Yellow and orange tulips alongside bed of white jonquils.
Yellow and orange tulips alongside bed of white jonquils.
Nature’s flourish of new life offers us a chance to reassess what is life-affirming for us and what we need to let go of. (Photo by J. Alden Marlatt)

The jonquils are popping up here in central Illinois. Their bent blossoms always remind me of monks in white cowls bowing their heads, their thin pointed leaves like fingers raised in prayer. Wild violets have spread across reviving fields, and tree buds are inching their way outward.

What seemed barren, even lost for dead during the winter, has come out on the other side surging with new life.

I’ve often thought April would be a better month than January to announce a new year. Spring always feels to me like a new beginning. I sometimes feel sorry for folks in…


Palm branch.
Palm branch.
(Photo courtesy of Ignatian Solidarity Network)

I never feel quite ready for all the emotions Palm Sunday stirs in me. This is the day people across the world recall the riveting story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his equally precipitous fall from that lofty moment into betrayal, crucifixion and death. Every year it seems to draw out a reaction.

Last year I saw Jesus’ suffering and death as a reflection of the isolation, uncertainty, and threat of death we faced as the COVID pandemic rampaged. Those who took ill or had lost loved ones were experiencing a personal Calvary. …


Blank sheet of paper on wooden table alongside a cup of coffee and some red berries.
Blank sheet of paper on wooden table alongside a cup of coffee and some red berries.
Are some lifestyle changes, some lessons we learned in the pandemic year worth keeping?

I had the privilege this week of guiding an online retreat on the topic of community, sponsored by St. Benedict Monastery in Bristow, VA. Several people shared that they are in no hurry to “get back to normal,” even as the country moves closer to reclaiming our former way of life. I was heartened. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

To be sure, climbing out of the pandemic is a good thing. As more people become fully vaccinated, fewer will lose their lives. Grandparents will be able to hug their grandchildren again, and friends will…


Catholic sisters speaking on Nuns on the Bus tour to draw attention to health care, housing, employment and other social needs.
Catholic sisters speaking on Nuns on the Bus tour to draw attention to health care, housing, employment and other social needs.
In recent years, Sister Simone Campbell, left, and other Catholic sisters have ridden across the country as part of the Nuns on the Bus tour to draw attention to health care, housing, employment and other social needs.

I often say I owe my career as a writer to my Catholic education. More accurately, though, I owe it to the Catholic Sisters who taught me. They inspired in me a lifelong love of language, challenged me to move beyond the confines of my upbringing, and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams.

As Catholic Sisters Week begins, I want to remember those Sisters. I’ll begin with Sister Helen Jean Everett, the Sister of Charity who taught Latin at my high school, the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City, NJ.

The Academy required us to study Latin…


Pair of open hands painted with map of the continents as doves fly above them in symbol of peace.
Pair of open hands painted with map of the continents as doves fly above them in symbol of peace.
Despite two decades of continuous war, some people of faith are still trying to stop the production of war weaponry and urge resolving conflicts through non-violence.

Every once in a while, an experience I have causes me to rethink whether I’ve wasted much of my life failing to do the one thing necessary. Such was the case recently as I listened to people who have spent their lives working to replace war with peace, resolve conflict with non-violence.

They spoke as part of an online retreat I attended called “Finding Hope in Turbulent Times,” co-sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action, the Sacred Heart Peace Community of Camden, NJ and the Catholic Non-Violence Initiative of Pax Christi USA.

“These were people who decided to do something…


Clay bowl filled with ashes and a cross made of palm, sitting on some green palm leaves.
Clay bowl filled with ashes and a cross made of palm, sitting on some green palm leaves.
Instead of the usual emphasis on penance, can we focus this Lent on cultivating joy? (Photo courtesy of catholic.org).

The liturgical season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. This period of prayer, penance and giving feels much different to me this year — and not only because the pandemic will prevent many of us from going into a church to receive the traditional forehead tracing of ashes.

Normally, I look forward to Lent. It’s as an opportunity to shake out the inner ashes that have accumulated in my heart over the course of a year. There’s meaning in having a designated time to examine our shortcomings and engage in some sort of penance.

I believe this year…


Gray stone inscribed with the words “Laughter is the best medicine.”
Gray stone inscribed with the words “Laughter is the best medicine.”
As pandemic burnout spreads, a good antidote is the ability to laugh at ourselves and find humor in our experiences. (Photo courtesy of viralrang.com).

When I wrote recently about poetry’s capacity to unite and to heal, I received an impassioned note from a friend whom I respect immensely who is an artist and deeply spiritual person. She said we don’t need more poetry right now. What we need is more laughter.

“Poetry is serious business, and I can’t do serious right now,” my friend wrote. “I need humor … I see the word [spiritual] retreat and that’s what it does to me — makes me retreat when I want to go forward and dance and smile again and even belly laugh.”

My friend has…


Page with words in a letter written in blue ink with pen on top of the letter.
Page with words in a letter written in blue ink with pen on top of the letter.
Writing and receiving letters, or reading the correspondence of history’s great letter-writers like Thomas Merton, can be an antidote to loneliness.

During our forced solitude this past year, letter-writing has enjoyed a much-deserved renaissance. Perhaps the next best thing to receiving a newsy, well-written letter from someone we know is to read the published correspondence of history’s great letter-writers.

I’ve spent the past months “receiving” letters from someone I can only wish I had met in person, the great spirituality writer Thomas Merton.

On January 31 — Merton’s 106th birthday — I’ll be reading from some of his letters at an online fundraising event for the International Thomas Merton Society.

Merton was one of the world’s most prolific letter writers. He…


Cup of tea beside two books open to poems surrounded by white daisies.
Cup of tea beside two books open to poems surrounded by white daisies.
Poetry clarifies our yearnings, defines our struggles and holds a mirror to ourselves. (Photo courtesy of stylist.co.uk)

After the trauma of 9/11, I had the chance to interview then-U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. He told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “At a time like this, no one asks what short story should I read or what film should I go see. They ask, ‘Do you have a poem?’”

Poetry’s capacity to reveal our yearnings, draw meaning from our struggles and hold a mirror to ourselves is among the reasons it endures. …


Choosing a word to guide us in the coming year can be a helpful spiritual practice. (Photo courtesy of EveryPixel).

Whenever I guide retreats, I always come away amazed by the profound insights I receive from the people who attend. That was the case again this past week at my online retreat, “Writing the Prologue to Your New Year.”

People joined from across the U.S. as well as Ireland, Peru and the Philippines. One of our tasks was to choose a word we’d like to use as our guiding star for the rest of the new year.

The practice comes from an ancient tradition among monks and religious women in the third and fourth centuries living in the Egyptian desert…

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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