I’m grateful for my Irish friends but some of the stuff they tell me spooks me out. Like the one about a bird flying into your window means death is on its way. A couple weeks ago when the crabapple tree outside my study window was filled with white blossoms, I heard a bird hit my window once, twice, three times…. until I ran and closed the shade. It happened again the next day when I was preparing my morning coffee. I repeated my ritual believing, I guess, that by drawing the shade I was preventing death from arriving.
When the bird smacked against the window the third time –in the afternoon when I was sitting in my chair and reading--I reached for the blind cord and stopped myself. “Wait a minute, Kownacki, you don’t have an ounce of Irish blood. Get a grip.” So, I steeled myself and watched the bird hit the window. It was a robin, a pregnant robin. Why would I jump to the conclusion that this dear mother was a harbinger of death? Maybe she was bringing me a message of new life? We gazed at each other for a minute or two and then she flew away. When she returned, I talked to her a bit, explaining that I was going to close the shade so she wouldn’t hurt herself or her baby. My friend visited a few more times and then, when the white blossoms disappeared-- the blossoms she saw reflected in my window-- so did she.
I’m embarrassed to admit the terror I felt when that bird first hit the window. And for no rational reason on earth, except, of course, that death is a little more on my mind these days. It reminded me how often I react in fear because of what I’ve been taught or told are bad omens, like people of different color or religion or nationality or social standing coming into my life, knocking on my door…
Which brings me to an interview with Pope Francis that I read recently.
In the interview the Pope was asked what he thought about giving alms to street beggars who ask for help. He answered:
“There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private?.... Help is always right. Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian.”
I loved the pope’s reply for two reasons. First, is that he unmasks our hypocrisy, our self-righteousness in regard to the poor. Why does it upset you so if the person on the street uses your loose change to get a little comfort? Why do we expect such comfort for ourselves and are so mean-spirited when it comes to the poor, depriving them of what little joy they might enjoy? Are you giving a gift or not? Do God’s gifts to you come with strings attached? And, the clincher: Ask yourself, “What do you do secretly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private?” Gotcha! -- quit projecting your “secrets” on the poor.
Second, the Pope tells us that a Christian doesn’t just toss money at the poor and walk on. No, a Christian stops, makes eye contact, touches the beggar’s hands, or at least offers a greeting. The idea being that once you make eye contact, you are invited to see the homeless stranger as another human being, someone just like you. With eye contact and a simple “how are you” or “God bless” you are on equal footing.
And who knows, maybe like the pregnant robin which changed from bad omen to friend once I looked it in the eye, that which is “frightening” or “strange” or “other” in a human being can be seen in a new light. Those unwelcome guests might even bring messages that surprise.
In addition to reading through all my journals, I’m also organizing all my poems, about 500 of them. This one reminded me of the Pope’s words:
This is a poem about
the bag lady Rose
who walks from church
to church demanding
five dollars and two rolls of toilet paper,
to dry her dishes, dust her chairs,
clean the kitchen floor after
her fifteen stray cats.
With the five dollars
she walks into Wegman’s
like all the wealthy residents
of South Shore Drive,
to buys strawberries in December.
“O, they taste good to her.”
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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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