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The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  384 Ratings  ·  76 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 344 pages
Published July 16th 2001 by Milkweed Editions (first published 2000)
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This is one of those powerful, serendipitous books that I happened to pick up at precisely the right time in my life. Religion has long been a sore spot for me; as many of you know, even the most minor allusion to a positive “religious” experience (of any persuasion) has often sent me into uncontrolled bouts of ranting and frustration over patriarchy and oppression.

Over time, though, my views have grown softer and more nuanced. I still don’t believe in any version of the traditional “Christian”
Sep 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I requested and received this book as a gift 2 years ago. I read about 40 pages and then for some reason I left it on the night stand with a bookmark in the place where I had stopped. I picked it up again shortly after Christmas when I was down with a respiratory infection and feeling sorry for myself.

I've enjoyed Mary Rose O'Reilley as an author who can nudge me out of such a place. Her book Radical Presence got me over a bad attitude about teaching. Her book of poems Half Wild saw me through t
Aug 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This is a book that I can read over and over and over again. Not to be missed - a deep well that offers something refreshingly different every time you dip into it. Not to put anyone off by this charged word, but it is a bible of sorts for me. When speaking about the Guatemalan Indians who went to Mass and then burned offerings to Mayan Gods on the steps of the church, O'Reilly says "my religious nature is omnivorous. I can worship just about anything that occupies a certain slant of light. Pray ...more
Apr 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I am sorry that it took me so long to read this book, which has been on my spiritual memoir list for - oh, maybe five years, ever since taking Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew's class at the Loft in Minneapolis. To tell the truth, the "shepherd" in the title put me off. I taught Godly Play when I was a clergy wife, and I know the metaphor of the good shepherd, but it is tinged with so much patriarchal baggage and sentimental imagery for me that I was really reluctant to enter that world. When I did, how ...more
Marilyn Chandler
May 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I loved this memoir of an academic's sabbatical in a French monastery where she learns to tend sheep. It is both sharp-witted and rich with spiritual reflection.
Dec 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
balancing love of the world with detachment from the world.

Sep 10, 2009 rated it liked it
2.5 truly, but 3 for her familiar references: "fickle, freckled" Gerard Manley Hopkins, Diane Arbus, anamchara and elf patterning:

"One of the dicey things about teaching English or lamb haltering is that, in order to focus a student's attention, you have to hammer away at a few central principes which, to the conscientious learner, begin to have the force of law. But they are merely transitional truths, and when you see them start to harden in the learner's mind, you have to gently nudge him or
Apr 14, 2008 rated it liked it
I was attracted to this book because of a personal interest in both sheep and spirituality -- in particular, I'm fascinated by Thic Nhat Hanh and his community in southern France. Although I enjoyed Mary Rose O'Reilley's writing, I felt like this memoir wasn't very cohesive. There isn't much of a story, it's more like her musings on a string of life experiences that are only loosely related. By the end, the author admits to this when she points out the difficulty in finding a suitable finale, so ...more
Feb 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Mary Rose O'Reilley must be one fascinating lady!! Someone who can move easily between the world of her Catholic past, to a year spent taking care of sheep, into Plum Village Buddhist monastery with Thich N'hat Hanh, to the classroom as an English teacher, and home again to her Quaker community. Her book, which has been called a cross between Katheen Norris and James Herriot, is filled with insights about the spiritual journey -- but it's a journey that is firmly grounded in the not always neat ...more
Emily Kimball
May 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book. Yes. YES! I cannot rave about its value enough! O'Reilley's words helped me along a very challenging year of being pushed beyond my comfort zone. Her wisdom, humor, compassion, and occasional snarky comment reminded me that none of us are alone on our journeys.

I read this book gradually over the course of a year, letting it unfold when it needed to, not rushing, reading for the sake of reading. Our struggles for balance, the desire for a love-filled life, experience of joy within the
James Dunham
Jan 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite books of all time. O'Reilly writes beautiful sentences and picks subjects and objects worth contemplating. The very short chapters make it easy to simply sit with the text a piece at a time and let each moment sink deeply in. Really a must-read for those on a path of spiritual uncertainty and longing.
May 01, 2007 rated it really liked it
This was a really interesting look into the life of a woman searching for and finding answers in the unlikeliest of places: a sheep barn in the Mid-West.
Oct 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I waited and hoped for this book to become available in my favorite second-hand bookstore for about a year since I live abroad where shipping charges are best avoided. I finally broke down and ordered it. It was well worth the shipping charges. I kept thinking that O'Reilley had written this book especially for me.
Are there really others out there who have a daily yoga and meditation practice but think that a retreat with the amazing and wonderful Thich Naht Hahn in Plum Island is among life's m
Samantha Muller
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very worthwhile read for any spiritually inquisitive person!!

This book is personal, insightful, honest, and down to earth while also artfully addressing matters of 'up above.' Highly recommend!
Feb 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a wonderful read - full of heart. Not romanticized in the least, we got to wade through the life and death, blood and shit and glories and wonder of time spent caring for animals.

