On The Importance Of Pausing

Judith Valente
5 min readApr 14, 2024
An empty wooden bench surrounded by three short trees sits on a ledge of soil overlooking a body of water.
Sometimes the most productive activity we can do is to be still. (Photo by J. Alden Marlatt)

Benedictine Sister Mary Lou Kownacki was a gifted spirituality author, editor and poet who ruminated on life in her always engaging “Old Monk” columns for the MonasteriesoftheHeart.com website. After she entered hospice care for a rare cancer, she wrote something in one of her columns that I have never forgotten.

“One thing that has brought immeasurable joy is I have much more time now to stare out the window,” Sister Mary Lou wrote.

“I pull open the shade of my living room window, a very large window, that looks out onto a dozen cosmos that line my patio backyard. It would be enough to watch these pink, purple and white flowers sway in the breeze and be content for three or four hours. But this month four wild canaries have visited. They flit in and out of the cosmos, singing a happy tune after munching on tiny seeds. They do it over and over.”

Sister Mary Lou continued, “Every day I sit mesmerized, a smile on my face. Maybe my purposeless wild cosmos and canaries get it. We’re here for play, for wonder, for awe and mystery.”

Sister Mary Lou died of cancer at her monastery in Erie, PA last year on the Feast of the Epiphany.

There was a time in my life when I felt I had to do everything quickly. I walked fast, ate fast, worked fast. I wanted to make my mark on life … quickly. I felt time would overtake me if I didn’t run faster than it did.

Now that I’m older, days, months, and years seem to whip past at racecar speed (my gosh, a quarter of this year is already over!). But now I do the opposite of running. I intentionally build pauses into my day. By this I mean taking time to sit still and stare out a window, practicing what Italians call il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

This in itself is a form of activity, one especially vital in spring when seemingly in the blink of any eye, pink blossoms might appear on what yesterday were the bare branches of a redbud tree. A patch of tulips or jonquils might pop open overnight. Look away and you’ll miss it.

A simple little poem by A.R. Ammons — interestingly enough called “Eyesight” — describes the consequences for such inattentiveness.

It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see …

April is National Poetry month and this past weekend, I had the privilege of guiding a mini-retreat on writing poetry as a spiritual practice for a group from St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Inverness, CA. I was joined by Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani, my co-author on the book The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.

For years, Brother Paul and I exchanged a haiku a day — a three-line Japanese poem of 17 syllables. Our haiku exchange, along with short, three-paragraph meditations we wrote to go with them, became The Art of Pausing. Looking around, listening for what would become my three lines of poetry for the day allowed me to experience at least a few brief moments of stillness and silence in my otherwise hectic life.

Cover of the book, “The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed” with image of a cracked slab of ice.
This book of three-line poems and daily meditations by Judith Valente, Paul Quenon, OCSO and Michael Bever showed the importance of haiku writing as a contemplative practice.

Haiku writer Beth Kempton calls haiku “heart-beat sized poems.” As Brother Paul told the poetry group from St. Columba’s, writing down even three lines each day is like asking, “What is the gift of today? What is sharing itself in the present moment?”

If writing even three lines of poetry a day seems too intimidating, another resourceful way to pause is to read a poem each day. Reading a daily poem has kept me from despair over these past several months with so much death and destruction happening in the world and all the vitriol infusing our upcoming presidential election.

In a recent opinion piece on National Poetry Month in The New York Times, Margaret Renkl writes, “A poem is built of rests. Each line break and caesura represent a pause, and in that pause, there is room to take a breath. To ponder, to sit, for once in our lives, with mystery. If we can’t find a way to slow down on our own, poems can teach us.”

This weekend I have a great deal of work I’d like to finish, not the least of which is preparing for another “Art of Pausing” retreat I will guide on May 4 in Reno, Nevada. Still, I’m planning to take a two-hour pause to walk through a nearby nature preserve with some friends looking for spring flowers. It’s part of my promise to myself to take more intentional pauses.

Essayist and novelist Pico Iyer writes, “The best way I could develop more attentive and appreciative eyes was oddly enough by going nowhere, by just sitting still … Sitting still is how many of us get what we crave and need most, a break.”

This spring, can we slow down long enough to write three simple lines each day about some moment of beauty or transcendence we’ve experienced? Like Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, can we pause to watch a bed of flowers sway in the wind, listen to birds singing, and call that time holy?

As Sister Mary Lou reminds, we are made for play, for wonder, for awe and mystery.

Benedictine Sister Mary Lou Kownacki (right), poet and haiku master, holds up book she edited of writings by author Joan Chittister (left).
Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, right, holds up book she edited of the writings of Sister Joan Chittister, left. “We’re here for play, for wonder, for awe and mystery,” Sister Mary Lou wrote after a cancer diagnosis.

“The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked or Overwhelmed” is available at amazon.com; your local independent bookstore; and through its publisher, St. Mary’s Press at www.smp.org. You can read Sister Mary Lou Kownacki’s columns and other interesting pieces at www.monasteriesoftheheart.org.



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.