Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 231

In between going to Pittsburgh for treatment once a week, community meetings, organizing the Benedictine Sisters 2nd Annual Golf Tournament, showing up for daily work, and trying to play a bit of golf, I’ve let my journal and this blog lag. Sorry about that. Rest assured I am alive and kicking…so far.

Another thing I’ve been lazy about is my commonplace book. The pandemic certainly affords time for reading and I have about a dozen books and magazines stacked in a basket on my shelf, marked with passages that I want to keep but haven’t yet copied into my commonplace book. That’s this week’s play. And here are some of the passages I will be copying and playing with.

In a recent issue of Spirituality & Health magazine, a reader asked Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “Is there any point to life at all?” Shapiro wrote, “Imagine you are dieting. If someone asks you why you are dieting, you might explain you’re dieting for health reasons or to impress others at a class reunion or…. What you most likely won’t say is that you are dieting because you love to diet. Now imagine you are singing. If someone asks why, you will most likely say you love to sing. Dieting is a means to an end (however unattainable) and has no meaning in and of itself; singing is an end in and of itself and needs no additional meaning. Life is like singing, not dieting: There is no point to life; life itself is the point.”

This passage gives me an answer for a lot of things. One of them being: What is the point of keeping a commonplace book? My answer: There is no point to play; play itself is the point.

I’m reading this book of brief, unusual book reviews, Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces by the poet and Nobel Prize recipient for literature, Wislawa Szymborska. One of the books she comments on is Witches: A History of Witchcraft Trials by Kurt Baschwitz.

In the review she notes that women who were thought to be lighter in weight than their height and build would suggest, were condemned as witches. The city of Oudewater had a public scale that was considered infallible when it came to weighting cheese and flour and other market products. So many “potential witches” were brought to Oudewater to be weighed. But the wily citizens of Oudewater fixed the scale and no woman ever received a negative reading. Not a witch to be found in Oudewater! Szymborska notes: “The people of Oudewater were both good and clever. Goodness is helpless without wit.”

This reminded me of Jesus saying, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves." I have such little patience with naive goodness or innocence, no matter how pure. I saw too much of it when I was heavily involved in the peace movement. So many innocent wide-eyed peacemakers who thought a nonviolent heart was enough to disarm a den of thieves and murderers. I don’t think so. Gandhi certainly didn’t think so, nor did King, nor did Chavez. Nor did Jesus, All of them—just like the citizens of Outedwater-- were shrewd strategists who knew what evil they were up against and planned accordingly, Don’t get me wrong, they kept the treasure of goodness in their hearts, but did what was necessary to give life and give it more abundantly.

I read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu…one more time. This time I tried the translation by Urusla k. Le Guin. I have to admit defeat, this being my third try at the Tao. I just don’t understand it. Even so, I marked down three passages for my commonplace book. But when I went to copy them, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “What?” Then I put my pen down and decided that the Way would be revealed to me in the afterlife.

If laughter is the best medicine, I certainly got a dose of health reading Small Victories by Anne Lamott. I love her books—she takes all of this spiritual stuff so seriously and treats it so profanely. My kind of saint. She throws out these unexpected one-liners that, for a split second, take your breath away and then you’re doubled up with laughter. For example, she writes that her friend Sue, who was dying of lung cancer, called her because various church people were telling Sue that she should be happy because she would soon be going home to Jesus. Lamott writes, “This is the sort of thing that gives Christians a bad name. This, and the Inquisition.”

In this short passage, you get both the irreverence—believers who tell dying people to be happy because they are going home to Jesus give Christianity a bad name—and you get the sudden electric shock. Tell me, who expects the line—"This, and the Inquisition.”

Given that, what I’m saving from the Lamott book is a quote from the Persian poet Rumi that she commented on—“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” Ah, how I love it when a new image grabs my attention. In the depths of ocean lies ruin in the form of a sunken ship named grief and suffering, illness and death, loss and tragedy. But in the center of that ruin, if you dare dive deep enough to explore it, lies hidden the possibility of a great treasure.

And speaking of Rumi, I did finish Rumi Day by Day, translated by Maryam Mafi and one of the quotes I copied was:

If you want to glean the mystics’ wisdom
and learn how they’ve conquered their ego,
you need to sit with them,
you need to keep them company.

That brings me back to my first entry and probably contradicts it. What is the purpose of a commonplace book: The purpose of keeping a commonplace book is to sit with mystics and the poets and the seekers. You need to keep them company.

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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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