Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 252

I’m taking the easy way out on this blog and copying an interview with me that appeared in the most recent issue of The Mount, the bi-annual publication of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. The interview marked the 40th anniversary of the publishing of my book, Peace is Our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement. The book is long out of print but is now available as a Kindle ebook. Click here. Also, if you want to read the entire Mount—an excellent publication—click here.

Q. In the introduction to Peace Is Our Calling, you say that it’s an impossible task to define monasticism, “How do you define an experience?” you ask. You cite two attempts at definitions: monastic life as a “rhythm” (Tony Mullaney, OSB) and Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB, who said it is mindfulness that makes an environment monastic. Would you still consider rhythm and mindfulness as key to monasticism?

I’d probably give a little more time to defining a monastic spirit. But let’s go with these two.
Rhythm is a fluid word. For a monastic it means the days of our life are spent in prayer, sacred reading, work, service, and the building of community—all of course for the purpose of seeking God’s will on earth. And what is God’s will? Well, God wills humanity’s well-being. So, all our efforts are geared to that end. I much prefer the word rhythm to balance. Balance, to me, is a bit anal and brings an image of people walking about with measuring rods—this much time for prayer, this much time for leisure! Not the way I think a monastic goes through life. Rhythm, on the other hand, flows as circumstances allow. Sometimes leisure isn’t possible because of work deadlines, sometime prayer is cut short because I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but, in the span of days, there is a monastic rhythm to one’s life.
As for mindfulness, absolutely, that is what makes a monastic environment. My idea of mindfulness is this story from the Jewish tradition: a Rabbi entered a room in his home and saw his son deep in prayer. In the corner stood a cradle with a crying baby. The Rabbi asked his son, “Can’t you hear? There’s a baby crying in this room.” The son said, “Father, I was lost in God.” And the rabbi said, “One who is lost in God can see the very fly crawling up the wall.” What I think the rabbi is saying is that a prayerful person “sees as God sees” and a monastic training in mindfulness can help you to see that way. It’s a false prayer that doesn’t hear the wailing of the world’s children or see all of God’s creation as sacred.
And the nice thing about a rhythm of life and a growing sense of mindfulness is that anyone with a monastic heart—inside or outside a brick-and-mortar monastery—can live this way.

Q. What are the questions monks should be asking today?

The advice to preachers attributed to theologian Karl Barth is still relevant: “Hold a bible in one hand and a newspaper (or iPhone) in the other.” If you pray that way, you will know what questions monks should be asking today. Especially if you pray in the manner the rabbi in the tale told his son to pray—you will be so mindful that you will hear the cries and wails of all the helpless and dispossessed, you will see the goodness in all creation, and you will act.
If you need questions, these are off the top of my head: Given the advance in science, how can we make the idea of God meaningful to a new generation? What is a human being? When are we going to erase dualistic redemptive theology for a non-dualistic creation-centered theology? In a future where robots and Artificial Intelligence do most of our work, what will give humans a sense of meaning and fulfillment? What is Plan B if we succeed in our efforts to destroy the earth and all living things as we currently define them? Patriarchy, sexism, misogyny—it is the original sin of the church and needs to be repented. If that is not done, nothing will change. How can we eradicate it?

Q. You quoted Henri Nouwen as describing “monasticism as a resistance movement.” What should monastics be resisting today? What should the world expect of monasticism now—if monasticism were to remain true to itself?

I think in Peace Is Our Calling I quoted someone as saying that a monastery should stand as a question mark to society. And I would add, that the monastery should always stand as a question mark to the institutional church. It’s very Jesus-like. Jesus resisted both temple and king by acting differently than the status quo—welcoming outcasts, identifying with the poor, treating women as equals, refusing an “eye for an eye,” empowering the disenfranchised, speaking truth to power, rejecting the expectation to lead a violent insurrection against the occupying forces. So he was a threat to both and had to die. The monastery does likewise because we believe that Jesus saw with the eyes of God and so we imitate. We believe in the sharing of goods, not accumulation for personal gain; the welcoming of all people, inclusiveness, not division; nonviolence, not war and cruelty; the building of community, not social privilege and status; a life devoted to prayer, beauty, leisure and “good” work, not the accumulation of money and power; a stewardship of the earth not acts of destruction—all these are counter-cultural and acts of resistance. Perhaps the most counter-cultural of all is that the God we believe in is not one of prosperity and power and wealth and patriarchy.
I go back to the original question of mindfulness: in the monastery we are being trained to “see with the eyes of God.” When that starts to happen, you become a resistance movement. I mean, your heart should be getting softer and softer, more compassionate, more courageous, ready to risk it all so that others—and the earth—may come to what God wills: all of creation’s well-being. Your very way of being speaks truth to power.

Q. In the last issue of The Mount, you were featured as a jubilarian celebrating 60 years of monastic life. In those 60 years, what has given you the most joy, made you smile the most often?
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the company of children a good part of my life and learned from them genuine joy and ease of laughter. Looking in the mirror makes me laugh when I think of how ridiculous that person staring back has been at times, too many times. Finally, I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer and recently my oncologist said to me, “You have two things that will help you on this last journey: a strong constitution and good friends.” That filled me with a lot of joy and even made me smile inside because it told me that all of it—despite the difficult things that come with every life choice—was worthwhile. I couldn’t ask for more.

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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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