Mary Rose O'Reilley,
The Barn at the End
of the World: The
Apprenticeship of a
Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd

(Milkweed Editions, 2000)

If nothing else, the subtitle of Mary Rose O'Reilley's spiritual journey, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, ought to pique your interest. This account of a year in O'Reilley's life in which she seeks a way to live consciously in the world is no mere novelty; neither is it pedantic or ponderous. Rather, The Barn at the End of the World is at once bracing, insightful and often very funny while speaking to universal truths great and small.

What possessed a Minnesota college English professor to seek out a sheep barn and learn to flip and shear sheep, deliver lambs and trim necrotic rectal tissue? O'Reilley, in need of grounding her spirituality in reality and living deliberately, says "I went to work in the agricultural division of a land grant college and took on two hundred sheep to be my spiritual teachers." Considering that O'Reilley was raised a Roman Catholic, spent two years in the novitiate and was studying for certification in spiritual direction, it's difficult to think of a way to be more grounded in reality than that.

During this year, she also spends time studying Mahayana Buddhism at Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery in France founded by Thich N'hat Hanh. But don't expect blissed-out navel gazing here; O'Reilley struggles with personal questions and attitudes which arise from honest self assessment.

O'Reilley tells her spiritual autobiography in a series of brief essay-like chapters. She writes with honesty, humor and humility, and she never minces words. Her frankness is refreshing and often very funny: for example, on her first day at the sheep barn, she worries about what would be the right thing to wear, then settles on "lightweight cotton pants and one of my son's V-necked undershirts. This ensemble turns out to be perfect for trimming rectal tissue, and is soon covered in lamb shit." Her dry and understated humor flavors the whole book and roots it firmly in the here and now.

While O'Reilley packs a mean one-liner, the essence of what she is writing is never trivial or ephemeral. The questions she asks and attempts to answer are universal questions, and she is quick to say that her answers -- or methods -- are not necessarily right for everyone. She comes across as a fellow sojourner; you get the feeling that she is not above you on a higher spiritual plane but walking on some of the same paths you walk. At the same time, though, she briskly encourages you to try the paths that beckon to you in particular.

Reading The Barn at the End of the World may not send you to the Yellow Pages to seek out an agricultural science school with a sheep barn for yourself, but it will make you laugh and think and perhaps become more conscious of your own direction.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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