Likewise, O'Reilley doesn't glorify the time she spent as a Catholic novitiate, in Quaker meeting, or in retreat at Plum Village - such a wealth of spiritual exploration, wholeheartedly undertaken and recounted in all its human messiness and moments of grace.

This is a book of a full life, fully lived, fully re
Oct 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
The Barn at the End of the World is what the author describes as a "spiritual memoir", not so much "here is my life and how I lived it" as "here are some assorted memories and reflections and how they have shaped my soul". Make sense? good.

Short essays essentially (very short- from a page to maybe 8 at the most), on topics of shepherding and buddhism, predominantly, but also family, neighbors, lovers, friends, walks in the wilderness... more topics than I can bring to mind without looking back
Aug 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-essays
O'Reilly is by turns wise, grounded, curmudgeonly, seeking, resisting, awash in the details of everyday life and always looking to be lifted up by Spirit. She describes the seeker's path beautifully while always staying grounded in the realities of this human life. I will say that I learned far more about sheep posteriors than I ever cared to -- O'Reilly is not a romantic but a realist -- but this lends all the more credence to her spiritual journey. If you enjoy spiritual memoir, I recommend "T ...more
Doranne Long
Feb 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Delightful and moving book, similar to Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, as she bounces about a bit within her essays, but provides excellent food for thought. I now know more than I wish to about the birth and death of lambs and other icky barn details, but also have a greater appreciation for life, real life, in all it's messiness and the possibility to remain calm, accepting, and non-judgmental. I now have a better understanding of Thich N'hat Hanh and the messages he is sharing with the ...more
Tamra Karl
Feb 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
It took me a few sections to get into this book. O'Reilley is so honest that at first I wondered if it wasn't pretense to create an off-hand tone. As I continued reading and began to enjoy her writing more I began to feel that the honesty was authentic and even amazing at times when it exposed feelings and thoughts that could turn certain readers off. Also, the organization doesn't flow in anyway I could describe logically, but after reading for a while it felt natural in an organic way. This is ...more
Aug 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
One of my summer goals was to read a book about Quakers, because I have Quaker leanings, and I came across this one. I didn't reach very many of my summer goals, but I am so glad I finished this, which took me all summer. Her stories of her thoughts and experiences struck a deep chord in me so many times, although our lives and spiritual paths are very different. She is a seeker, and she finds truth in Quaker music and Buddhist meditation and the lives and deaths of animals she takes care of...a ...more
Feb 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: shepard-wanna-bes
I came across this book because I was looking her other title, The Peaceable Classroom.

Mary takes you on a great journey through the unremarkable. You will most likely find yourself practicing walking meditation after reading this book. During that walking meditation you will allow yourself to really breathe and take in your thoughts, your emotions, and your surroundings.

If only every English teacher could be this thoughtful and interested in ideas, rather than grammar and punctuation. Though,
Oct 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
I took "The Barn at the End of the World" along to read on my annual retreat. Mary O'Reilly was a college literature professor who returned to school in Minnesota to get a degree in Spiritual Direction. One of her courses was working at the university farm learning to care for sheep and all the messy stuff that goes along with it. She writes what is called a spiritual autobiography. Her youth, 2-1/2 years in a Catholic convent, teaching, family and children, the grief of the last child leaving f ...more
Jan 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
This was one of those things that I really wanted to like... I tried to like it - I read the whole thing in spite of my disappointment - and yet I came away from the book convinced that Mary Rose O'Reilly has got to be a more interesting person than the book lets on. The questions she grapples with are fascinating and profound and I was hoping to share in some of her hard-earned wisdom, but again I was left wanting. Perhaps a reader who is schooled in Buddhist philosophy would get more out of O' ...more
Mar 15, 2015 rated it liked it
3.5 Stars - The spiritual memoir, Barn at the End of the World, recounts Mary Rose O'Reiley's year searching for higher meaning. Upon graduating from high school O'Reiley entered a convent and spent two years as a noviate. While she never took her vows and eventually left the Catholic Church, O'Reilley's quest for connection to the Divine never ended. In this book she takes the reader on a journey that includes Quaker meetings, harp singing, a stint in a Buddhist monastery, and lots of time with ...more
the idea of not bothering your neighbours is a hard one for me, but otherwise i loved this. her treks into buddhism never felt conversion-y or preachy; she was clear about only being able to honestly adopt certain aspects of the tradition, without seeming (to me) to be reductive. her anger and the part of her that wants to 'roll around in pop culture' were relatable. i trust her as a narrator. i loved the parts about singing; i learned a lot about sheep! this changed how i think about work and c ...more
Dec 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
I want to love this book but 50 pages in I can see it is not to be. She just jumps into the middle of her story and thrashes around leaving me to try to make sense of how a Catholic/Quaker/Buddhist comes to herd sheep. It was like my copy was missing the first few chapters. Actually, since I bought it at the thrift store maybe it is. Anyway, I will probably try to finish some more of it but am not looking forward to it. More like dotting my i's and crossing my t's. Or maybe I just go re-read Bar ...more
Patti K
Mar 18, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
In this 2000 book, O'Reilly tells of her experiences
as a Catholic, Quaker, Buddhist spiritual seeker on
an active path she keeps making. She works on a sheep
farm for a year or so,learning everything there is to
raising sheep. Her sense of peace in being around
animals is what brought her there. It also talks of
her time at Plum Village in the south of France, where
Thich Nhat Hanh leads a monastic Buddhist community.
Worthwhile spending time with her in these rambles
and preoccupations. At times a bit
Apr 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book was a random grab based on the title. It's so random, I said "sure!" The author lives in Minnesota, was raised Catholic, became Quaker, add in Buddhism and taking care of sheep and there you have it. It was not a great book. And not a book I'd base my belief system on, by any means. But it raised some interesting thoughts about faith and life in general. And ethically about raising animals in different belief systems. All in all, it was interesting. Not a page turner, but edifying in a ...more
Jul 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
What begins as a passing conversation with a man in a barn becomes an apprenticeship in sheep-keeping ... and in bumping up against The Big Questions again and again ...

