Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 201

Mary Oliver is dead. I can’t believe how sad I am knowing her work is finished. I’ll never get another email from my friend Mary H saying, “Hey, Lou, do you know a new Mary Oliver book is coming out next month?” I had the good fortune of hearing her read in Cleveland once and consider that a top ten highlight of my life. She was a mirror of her words—simple, unassuming, humble, holy. Definitely at home in solitude. And playful. And able to make you lust for her wonder and amazement.

Last year, our women’s book club read Devotions, over 442 pages of poems that she had personally selected from her more than fifty-year writing career. What a great title. Devotion can be a religious worship or observance, as in a devotion to the Sacred Heart or Blessed Mary. And this compilation of poems was a devotion to iris, herons, swans, rivers; to animals of every make; to gratefulness; to the sacred that surrounds us; to her “one wild and precious life.” As book discussions go, it was unusual. We spent a year on the book and devoted most of our 90 minutes together every month to reading her poems aloud. Everyone had a favorite, or two, or five, or eight, that she wanted to read and, more importantly, tell the group why that poem had impacted her.

A friend and I are organizing a memory service of sorts: “Celebrating Mary Oliver: An Evening of Sharing.” It will be held in March and we are asking people to bring a favorite Oliver poem or stanza to read and share a personal response to the selection. I have copied copious poems and stanzas by Mary Oliver in my commonplace book and held different favorites over the years. But the one that I can never shake is the ending from “In Blackwater Woods.” It seems to me that those preparing to be monks would be well advised to spend their entire novitiate year with this poem in their pocket.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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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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