Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 232

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? I always want the bad news first to get it out of the way so I can enjoy the good news. So, here’s the bad news. The clinical test drug that I’m on to try to arrest the growth of the eye cancer that has metastasized to my liver is not working. The good news is that I’m still alive and playing pretty good golf.

They are keeping me on the test drug for another six weeks to see if it reverses itself… but it’s a long shot. So, I’m taking baby steps to walk into whatever door opens.

A friend gave me a book by Ram Dass & Mirabai Bush, Walking Home: Conversations of Loving and Dying which chronicled his cancer journey to the great beyond. I have great affection for Ram Dass—his iconic book, Be Here Now, played a pivotal part in my own spiritual outlook. When I opened the book at random, however, I found myself in a short chapter titled, “Giving Up Attachment” and a suggested practice of listing all the foods you love months before you die and then giving them up one at a time. I immediately closed the book.

My spiritual practice is just the opposite—list all your favorite foods months before you die and then eat them whenever you can, preferably with loved ones. When the time comes, I want to imitate the holy Teacher in the story who, when nearing death, sent his favorite disciple to the bakery with instructions to bring back the dying monk’s favorite pastry. The disciple did as instructed, and when the community gathered to bid farewell to their leader, the Teacher ate a bit of the pastry, whispered something in his beloved disciples ear, and died. All of his followers pressed the disciple to reveal the Teacher’s last words of instruction. The disciple finally acquiesced and reported, “The teacher’s last words of wisdom were, ‘Oh, that tastes good.’” That’s my kind of spiritual guru. Oh, it’s good. All of it is good. Just taste and see.

In a journal of poems I’m reading, I came across “At the Cancer Clinic” by Ted Kooser and it reminded me so much of the treatment center that I go to weekly.

At the Cancer Clinic

She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

It’s hard to explain “grace” until you see it in action. I might want to paraphrase what Dostoyevsky said of “love” and write “Grace in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to grace in dreams.” What Kooser describes at his cancer clinic mirrors mine. Only the agents of grace that permeate my clinic are the nurses.

I sit in that recliner every week for close to five hours while they test my blood and prepare and infuse my drug and take my vitals over and over again—and I feel aswim in grace. You can find the grace of community here. The nurses know all the patients by name since they see them for treatment on a regular basis. They are genuinely interested in their personal lives and know them intimately enough to ask questions about their children and grandchildren. The nurses spend unhurried, precious time with patients who want to show them recent pictures of a vacation or a family birthday party. They answer all questions patiently and fill the six treatment rooms with healing light.

I was there when a woman in chemo shouted out, “My daughter is pregnant. She just sent me a picture of her sonogram.” And the news spread like wildfire with nurse after nurse coming to look at the smart phone’s proof of new life and offer “congratulations.”

I was there when an elderly woman whispered to the nurse, “I like coming here. It’s much better than my nursing home. Here you don’t make me feel guilty because I have to call you to go to the bathroom.”

I was there when a patient called his best friend on the phone and told him, “I put a shotgun in my car when I go the news about the cancer and drove for days looking for a place to pull the trigger…I can’t forget the past…all the stuff I don’t want my wife and children to know about me…all the stuff about Vietnam.” All I could do was say a silent prayer while the nurse went and held his hand.

I was there when a young father was telling the nurses about a recent family boating vacation and was so excited because he was running a marathon the coming weekend, minutes before the doctor walked in and told him they would have to stop treatment—his liver platelets were soaring. “I have to call my wife,” he stammered, “she’s shopping at a co-op…she’ll be so upset…can I still run the marathon?” he asked between tears. And then grace, a harsh and dreadful thing in action, took over in the form of a loving nurse who calmed and reassured him.

These instances of grace remind me of an anecdote that I just copied into my Commonplace book: In 1895 as Oscar Wilde, the most famous Irish poet and playwright of his day, was being escorted to prison for the crime of homosexuality, paraded through a mob howling, “Shame! Shame!” one man removed his hat and bowed to him. Wilde stopped and said, “This, sir, is a debt I can never repay.”

When it comes to the cancer clinic nurses, I can only echo Wilde, “Your kindness, dear nurses, filled to the brim and overflowing, is a grace I can never repay.”

“Beside restful waters you lead me, you refresh my soul.” Ps. 23

When I pray this psalm verse, I go to a Lake Douglass in Tennessee where I’m on vacation in a cabin in the Smokies. Douglass is more like a river than a lake, but they named it not me. It’s dawn and I’m on the back deck with a cup of coffee greeting the day. Soon a heron will glide across the lake making a god-awful attempt to chant Lauds. What a nice picture, what a comforting memory. But I think I short-change myself. Why do I limit restful waters that refresh to my favorite lakes or rivers or creeks? If that’s all that gives me serenity and newness, I’m dead meat. How much time do I actually have to spend staring at water? Okay, when I pray this psalm verse, I go to ten-year old Annabelle who giggles over a sentence she reads in the book we’re discussing together, Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. Annabelle, you refresh and restore my soul. I go to a card I received in the mail from a friend who wanted me to know that she cared about me. I go to an unexpected email from a reader of this blog —one click and black and white paintings turned to luscious color. Instant after instant, You lead me beside restful waters and there refresh my soul.

I’m a little nervous because all the poems that I’m writing are about death. And I don’t think I’m morose or depressed. Maybe it’s a good way for my subconscious to deal with it.

How many nights
O God
have I lay awake
in dread,
bereft of any
touch to counter death’s
icy grip,
or fitfully tossed
like a shoreless sea
until I remember the mercy
given by your poet Jane Kenyon:
“Let evening come,
God will not leave us comfortless.”

When they sawed down
the eight-story oak tree,
its birthday numbering in the hundreds,
its presence across from the church
built by nickels and dimes from Polish immigrants,
they tore down the sign of
faithfulness of blooming through
war and depression, poverty, prejudice,
white flight, and a changing neighborhood.
They tore down Invincibility.
The church bell still chimes
and pours its old Polish melodies
down the street but no one listens
except for the old monk who lives
nearby and is now
dying, too.

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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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