Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 197

I found an Advent poem to memorize. All Advent we pray, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and, if my prayers are answered, this is the Jesus that I want to be born in me.

“Once a young woman said to me,
“Hafiz, what is the sign?
of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet,
and looked deep into her eyes,
then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife.
Someone who knows God has dropped
the cruel knife

that most so often use upon their tender self
and others.”
What would it be like not to inflict harm? Old Monk harms by branding the knife of harsh words. How many times a day does she go in for the kill? Let us pray then, “O Come, O Come, you who dropped the knife…”

Sister Joan Chittister is in Poland for the COP24 United Nations Conference on Climate Change and she emailed me a photo of a large angel in the Main Square in Krakow under the heading, “the beautiful one.” She knows I have a soft spot for angels because they’ve walked arm in arm with me through some bizarre times in my life. It came on the same day I read this quote
regarding the Polish-born poet Adam Zagajewski’s thoughts on joy.

“I once asked (Zagajewski) if he believed in happiness…and he said that he does not believe in Happiness, but he does believe in Joy. Happiness is for the Declaration of Independence, and also for the ending of movies. Joy, by contrast, is an illumination, as in Blake and Wordsworth and Rilke, a benediction, a visitation. In the twentieth century, it required nothing less than a belief in angels.”—Derek Wlacott, “The Elegist”

Made me wonder if Christmas is, for most, a season of happiness or joy. My bet would be happiness. People look to Christmas to make them happy, hence the popularity of Hallmark Christmas movies (which Old Monk watches by the way). But it’s the gift of joy that we should be asking for when we visit the stable. And now and then we might see the fleeting star, feel its mystery, and fall to our knees in awe.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In this morning’s reading, I was reminded that he took his final trip to Asia to find “the great compassion.” And it seems he did by gazing at an enormous statues of the Buddha at Gal Vihara, the sacred site in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Merton wrote in his journal that he approached the statues “barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in the wet grass, wet sand” and records his first impression, “The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing.” All those years of silence, of lectio divina, of reading, of study, of psalm chanting come to fruition in the company of the reclining Buddha: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious… I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.” There it is, that word “illumination” trying to capture Merton’s experience of enlightenment, of pure joy. Merton died four days later. Though it was our loss, perhaps it was merciful. After such a grace, such a vision of the Divine, such a pouring of joy… what was left? “I have pierced through the surface,” he wrote “…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”

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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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