Monasteries of the Heart

An Image for the Heart

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A quote that has haunted me over the years is by Camus who wrote: “A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which the heart first opened.”

Since I read that quote a few years ago, I have struggled to find an image or memory where my heart first broke open and altered my life. It was kind of embarrassing not to have the image appear immediately. After all, I came to the monastery to discover myself. Are all those years of sitting for nothing? All those prayers and chants only emptiness?

Then an image suddenly appeared. I was probably five or six years old and in my third year of kindergarten. We lived next door to the school and convent and were very close to the nuns so I began school at three. My mother always said, “You were bored and we didn’t know what to do with you,” but when I look back it was probably because my mother was so sick with asthma, had me and my 18-month-old brother and a third baby on the way and the sisters were trying to help. Anyway, by my third year I was a pro at reading and recesses and whatever else they teach you in kindergarten. Suffice it to say that by seniority alone I ruled the roost.

The image that appeared was of me laughing at Marian. Little Marian lived across the street from me, was a bit slow in learning and kind of chubby. She was the type of child that is often the butt of other children’s meanness—a rather defenseless sort that is an easy scapegoat. That day poor Marian had wet her pants.

I can still see the other children pointing their fingers at her and laughing. I also knew a moment of decision—what I did could alter the situation. Well, what I did was join in the laughing. My friend Marian, the girl I played with after school, sat there with tears streaming down her face while I laughed. I knew immediately that I had committed a grave sin: I lacked courage in a crowd, I chose to betray a friend, I caused deep suffering to an innocent.

And there it was—the image that first broke open my heart. When I examine the direction of my life, it is no stretch to say that since that incident I began a life-long pilgrimage of atonement. The purpose of my life was clear: be a voice for the innocent, resist the crowd’s approval and allure, hold fast to friendship and loyalty.