Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 234

Maybe I wrote too much about dying and death because every time I picked up a pen in the past few months it seemed futile. Not that anything dire happened. The surgery they had planned for my liver cancer couldn’t be done—blood vessels were too close to my heart--but the doctor went to Plan B and removed all the large tumors there before gluing me back up. Now, it’s a matter of targeting with chemo the smaller tumors—two much simpler procedures. And this hope from the doctor: “I think I can give you at least two more years.”

No, nothing dire happened--it’s just that once you’re looking at the great abyss, does the song of a cuckoo hold real meaning? Once again, a Japanese poet brought me home. Over the years, I’ve had life resuscitations from Ryokan and Han Shan and and Saigyo. This time it was the Haiku master, Issa.

If anyone should have equated life with futility, it’s Issa—his mother died when he was three, his first wife died, his three children died, his house burned down, his second marriage was unsuccessful, he lived in extreme poverty…and a lot of other things in between. And yet, when I began reading, The Spring of My Life, his autobiographical sketch that links a bit of narrative to his poems, I wanted to write again. I read in the introduction (Sam Hamill, translator) that Issa’s name meant “One cup of tea,” I picked up my pen and wrote

The haiku master’s name
means
“one cup of tea”
which I sip
with daily delight.
--Old Monk

Here are a couple more tries:

When the farmers discuss
rice fields, each thinks his own
is the very best
--Issa

When monks discuss
prayer, each states
with certainty
that her particular path leads
straight to God’s heart.
--Old Monk

++

It’s New Year’s Day
but nothing changed at my
unkempt hermitage.
--Issa

It’s New Year’s Eve
but nothing to celebrate
in this year
of pandemic death—
Wait! The pink winter rose.
++

Before I go, one last thing about death. A poem by Louise Gluck, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, gave me pause. When I think about what I’ll miss because of death, I begin to name a favorite place in nature, a loved friend, a special food, --all exterior things. But, in her poem “Crossroads,” Gluck reminded me of the most basic and most heart-wrenching loss—my body. She writes:

“My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —
… it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.”

My own tradition—Christian—has always demeaned or dismissed the body as something to be wary of because of its insatiable desires that torpedo you to hell, or as nonessential, at most a container for the soul. I just finished a Buddhist book that took the same approach to the body—"I am not these eyes and what they see. I am loving awareness. I am not these ears and what they hear. I am loving awareness. I am not this body. I am loving awareness.” Okay.

It’s all we have, of course-- one body in which we experience what we call “my life.” I think of how little time I’ve given to acknowledging it, reverencing it. And me, an athlete! If anyone should light a candle before the body, it is an athlete. Sometimes when I’m with a group and we’re talking about the importance of self-love and self-acceptance, I goof around and begin to kiss my hands and arms saying aloud, “I love myself, I love myself.” But it’s always a “spirit” myself that I’m kissing. I don’t think I was ever really kissing my body. How fantastic that we just celebrated Christmas when we’re reminded that God comes to us in a human body. “Venite adoremus,” come let us adore. And as far as New Year’s resolutions go--Let’s just give this beautiful body one long, passionate kiss.

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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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