Atchison Blue (2013)

Judith Valentes’ Atchison Blue tells the story of her many visits to the Benedictine convent Mount St. Scholastica. The theme that holds the visits together is the notion of conversatio morum, conversion of life. She likens this to the process that made the windows in the Mount’s church Atchison blue—”the slow, steady process [of sunlight transforming] the choir chapel windows into their exceptional blue color” (6). One of the sisters describes it like this: “Conversatio…is a call listen carefully, to love deeply, and to be willing to change as needed….It’s like a constant conversation with life” (20). This means paying attention to each moment; “all we have left is now, and I want to make the most of it” (21).

When discussing community life, one sister explains what keeps them going through the hard times, and applies it for the non-monastic as well:

What gets confusing sometimes is that we think liking is the same thing as respecting or loving or caring. Well, no. Liking comes and goes fast. It’s a deeper relationship that says we’re in this together, and there is something bigger going on between us, whether that bigger thing is our life in the community or our marriage or the business relationship we have. We can disagree with one another and not see that as a total betrayal or as a chance to hack each other to pieces or view each other as a never-ending threat (29–30).

When reflecting on her tendency to over-work, Valentes recalls one sisters liberating advice: “Sometimes it’s enough just to live your life and love the people you love” (50).

During a Christmas homily, one of the sisters quoted Maria Boulding, who wrote, “If you are at times so weary and so involved in the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want God, yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life” (57).

When discussing speaking and silence, Sister Micaela “offers [Valentes] a three-fold standard to apply whenever I am about to speak. Is what I am about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” (62). Likewise, Sister Judith offers advice when discussing simplicity. “The questions we should be asking are, ‘Do I need this? Do I need it now? And do I need this much of it?'” (65).

And the convent’s vinedresser offers the advice succisa virescit, “Cut down, it will grow stronger.” Valentes relfects, “The grapevines offer their portion of conversatio” (66).

When discussing the author’s anger issues outside the monastery, Sister Thomasita says,

“When you see that anger is interfering with your life, that’s when it’s tie to start thinking differently. You have to make an intervention with your thoughts, and once that happens, your feelings will crossover too. The questions to ask yourself are ‘Where is this anger coming from? Is this anger helping me?'”

There’s no point in pretending the anger isn’t there, she says. That does more harm than good. “We only find our true self through radical self-honesty. That involves recognizing aspects of our character we may wish were different but accepting them anyway.” By accepting them, we befriend them. By befriending them, we can tame them, Sister Janelle contends. And in that lies hope of conversatio (112).

As the book draws to a close, Valentes writes,

I think of what the Desert Fathers said of the spiritual life. We are always beginners. We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise. Conversatio means continuing to show up for life—even when we’d rather not, even when we think we can’t.

Sister Thomasita once said something else to me about conversatio. “You are living conversatio,” she said, “Your struggle, that’s the conversatio.” And that has given me hope, hope that I don’t have to be at my best all the time. I just have to be human. I fall and I rise, I fall and I rise (167).

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