Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 196

Some thoughts on gratitude.

My book of hours this Thanksgiving week was unusual—I spent a lot of time in the ICU unit at a local hospital holding vigil for my godson who is 36-years-old and had open heart surgery. In the ICU unit I met a nurse Jacqueline and her story floored me with gratitude. We got to talking and she told me about her son who married and had a child. Both her son and the wife were drug addicts and, after they divorced, the wife had another child by another addict and then the mother died of an overdose. Jackie, who was living in Florida, returned to Erie to formally adopt the two children. “Even though the younger child is no blood relation,” she said, “he is my grandson’s half-brother and I consider that family. I’ve already adopted two other children, so another only adds to the joy.” There is nothing one can say about nurse Jacqueline, only to stand in wonder in the face of such goodness and be grateful.

An article I was reading about haiku poetry, referenced the short story Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger as instrumental in making the three-line poems popular in the 60s. That made me a little nostalgic for Salinger’s writings and I decided to reread Seymour, the lengthy character sketch of the strange oldest son in the Glass family as told by his younger brother and Salinger’s alter-ego, Buddy Glass. A good part of the story describes Seymour’s life as a poet and his fascination with Chinese and Japanese poetry, especially haiku. Buddy tells us, “It may help, to start with, to say that Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poem, and that he himself wrote—bled—haiku (almost always in English, but sometimes, I hope I’m duly reluctant to bring in, in Japanese, German, or Italian.)”

For all of that bleeding of haiku, we only get one sample of Seymour’s work and it appears in another book about the Glass siblings, Franny and Zooey. In that story Zooey Glass finds the haiku written on a desk blotter and tells us it was composed on the very day his brother, Seymour, committed suicide. The haiku reads:

The little girl on the plane
Who turned her doll’s head around
To look at me.

In rereading all of this, I wondered if my love for haiku started with Salinger and the Glass family and I’d forgotten the influence. If the gifts of Buddy and Franny and Seymour disappeared down the memory hole, who and what else went with them? So, a great part of my Thanksgiving gratitude was for storytellers who have conversed with me all through life…and shaped me. And I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten who some of you are but I’m grateful that I met you when I was six, and seventeen, and thirty-three, and sixty-five, and…. What a life story your words helped me to weave.

Before our Thanksgiving dinner, I read a prayer by Diana Butler Bass that began:

God, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. When the news is bleak, confusing. God, we struggle to feel grateful.

But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude.

Old Monk likes the idea of making a deliberate choice for gratitude no matter our present circumstances. It’s both a strong and humble stance. Strong, because it doesn’t blink or close its eyes to reality but faces it with courage and an open heart. Humble, because it admits that we have a choice and to choose gratitude in the midst of sorrow, loss, chaos, and heartbreak is to acknowledge our debt for the gift of life.

One last gratitude thought after rereading Salinger. In the story Seymour, Old Monk found a haiku by the Japanese poet Saigyo. Of all the things Old Monk prayed, read, and experienced this Thanksgiving, this haiku will not let her rest. This is the haiku she desires to be.

What it is I know not
But with the gratitude
My tears fall.


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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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