Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 251

My friend Mary Miller tells me that every time I get a cancer treatment she puts me in “white light” and imagines the experimental drug as “prayer liquid.” I have received dozens and dozens of notes from people across the country telling me that are naming me in prayer on a daily basis. There is a special cadre of friends praying to Blessed Dorothy Day for a “miracle” that will advance her canonization process. My favorite prayers, though, because God hears them in a special way, are the prayers of the poor. My friend, Rosanne Lindal-Hynes, for example, takes a daily walk of three miles through center-city Erie and has done so decades. In her pockets she carries small gift cards to local downtown eateries. As is her custom, when she meets a person from the panty or soup kitchen on the street, she hands them a gift card and tells them to have good breakfast or lunch. But since my diagnosis, she adds this caveat, “All I ask is that you say a special prayer for my good friend, Sister Mary Lou.” It’s kind of selling indulgences by third-party, but I’ll take it. So far no one has refused to pray, even though receiving the gift card does not require their consent. That means I have hundreds of Erie’s homeless and poor storming heaven on my behalf. And I also have the promise of Psalm 34 that “God hears the cry of the poor.” Sister Mary and Sister Rosanne both tell me that they are often stopped by soup kitchen guests and asked, “How’s Sister Mary Lou doing? I’m still praying for her.” So I’m attributing the fact that I’m still alive—beyond when I should be—to God’s special friends who, given the circumstances of their lives, make it almost embarrassing that they are praying for someone as well off as myself.

As for my current condition: my latest MRI and CT scans showed a slight decrease in the two tumors in my liver and a slight increase in the two tumors in my lungs. That is enough good news for me to agree to stay on the trial drug until there is clear evidence that it is not keeping the cancer at bay.

I’d like to recommend a book that I read recently, The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende, a conversational memoir by the popular Chilean novelist. Allende traces her commitment to feminism from kindergarten when she experienced her mother, abandoned with three children. having no option but to depend on men for survival. She then traces her ongoing struggle against misogyny through her chauvinistic stepfather, three marriages, the male-controlled Latin American publishing industry, the death of her daughter Paula, and her world travels that gave her up close and personal evidence of the plight of women. Allende draws strength from a circle of women she calls the “Sisters of Perpetual Disorder” and from her foundation dedicated to the empowerment of women. The book evoked all the worthwhile responses—tears, laughter, anger, and great respect for Allende’s ongoing efforts to eradicate patriarchy and bring justice to women.

When speaking to younger women, I am sometime left with the impression that the feminist battle is “old hat” and that “we’ve come a long way.” Well, listen to Allende’s facts:
In Mexico, ten women are murdered daily, most beaten or killed by their boyfriends…The Democratic Republic of the Congo holds the shameful title of “rape capital of the world”…the United Nations estimates that every year around five thousand girls and women in the Middle East and Asia are killed to protect a man’s or a family’s honor...a woman is raped every six minutes in the United States (that’s reported cases, estimates are at least five times higher)…every nine seconds a woman is beaten in this county….” Indeed, Allende is on target when she attests, to be a woman means to live in fear.” A good book to read yourself, give as a gift to another woman, and yes, even offer it to a man who might be interested in the soul of a woman. Allende’s life experiences and struggles against patriarchy might make many women bitter and defeated. Not this passionate woman who says of herself: “My theory and practice is to say yes to life and then I’ll see how I manage along the way.”


One of the benefits of being sick is that everyone gives you gifts. Really, it’s like a cornucopia of kindness. Recently someone put a book of haiku in my mailbox at the monastery---Listen to Light by Raymond Roseliep. Did that bring back memories! When I was in my 20s and submitting poetry to various magazines, I received letters of encouragement from Roseliep, who was then Poetry Editor for Sisters Today, a now defunct periodical, connecting me with other magazine editors, and urging me to continue to write. His first letter, dated November 25, 1965, was a gigantic boost to my fragile confidence as a writer. He wrote, “I receive hundreds of poems, but rarely a package as rich as yours. You are a good poet, Sister. I am pleased to accept….” I’m not sure I ever really believed him since in the ensuing years I didn’t devote much time to poetry, just dabbled in it occasionally. But I saved his letters and only recently—before the book appeared in my mailbox—reread them. When I read the book, I found out that Roseliep wrote nine books of haiku, was widely published in over seventy magazines, and won two national haiku awards. For old time sake, I decided to have a conversation with him. Here are a couple chats:

the path
to and from the rose
is the same

the path
to and from the monastery
changed direction
every day
for sixty years
--Old Monk

“Old man,” I whispered,
arms around my father:
no leaf moved.

“O mother,”
I whisper, old photograph
in hand,
“did I ever listen
for your story?”
--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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