Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 207

Meinrad Craighead, one of the great pioneers of woman-centered religious art, died last week. In 1978 when she was a Benedictine nun in Stanbrook Abbey, England, I interviewed Meinrad for my book, Peace Is Our Calling. I was asking high profile people in monastic orders and in the peace movement what the Benedictine motto “Pax” meant to them. Did it have anything to do with building a more just world or was it only about interior peace. Of all the interviews I did, I remember hers the most.

Did we ever go at it! At that time, she was as convinced that the contemplative life meant cloister and habits and minimal contact with “the world.” I, of course, was coming off of the heady post-Vatican renewal years and was all about the prophetic dimension of monasticism and “justice is a constitutive element of the Gospel.” We ended up disagreeing about the monastic life, but really liking each other.

Meinrad left Stanbrook after 14 years and eventually moved back to the States continuing her brilliant artistic work in New Mexico. She loves monastic life, she told an interviewer, and only left Stanbrook to be obedient to a new call-–to concentrate her work on images of God the Mother. A half dozen books of her art with her accompanying text were published, including Crow Mother and the Dog God: A Retrospective. A documentary on her life, Praying with Images, was recently completed. And you can still find her early work, mostly woodcuts, where I first saw it, in The Catholic Worker newspaper. When I heard she had died, I reread the piece I did about her in my book. Here’s a good part of that encounter:

“In 1966 Meinrad was awarded a Fullbright Award in printmaking and went to Spain. There she lived like a quasi-hermit at the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat and grappled with a deepening need and desire for a more contemplative life. The way she handled her call speaks volumes about Meinrad’s direct, if somewhat unorthodox, approach to life.

I went to a Dominica priest who was a professor of modern philosophy. I didn’t even like the man but I thought he would be straight-forward and objective, not patronizing.

I made a pact with the Holy Spirit that I would do whatever the priest told me. I didn’t want to waste a lot of time shopping around for convents. The priest said, ‘Go to Stanbrook.’ So I went. If he sent me to a Carmelite convent in the middle of a desert, that’s where I’d be.

….she brought out the prints of her new book, yet to be published, on tree mythology. Meinrad said she has always had a love affair with trees and remembers spending hours in their branches as a child. At Stanbrook she was in charge of caring for the trees and the garden and spends most of Saturday outdoors. On Sunday Meinrad devotes hours to reading mythology, poetry, and the sacred writings of eastern and western religions. Over the years she has collected hundreds of verses, parables and poems that relate to trees and these form the text of her new book. (Published in 1979, The Sign of the Tree). She shared page after page of charcoal drawings that explored trees, powerful proclamations of a lover’s intimacy…here is someone who knows herself, who knows God.

‘People want art because it fills their need for space,’ she explained. ‘Because people don’t know how to find adequate peace in themselves, they grab physical space. Ultimately this leads to war. Art is one way to get a people to appreciate space. We have so much space already, but we must keep it uncluttered and clean. We’re too plugged into activity—a transistor in one ear, phone on the other—we never reach interior spaces. To bring about peace we must get people to be in their own emptiness. Now you can only do that if you are there and that requires discipline and silence-- and it’s very painful. But you must get over the threshold of pain and discover your own space and know the deep presence—even if it’s in the most ungodlike sense, quite apart from knowing that’s where the one God is. Then and then only can you respect space in other people.’

The interview with Meinrad was one of the most difficult I have ever conducted. At least three times I thought she was going to ask me to leave, so at odds were we in our understanding of contemplation, monastic life, community. For a start, she didn’t even think I was a bona-fide monastic because I’m not cloistered.

Meinrad: You’re saying, ‘What good is monasticism?’ The pragmatic American—what’s it good for?

Mary Lou: no, I don’t look at monastic life that way at all…I wouldn’t have joined a monastic order if….

Meinrad: But you haven’t joined a monastic order.

Mary Lou: Benedictines are a monastic order.

Meinrad: Not in the States.

Somehow, we stuck through the awkward and uncomfortable silences that followed exchanges like this and plowed on. Perhaps a grudging respect built as the minutes ticked slowly away. Whatever, we parted friends. As we were saying good-bye, I mentioned that I was sorry the Dominican priest hadn’t told her to go to Erie, Pennsylvania. But she would have none of it—not real monasticism, you know.”

Rest in peace, dear Meinrad. And not to worry, I’m not going to ask you what you think peace means in this instance?

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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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