Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 237

I got to hear one of my top three Gospel stories twice this week, once on Palm Sunday and again on Monday of Holy Week. It’s the story of the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with perfume and is chastised by the apostles because the money used on the nard could have been given to the poor. Jesus, however, sides with the woman. Since the event gets tied in with passion narrative, the church explains Jesus’ approval by saying the woman was prophesying his death and anointing him in advance. That’s not why I like the story. The writer Mary Gordon comes closest to explaining my reason in this passage that I copied in my commonplace book a few years ago. Gordon writes:

“Waste not, want not” was not a sentence written by an artist. And it is as an artist that this story is most important to me. Because in the moment of the washing of the feet, Jesus insists that beauty matters: that the aesthetic can take precedence over the moral. Tormented as I have always been by the vision of myself as Dives stepping over the sore-covered Lazarus to get, not to a feast, but to my writing desk, I have been comforted and assured by imagining myself the purchaser of nard, the lover with the spreading hair. Because in this story love wins over duty, passion and the body’s joys eclipse justice."
–Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospel

Indeed, I love the extravagance, the earthiness, the sensuality, the shout-out for beauty and human pleasure and delight in this brief story. As the poet Jack Gilbert reminds us (and the apostles): “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

I attended a community meeting recently for sisters who were at least 75 years of age to try to put some concrete ideas around a goal that we had decided on last year:
Provide opportunities for all sisters, especially our elders,
to lead meaningful and purposeful lives and contribute to community

Nuns do stuff like this. We have these meetings and set goals and then have more meetings to make sure we pay some attention to doing what we once said we wanted to do. For the most part it works well, and both the individual sisters and group get a chance to grow. But, be warned, if meetings are not your thing, you probably don’t have a religious vocation. On the other hand, meetings are just what you might need for salvation, especially if you tend to think you have the all the answers. Hmmm…I wonder who I’m talking about.

At this 75+ meeting, some philosophical ideas about aging surfaced and specific suggestions were offered for the proposed goal. I didn’t go to the microphone because I couldn’t articulate what I thought was important. Then the next day I read a brief piece titled “On Not ‘Beating’ Cancer” in Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays, One Long River of Song. After making the case that cancer is not an opponent that can be defeated, it can only be endured and held at bay, Doyle writes: “The truth is that the greatest victory is to endure with grace and humor, to stay in the game, to achieve humility.” “Gosh,” I said to myself, “I hope that I can endure my cancer in this way.” Suddenly the 75+ meeting popped into my head and I thought, “That’s it, that’s what I wanted to say last night. This beautiful sentence isn’t just for those who happen to have cancer, it holds for every human being.” So, let me grab an imaginary microphone, pay homage to Doyle, and offer my two cents, “The truth is that the greatest victory in AGING is to endure with grace and humor, to stay in the game, to achieve humility.”

April is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, I am posting a short poem, a question and prompt every other day during the month, starting on Easter Monday. Mostly they will be haiku or tanka by my daily companions, the ancient Japanese and Chinese poets. I will do the prompt myself, either in prose or poetry, and invite you to play with me. Or not. Here’s a sample in case you are interested.

How can we ever lose interest in life?
Spring has come again
And cherry blossoms
Bloom in the mountains.

Do you like this poem? Why or why not? How does it make you feel?
Prompt: Copy the first line of Ryokan’s poem and in prose or poetry answer it.

How can we ever lose interest in life?
Rain pelts from dawn to evensong
And in some deep spot of the earth
A cucumber smiles.
--Old Monk

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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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