A delight. Dark in all the places where Life is naturally dark -- a refreshing perspective. Seasons, cycles, weather; cries of birth and death, love and rupture. Sly, kindhearted, mordant wit with a wink and a tear.

Mary's a woman you want to swap stories with while mucking out a barn!
Nov 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
Some books just need the right time and place. I bought this one years ago and never could really get into it. Then this fall I picked it up again and voila!. The author really spoke to me. She weaves her experiences in her spiritual journey through time spent at a buddhist monastery and in sheep barns. She ends the book with no conclusions, no advice; this book is about the journey not the destination.
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“On the first day of November last year, sacred to many religious calendars but especially the Celtic, I went for a walk among bare oaks and birch. Nothing much was going on. Scarlet sumac had passed and the bees were dead. The pond had slicked overnight into that shiny and deceptive glaze of delusion, first ice. It made me remember sakes and conjure a vision of myself skimming backward on one foot, the other extended; the arms become wings. Minnesota girls know that this is not a difficult maneuver if one's limber and practices even a little after school before the boys claim the rink for hockey. I think I can still do it - one thinks many foolish things when November's bright sun skips over the entrancing first freeze.

A flock of sparrows reels through the air looking more like a flying net than seventy conscious birds, a black veil thrown on the wind. When one sparrow dodges, the whole net swerves, dips: one mind. Am I part of anything like that?

Maybe not. The last few years of my life have been characterized by stripping away, one by one, loves and communities that sustain the soul. A young colleague, new to my English department, recently asked me who I hang around with at school. "Nobody," I had to say, feeling briefly ashamed. This solitude is one of the surprises of middle age, especially if one's youth has been rich in love and friendship and children. If you do your job right, children leave home; few communities can stand an individual's most pitiful, amateur truth telling. So the soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly - or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.

In the Christian calendar, November 1 is the Feast of All Saints, a day honoring not only those who are known and recognized as enlightened souls, but more especially the unknowns, saints who walk beside us unrecognized down the millennia. In Buddhism, we honor the bodhisattvas - saints - who refuse enlightenment and return willingly to the wheel of karma to help other beings. Similarly, in Judaism, anonymous holy men pray the world from its well-merited destruction. We never know who is walking beside us, who is our spiritual teacher. That one - who annoys you so - pretends for a day that he's the one, your personal Obi Wan Kenobi. The first of November is a splendid, subversive holiday.

Imagine a hectic procession of revelers - the half-mad bag lady; a mumbling, scarred janitor whose ravaged face made the children turn away; the austere, unsmiling mother superior who seemed with great focus and clarity to do harm; a haunted music teacher, survivor of Auschwitz. I bring them before my mind's eye, these old firends of my soul, awakening to dance their day. Crazy saints; but who knows what was home in the heart? This is the feast of those who tried to take the path, so clumsily that no one knew or notice, the feast, indeed, of most of us.

It's an ugly woods, I was saying to myself, padding along a trail where other walkers had broken ground before me. And then I found an extraordinary bouquet. Someone had bound an offering of dry seed pods, yew, lyme grass, red berries, and brown fern and laid it on the path: "nothing special," as Buddhists say, meaning "everything." Gathered to formality, each dry stalk proclaimed a slant, an attitude, infinite shades of neutral.

All contemplative acts, silences, poems, honor the world this way. Brought together by the eye of love, a milkweed pod, a twig, allow us to see how things have been all along. A feast of being.”
“Whatever you eye falls on - for it will fall on what you love - will lead you to the questions of your life, the questions that are incumbent upon you to answer, because that is how the mind works in concert with the eye. The things of this world draw us where we need to go.” 28 likes
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