Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 163

It is Thanksgiving and I am remembering two people with a grateful heart—my mother and the poet Robert Lax.

I was copying David Steindl-Rast’s passage on prayer into my commonplace book this morning and it occurred to me that I’m probably drawn to it because he compares prayerfulness to what could happen to you when watering African violets. “You come alive from within,” he writes. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up to you.” I’ve read that passage at least a dozen times. I even did a blog about it this year. But this morning I realized I was drawn to it because it evoked memories of my mother. How many times did I watch her pray as she cared for her collection of African violets. Perhaps this is where I first observed mindfulness, one-pointed attention in action. She spent hours with those tiny purple and white violets: mixing the right soil, watering them carefully from the bottom, moving them as the light changed, caressing the velvet leaves. She really mastered the art of an indoor African violet garden. I never asked her about her love for flowers. Where it came from? What pleasure she got from planting and tending, both outdoors and indoors. I regret that. But one thing I did learn from observing her is what it meant to truly pray. To find yourself, as Brother David writes, in a place where, “The watering and drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate your pouring of the water from the root receiving, the flower’s giving of joy from your drinking it in. And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. “

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I read a biography of my hero, the poet and recluse Robert Lax, many months ago but just got around to copying passages from the book that I want to return to. One was the poem etched on his gravestone:

Slow boat/ calm river/ quiet landing

A few years ago, there was a rage for writing your life’s story in six words. The “Six-Word Memoir” fad was triggered by a story attributed to Ernest Hemingway who, when asked to write a full six-word story, responded. “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Social and print media encouraged everyone to try to capture the essence of their lives in six words. There was even a book published, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

Lax’s death preceded this fad and yet he wrote one of the most beautiful, accurate and inspiring six word memoirs ever recorded:
slow boat/ calm river/ quiet landing

If you google Robert Lax you will find information such as this:

“Seeking a life of spiritual clarity and artistic commitment, he moved to Greece in 1962, settling first on the island of Kalymnos and then on the island of Patmos, where he remained for more than 30 years….”

“…a self-exiled hermit, he nonetheless welcomed visitors to his home on the island, but did nothing to court publicity or expand his literary career or reputation.”

But there’s really no need to google him. His gravestone marker is enough.

slow boat/ calm river/ quiet landing

Would that Old Monk could summarize her life with such integrity and purity.

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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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