan Chittister, and Macrina Wiederkehr. There are also many “minor” writers. Mostly other Benedictines read them.
I tend to read books by “minor” Benedictine nuns, monks, and oblates out of a kind of commitment to the community. I expect to gain wisdom; but I don’t expect to encounter a book I will recommend to people who don’t call themselves Benedictine. These books tend to be too counter-cultural or other-worldly to suit the majority of my friends and relatives.
I read them because as Benedictines, we love and support one another even when we’re not amazingly accomplished or clever, and to read someone’s book is to make a statement that you care about what they think. We believe that everyone is important and should be patiently heard. In listening to one another, we always learn something. Spending time with a Benedictine nun, monk, or oblate is always good for me. And I’ve found the worldly distinctions of “major” and “minor” (as well as everything having to do with popularity) become irrelevant in the monastery.
A Benedictine doesn’t try to become “major.” It goes against the Benedictine practice of humility. But, for the sake of all the people whose lives could benefit from the application of the principles in Judith Valente’s How to Live, I hope this will become a major book by a major Benedictine writer.
Whether or not that happens, it’s a book I will return to, as I return to The Rule of Benedict and important commentaries on it, again and again, always as a beginner, listening to hear newfound wisdom for this day.
Here are five reasons I highly recommend How to Live by Judith Valente:
- How to Live by Judith Valente addresses the way average Americans live today, in the workaholic, perfectionistic world outside of monasteries;
- The writing is excellent. Judith Valente is a poet and award-winning journalist;
- It’s simple, uncomplicated, and understandable (which is not to say that it’s easy. The book challenges us to grow spiritually and morally, and that kind of growth requires purposefully diligence);
- It’s practical — each chapter ends with ideas for enriching true happiness, meaning, and community in our lives;
- It’s relevant for all people seeking a more meaningful life, not only for those who practice a Benedictine lifestyle.