I almost didn’t read this amazing book. Both on the back cover copy and again in the publisher notes, the emphasis on O’Reilley’s story was tending sheep. Interesting I’m sure, but not something I was compelled to learn about in the present moment. But the idea of a Quaker Buddhist sparked my imagination, so I decided to give the book a chance. And I am glad I did.
Here is what the Publisher had to say:
Transcendence can come in many forms. For Mary Rose O’Reilley a year tending sheep seemed a way to seek a spirituality based not on “climbing out of the body” but rather on existing fully in the world, at least if she could overlook some of its earthier aspects.
The Barn at the End of the World follows O’Reilley in her sometimes funny, sometimes moving quest. Though small in stature, she learns to “flip” very large sheep and help them lamb. She also visits a Buddhist monastery in France, where she studies the practice of Mahayana Buddhism, dividing her spare time between meditation and dreaming of French pastries.
Transcendence and French pastries? Obviously two different people, each writing one paragraph, worked on this description. Could they possibly be more disjointed? Worse yet, neither seems the least bit familiar with the sage and perceptive advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It’s the not the destination, it's the journey.
Yes, O’Reilley worked at a barn, learned to flip sheep, and spent time studying at a Buddhist monastery in France (and not just any Buddhist monastery, I might add, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plumb Village). While these accomplishments are interesting, the real story, and therein the magic of this book, is the journey O’Reilley takes to arrive at these destinations.
This book is written in three parts, with a total of 98 short chapters / stories. As O’Reilley explains:
“ . . . the book is structured more like a long poem than a short treatise. Themes are introduced imagistically, then recaptured in story, and sometimes, if the matter is appropriate to that inquiry, framed in a few words of discursive argument.”
“I have spent a lot of time arranging, rather than organizing, this material.”
(Have your dictionary at hand. This book is full of new and interesting words.)
The beauty of O’Reilley’s approach is that the arrangement of the stories creates an energy and a movement, allowing you to breathe, take in, and consider what is being offered before you move on. However, it is the combination of the author’s voice and perspective that make this book come alive. Describing her voice, O’Reilley writes:
“I grew up at the intersection of narrative and silence …”
“My Quaker religion obligates me to a unique discipline: speak only from experience.”
“The personal essay is not an exercise in self-expression as much as it is an exercise in perspective.”
And the perspective? That the spiritual life is full of paradoxes: finding the self and losing it, rest, motion, presence/absence, solitude, and community. That the spiritual life is not a destination, but a journey. And O’Reilley takes us on her very personal journey with the stories in this book.
In one of the chapters titled “Surrender,” O’Reilley muses “There is deep rest in this loss of self.” In the chapter titled “As If,” she writes “Having come to doubt the reality of transubstantiation, I needed, as I do in any crisis, a practical focus. So I became a shepherd.” In the chapter she calls “Facts,” she reminded us “My individual life could not be more insignificant, and I venture to speak about it not because anything particularly interesting has happened to me but simply because life has happened to me, and it has happened as well to everyone who reads these words.” In the chapter “Endangered Species,” she advises “Be a specialist, not a generalist. Profitable, maybe, in the short term, but soul destroying.” In the chapter “Fidelity to Objects,” she encourages “The things of this world draw us where we need to go.” and “The soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly—or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.”
The soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly—or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.
Reading that sentence alone made the book worth reading. Who among us has not looked down at their own meager being or in a moment of indecision and taken hopeful jumps into the wind?
And these are just a few of the salient points taken from the first section. The remainder of the book does not disappoint.
What about the sheep? Yes, the book is full of sheep stories. But not for the sake of the sheep or for teaching animal husbandry, but rather as an example of the personal growth, development, and perspective that develops when you find your passion, your purpose, and focus on it with your entire being. When you find a path to your own way.
By Mary Rose O’Reilley