Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 227

Only nature continues to celebrate as if there is no pandemic. The tulips, daffodils, hyacinths arrive on time in the backyard garden. My inner-city street is awash with white blossoms from flowering cherry, crab apple, and pear trees. Nature lives its life when we cannot. And it will continue its cycle long after we are not. Very humbling to realize we are not the center of anything. Pope Francis wonders if the pandemic is nature’s way of responding to the ecological crisis, a dramatic way to get our attention for ignoring the destruction we’ve sown, a way to make us “slow down the rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world.” It’s true for me.

My brother who is suffering from advanced cancer calls and makes me weep. But not for the reason you’d expect. “Mary Lou,” he says, “this pandemic is awful but what it’s brought out in people is amazing. I was so down with the political scene and the state of the country but now…I can’t believe the goodness of people. So many ordinary people are willing to lay down their lives for another. The human race is beautiful, just beautiful.” I listen to him go on and on and I weep. I weep because a good man like this should not leave the earth…not yet.

It’s Easter morning—
A slice of Polish sweet bread
Slathered in butter.

I wrote that haiku last Easter. Most of my life this, not chocolate bunnies, was the taste of Easter—waking up in the morning and taking the first bite of homemade kucha, sweet bread. This year no sweet bread. No Polish market because of COVID-19. Is it Easter? Thank God I can still taste the poem.

I’m reading a lot during this pandemic and found a gem in the novel, The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, a 564 pager about two remarkable women—separated by centuries—who, due to being women, suffer at the hands of society but overcome tremendous obstacles to rise to light. The story of the brilliant Ester Velasquez, a Jewish emigrant from Amsterdam who lives in London in the 17th century and is permitted to secretly scribe for a rabbi, is interwoven with that of Helen Watts, an ailing manuscript historian who in the early 21st century discovers Ester’s papers buried in a walled home and struggles to raise her voice from the tomb. I love all this new feminist writing that proves that try as evil and injustice might, it cannot kill the minds and hearts and words of women.

Speaking of feminists, I read an insightful interview on the NPR webpage Julia Alvarez, prior to the publication of her book, Afterlife. She begins with a line of poetry from William Wordsworth, “A deep distress has humanized my soul.” Though Wordsworth wrote that following the death of his brother, Alvarez finds its meaningful for our pandemic time. “This deep distress might humanize us and return us to the good people we are,” she said. “I return to those works (of literature), because in a sense, it says to me that this has happened before. We can make it through.” She compares literature—written and oral stories, music, dance, all things people take solace in—to a line from a Frost poem: “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again without confusion.” Alvarez believes that where we go to find solace in deep distress is our holy grail, the water where we find new life.

I spent two hours today copying into my commonplace book passages and poems from things I’ve recently read. “Why are you doing this?” I ask myself. Just what is the purpose of a stack of tablets containing copied writings. I used to think it was a good reference source for my own writing or a place I could find a quick inspiration. But I’m looking at it differently lately. I think it’s my centering practice, my way of entering the tomb. I know for sure that it is one of the great pleasures of my life—to be in the presence of beautiful words and to hand-copy them as best I can. Maybe I was a monk scribe in a previous life. Today, for example, I copied this Merwin poem. I know I’ve already copied it in a previous journal, but I couldn’t resist doing it again:

To Paula In Late Spring

Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment

—W.S. Merwin

On Easter Monday I return to a Pittsburgh hospital to get a biopsy. My most recent MRI showed tiny lesions in the liver, the part of the body where my particular rare eye cancer metastasizes. My friends send notes about how I’m living the pascal mystery in a special way this year, praying that out of suffering comes a miracle of new life. I pray with them, of course. I love living and if they discovered a pill that guaranteed endless years, I’d gulp it without hesitation. But there is that empty tomb that reminds us relentlessly “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” I read a poem once that pointed out that if death were such a great thing why do gods of every belief claim immortality. Ha!

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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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