Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 210

Here’s a good quote for all writers to tape next to their keyboards. It’s from the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe:

The poet who is not in trouble
With the King
Is in trouble with his work.

When I read his words, I immediately thought of the brave Russians Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anna Akmatova, of Salmon Rushdie, of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, and so many other writers in the Mid-East, China, Africa, banned and hunted and jailed for voicing protest. And I thought of the poet Sam Hamill who, in protest over the unilateral bombings of Iraq, publicly renounced an invitation from the then First Lady Laura Bush to participate in a poetry symposium at the White House. Instead he founded Poets Against the War.

If there ever was a time for writers to embody these words in the United States, it is now. And by and large, writers are. Some of the most articulate, astute and brave warnings of the dangers facing our country at the present time are coming from journalists, poets, fiction and non-fiction writers. All of them following the advice of Pulitzer Prize novelist Toni Morrison: “Make it (your writing) political as hell, and make it irrevocably beautiful.”

One place where this kind of brave writing is lacking is in the bookstore sections labeled “books on spirituality.” Which is strange because if anyone should be in tension with the King or the Religious Institution, it should be spiritual writers. Especially if the writers are Christian and follow a leader who was condemned, tortured, and put to death for his teachings by the state in collusion with the temple.

What makes for a holy person, is the underlying question in all books labeled “spiritual.” I read many such books and sometimes feel like I’m swimming in a pool of marshmallow—little substance, all sugar and goo and gobbledygook. Most of them center on personal transformation and healing. All well and good and necessary. But not the complete Christian story

Remember that one of the charges against Jesus was that he was riling up the people, he was heralding a new vision that threatened the power, wealth, and comfort of those in authority. That’s what I think Christian spiritual writers should be doing: reminding Jesus’ followers that troublemaking is a mark of Baptism, that it is the Christian call is to be a voice for those being ground into the dust by the powerful—refugees, LGBTQ folk, the poor, women. No matter the cost.

One spiritual writer who is relentless in prodding seekers to seize the prophetic dimension of the gospel is my friend Joan Chittister. You cannot pick up one of her 50 plus books without being punched in the stomach (or maybe the heart) on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised for whom Jesus gave his life. And at age 83, she is still at it, no holds barred.

If you want to experience what the Nigerian writer meant when he wrote, “The poet who is not in trouble/ With the King/ Is in trouble with his work,” tune in to Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday this week, May 26 at 11 a.m. when she interviews Joan. Here’s what Oprah is saying about the interview:

In this episode of "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah Winfrey talks with author and activist Sister Joan Chittister to discuss her newest book, "The Time Is Now: A Call For Uncommon Courage." In a powerful conversation, Sister Joan defines what it means to be a prophet in today's modern world and challenges us to combat complacency and apathy in our own lives. She outlines the key steps we can all take to lift America (and the world) out of its current state of polarization and political disarray. Rather than wait for others to solve the problems of inequality, injustice and poverty, Sister Joan explains why it is both our moral and spiritual responsibility to take action ourselves, and make the world a better place for all.

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To grow accustomed
to the weeping cherry tree in blossom
is a sin
against the Holy Spirit—
never to be forgiven
--Old Monk

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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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