Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 153

I’m reading David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings, a Benedictine monk whom I greatly admire. I’m trying to be careful that I don’t copy most of his writings into my commonplace book. But this morning I did copy this thought from an interview he gave on reciting the Jesus prayer. Brother David said:

I really use only the short form, “Lord Jesus, mercy; Lord Jesus, mercy.” I find the others too long; I get distracted…. Besides, I think there is a lot of emphasis in our tradition on sins, and the longer form, “Have mercy on me, a sinner” reinforces that emphasis.

We certainly are sinners, rightly understood. Not even so much personally. But we live in a world of alienation, of sin; no matter how good-willed you are, you really can’t help causing millions of people in the Third World to be exploited, just by the fact that you live in the First World. This is sin, much more than your little peccadilloes. I really am quite aware of this sinfulness. But I don’t think it’s necessary to rub it in with every breath. I’d rather praise God for having forgiven and overcome sin. When I say, “Lord Jesus, mercy,” that can be a call for mercy, but most of the time it means, “What mercy you are showing!” It’s a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

It reinforced why I don’t say aloud—right before communion-- the words reintroduced by conservative Vatican liturgists a few years ago: “God I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say that word and I shall be healed.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do agree with the poet Issa:

Mountains
mirrored in the eye—
dragonfly

There’s no doubt that the enlightened dragonfly has it right: we are mere specks in a grand, ever expanding universe. We are mere “dragonfly” compared to “mountain.” And our only appropriate posture is humility. And awe. And wonder. And gratefulness. And “unworthiness” for the gift given. On the other hand, I’ve seen so many people crippled by religion’s false insistence that we are only worthless sinners. And because of it, I’ve known too many people crushed by guilt unable to look in the mirror and say “it is good.” So I never say those prescribed words at communion time. I don’t want to reinforce guilt in good people preparing to receive the Bread of Life. I wish it were something more positive. After all, in the Catholic liturgy, there is a whole “penitential” section where we are made mindful of our failings. But at communion, at the time when the family shares a meal, we should be reminded of our essential goodness. At the very least, we could learn something from the Hasidic tradition: Rabbi Bunin taught, Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. In one pocket are the words, "I am but dust and ashes.” And in the other pocket, ”For my sake was the world created.”

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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.

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