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A Trip to the Abbey

by Dianne H. Timmering

I used to be important. I thought I really was.

I thought my corporate identity was pasted on me like invisible glue. In 2018 when I left my senior healthcare executive position, I tried to take it with me, but it just wouldn’t budge. It waved me goodbye as I walked out the door.

The best way to describe it is that it’s like losing your human superpower.

I was leaving a generous company, executive mobility, and spiritual freedom, but I had finished my executive and administering roles within that operating framework. And I knew things. Healthcare things, like how private and public sectors and government policy all intersected to control day-to-day operations subjected to the limited mercies of regulatory and compliance oversight and often arbitrary reimbursement methodologies.

It was time to leave and take thy knowledge forth. I was going to save the world.

Saying one needs to find purpose is an overused cliché—purpose is a word we throw around, paddle like a pickleball, smacking it back and forth into something that should have meaning and yield a particular direction. My job had ended, and I had punched the button on a new transformation trajectory, but just exactly what that was, and how to get there, I didn’t know.

I knew I had heard the voice to leave my corporate community, but now I was floating alone. And I was afraid. For years, I had held onto that interior space. Though I considered myself a writer, minus a few journalistic endeavors for healthcare and regional magazines, that particular slice of life was in deep dormancy.

In this time of personal inquisition, I looked back through old notebooks to find pages and pages of writings, my stories and characters always trying to poke through, even back then, always trying to live. To breathe. But I hadn’t allowed it. I had pushed them down into the abeyance of everything else more important, like the executive opportunity that had come my way just as my MFA in Writing in 2006 was finishing up.

I was a coward. I mean, we all need to work, or at least most of us do. This corporate identity, I guess, was safer. A clearer pathway, where creativity could be found in the development of new innovations for healthcare delivery.

It had also been the perfect ruse, a distraction, a deceptive competitor to my interior writing world. It gave me the perfect excuse to avoid the frightening NOs of publishing. I wore my corporate identity on the outside, while my characters lived only in me.

The corporate identity was an open gate, the writing wall was still a thick solid slab of uncertainty, its own door needing to be forged. By me, alone. My characters were pounding on the walls, but it was so much easier not to hear them.

One day I found myself on a distant road to an ancient abbey in the rural valleys of Kentucky—a light transmission out of the gloom. I was glad to find that abbey road. I was glad to be on the way to somewhere, searching for the reasons behind lost wisdom, a broken heart, and scrambled purpose.

I drove along the byways of time through the landscape of lost corn and expended wheat. The sun bloomed through the shadows of trees, beckoning me on like it had opened up the day just for me. I was glad to be on the way and to be seen by the sun. The winding roads and gentle hills of up and down stitched me up in that momentary peace, the kind that didn’t yell at you to do better, do more, or try harder. And it was a way to go.

The road continued, a pilgrimage of dance, like life should be a dance and somewhere along the way I had forgotten to get on the floor and boogie. The air was cold, but inside the car was warm, even hot enough to have me push my visor down both from the bounding sun and the consuming anticipation of what was secretly tucked inside those hills of Nelson County, Kentucky. Somewhere, there was an ancient past laced in the dales of centuries, a vortex of an alien world where I hoped solace could be found and that lost voice could be heard again.

The climb there seemed to be a long tunneling doorway leading to God’s middle, a place to summon the angels, view plights on the plains of the planet.

The river was high from too much rain as I drove across the narrow bridge glossed with ice from the night before. A herd of tall trees crowded both sides of the riverbed, their toe trunks wet from the swelling rains. Those on the left bank seemed to have attempted an escape but had gotten stuck in the earth before they could make a clean getaway to the other side.

They struck laughter in me in the golden light of the morning, like they were hunched over in their slump of disappointment. I had a kinship with them because I was stuck too, and if they could flee, where would they go? Maybe I could hitch a ride in their limbs, nest alongside the colorful birds, and sleep inside a halo of branches.

How do I find an identity I accidentally lost? How do I find my way again? So much to do, nowhere to do it.

The wandering road rolled out before me. I knew it was there by the rat-a-tat-tat under the tires, but it didn’t give me too far to see in its distance. Trust the road. A left turn here, a right turn, a generous curve there, a tobacco barn, and of course a bourbon distillery, close enough for the bourbon to find its way into the fudge that monks would make. Bourbon delights could find themselves in any recipe, especially in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Hopefully, if there was a gift shop, I could find some to buy.

I pulled into the demure driveway of the abbey, my car a transport like a spaceship that had found heaven for the day and was coming in for an easy landing. It was as if this enclave on the hill was some kind of portal to a realm, a kind of Jacob’s ladder, where good angels could come and go and find their assignments on this earth—of comfort or battle. I remembered Psalms 91—“shout out and He will come, He will send help; He will rescue in a time of trouble.”

I was drawn to the small auditorium for a memoir reading by a monk, so full of resplendent aura. I wanted whatever it was he had, so though there was no one else in the front row, I sat down alone there to listen. I wanted the peace that blended into his tunic and the fabric of his garb, and in his words from a life lived—meditating daily outside—including during the deepest scars of winter. I wanted to soak in his straddle of this world and the next, like wading in the ocean's warm waters where God seems to hold many earthly secrets. I listened on the edge of the pew.

Brother Paul Quenon began to read from In Praise of the Useless Life:

I take Mother Nature as my spiritual teacher, tough and gentle. I stay at her feet through each year’s long, twelve-month lesson . . . If the temperature is four above zero, I’m out there . . . sometimes this calls for endurance but no more than a farmer tending the cows.

This lovely monk lived in a deliberate kind of consciousness, a kind of awareness that is hard to find, maybe because we are so busy avoiding it as we live out our daily routines. Even in the severest days, Brother Paul had found a way to his solace and could hear the mysteries of daily living and guided pursuits.

Afterward, my gloves captured my tears as I made my way to the nineteenth-century chapel, which looked like a domed adobe, long and indestructible, old and sacred. Walking in—the Throne beckoned forth.

“It is with every ordinary person in the world intoxicated and distracted by self-grasping, completely in bondage to a limited and mortal self-identity, and so remaining under the power of death. Yet, if one can let go . . . one will remember what has been forgotten and so set oneself free.”

–Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, Meditations of Mystical Teachings, Tau Malachi

And there it was, in the sturdiness of the throne, the softness of the monk’s tender words, and the tears of surrender. I could be free of the neglect of the present; I was also free to detach from the identity of my past. And in that moment of nothing, direction began to filter in again. The Light Transmission began to fire into the mission and organized purpose of a reformed soul.

I had re-set. I was awake, like this complexly simple monk, knowing I didn’t need to cling to an old identity of old ambition. The monk’s joy hadn’t come from the daily life he led but from living in deep attentiveness to it.

Inside the quiet, I too, could hear.

And I began writing again.


Dianne H. Timmering, MFA, MBA, CNA, is an American writer and journalist, healthcare executive, designer, start-up entrepreneur, author, columnist, board member, and developer of health and virtual care businesses. She co-founded the Compassion Fund, meeting the needs of thousands, while also serving as senior VP of healthcare policy and legislative affairs with Signature HealthCARE, one of the largest skilled providers in the U.S. She writes columns and essays hoping to influence change within the U.S. healthcare delivery system. She’s on a quest to create, embrace risk, test knowledge, look both outside and inside the balance of logic and imagination to build, sustain, and transform, and to write. She hopes to publish her novel, Guardian Moon, in early 2024.


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