Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 158

It was the last session of the annual Reader’s Retreat with Joan Chittister and she called on one of the women to read aloud from the book we were discussing. The woman opened her mouth to read but instead began to weep. Sister Joan waited. And waited. But the woman continued a cry. After a few minutes Sister Joan kindly prodded, “I feel there is something important you could tell the rest of the group. Give it a try.” Through chocked sobs the woman said, “Awakening…I am awakening.”

That’s kind of an idyllic, though painful way, to end a retreat. If one person is awakened, it’s been worth it for the retreat leader, right? And for the person whose been enlightened…WOW!!...a seeker’s fulfillment. But what does it mean to be awakened? To be enlightened? And why does it matter so?

After years of copying down answers to those questions in her commonplace book, Old Monk found an explanation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro to live by. Shapiro said to imagine yourself in a huge room that is pitch black—so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. For a long time, you wander in the dark, crashing into objects and becoming battered in the process. You get hungry and thirsty and frantic because without an exit you know you will die in the dark room. But you decide to alleviate your suffering and pain and grope until you find a wall and, finally, a light switch. You throw the switch and the room is bathed in light and you walk effortlessly through the door. When you leave the room, you see an endless number of other rooms, each inhabited by people trying to find a way out. You go from room to room, showing people where the light switch is. Then Rami Shapiro ended the story with this insight: “Throwing the switch is enlightenment. Helping others do the same is why it matters.”

Ah! That story answered another of Old Monk’s long-standing dilemmas. For years, she has quoted this Zen saying: “Now that I am enlightened, I am as miserable as ever.” Old Monk used those Zen words to make fun of too much self-absorption, too much navel gazing. But now, with Rami Shapiro’s help, she looks at the Zen wisdom differently. Though you should seek it with all your heart, enlightenment is neither here nor there. You will be as miserable as ever unless you use your enlightenment to help others to freedom.

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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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