Friday, January 20, 2023

On Monastic Prayer, continued + 1,000 Hours

You know those alarm clocks that allow you to "wake up" to the sounds of nature. I had one as a kid, and I remember choosing the "Babbling Brook" setting.

Well, this morning we had our very own all-natural alarm clock as water began dripping from the roof into chapel during morning praise! It certainly woke us up!

What was even better were the lines from Psalm 32 we chanted, punctuated by the drip, drip, drip:
So let the faithful pray to you
in their time of need.
Even flood waters will never reach them.

Oh, all is one! (And ironic!)


Speaking of nature, I am just about done with a new book by religion historian Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World

She reminds us what so many others have reminded us: we humans are the ground we walk on. Let us be a bit more reverent; let us recognize our place in the cosmos. (See: Benedictine humility)

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book.

Human beings have the freedom to make a voluntary act of islam (the "surrender" of ego) and to consciously shape their lives so that they reflect the source of being.

We can practice a simple exercise that will remind us of the kenosis [self-emptying] that is central to a fulfilled human life. This is not a prayer. It is simply a short, sharp reminder of the essential frailty of our humanity that enables us to see ourselves realistically and, hopefully, improve. Every day, first thing in the morning and at night, for just a few moments we should consider three things: how little we know; how frequently we fail in kindness to other beings; and how limited are our desires and yearnings, which so often begin and end in our self.


Speaking of nature (again), J suggested that we take on a challenge: spend 1,000 hours outside over the course of the year. Doing simple math, i.e. 1,000/365, we have to spend an average of just under 2.75 hours outside each day to achieve this goal. We are banking on summer days and maybe a camping trip (or two) to help us along. 

I am still not so sure it will really be achievable for me, but it's certainly something worth striving for. Plus, the comprehensive spreadsheet I made to log our hours is delightful for my organized and goal-oriented self!

Here are some photos I have captured over the first 2% of the journey! (980 hours to go!)

Let us walk in the holy presence.

I love the contrast of the fog and these trees.

And I love when the horizon is indistinguishable.

Overall, it hasn't been too snowy of a winter here.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Old Monk + The Gingko

So many of us have memories of Old Monk, communal and individual, professional and personal, and all those memories somewhere in-between. 

The one I want to share here happened in October 2020, when we expected that she might only have a few months left after her cancer had metastasized. 

Old Monk decided the time had come to clean out her writing studio where she led numerous writing workshops, facilitated book and poetry discussions, and spent hours writing in solitude, too. She asked me to help her with the task.

So, on a Monday afternoon we took some boxes to the classroom-turned-artist studio at St. Mary's School. There, there were so many books of poetry, books on teaching poetry, books on writing, so many books. But, among the books were so many ideas. On one piece of paper scattered among many, as though it were nothing, I found in her scratchy scribble, "COLLEGE FOR POOR." Then, there was a list underneath:

Art History
American History

30 students
2 nights a week/90 minutes

The paper was caught between others, as though it were nothing, but it was illustrative of Old Monk's life: big ideas. Yet, it was just another idea among many of hers that would add something beautiful and just to the world.

That was Old Monk's life, adding beauty and justice to the world as a sign of God's love for us all. And doing it in a uniquely creative and prophetic way.

At one point, after we had boxed up the things she wanted to keep, Old Monk went to sit down. She said to me, "Come, sit down. Let's let our souls catch up to us."

Mary Lou did so much in her prodigious lifetime; I was fortunate enough that my life crossed her own, even if only at the very end. And even though she did so much: advancing movements and holy ideas, creating communities and ministries, writing books and poems and pamphlets and reflections, she still found a way to let her "soul catch up to her" each day with a disciplined morning routine of prayer and reflection. And all she did was done with such fidelity to and integrity for life. Her life reminds me of the quote about Saint Scholastica, Benedict's twin sister: She could do more because she loved more.

In that same afternoon, she put on a hat that had been sitting on a shelf in her studio. It said "Art—Break the Rules." She loved art, and she loved breaking the rules. I asked her for some bit of wisdom; I don't even remember the exact question, but she replied, wearing this ridiculous-but-perfectly-suited-to-her-personality hat and that characteristic grin.

"You gotta keep choosing life."


Of course, Mary Lou did keep choosing life. She fought death all the way to the end; she fought death for two years more than her terminal prognosis. She fought death in so many ways throughout her 81 years here on earth. She committed herself to giving life to community, to the poor, to the nonviolent moment, to the gospel message, to furthering the cause of women (especially in the Church), to art, to feast and family, to all these parts of life that she cherished.


Old Monk loved ginkgo trees, too. I saw this one during a walk on a fall afternoon in the city she loved so much.

On the Smithsonian Education website, it reads:
In Japanese decorative art, the ginkgo’s distinctive fan-shaped leaf has carried symbolism along with its singular beauty: the ginkgo has been a symbol of longevity (the tree can live for a thousand years) and of a more profound endurance (four ginkgos survived the blast at Hiroshima and are still growing today).


a more profound endurance
and a more profound way of living
she could do more because she loved more
that was mary lou kownacki.


Let us walk in the holy presence.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

New Year, Same Liminality

My mentor and I are reading Pema Chödrön's new book, How We Live is How We Die. The contents are as challenging and scary to take in as the title suggests! The title reminds me of a line that one of our sisters sometimes quotes to me from another sister, "As you are in the novitiate, so you'll be in the infirmary."

It's hard to not think about death these days.

Another dear and greatly influential mentor of mine passed away last week. Dr. Robak's wisdom helped to set in motion a lot of necessary discernment and change in my life during my senior year of undergrad. I can't imagine I'd be where I am today without his presence.

And Old Monk also continues her transition back to stardust.

Rafiki is another wise mentor at a time like this: "It's the circle of life."


We have only read the first three chapters from Pema, but the focus is impermanence. She writes, "Contemplating continual change is a poignant experience."

It feels especially poignant right now.

But, the reality of living in a constant liminal space does open us up to connection and compassion.

During this time Pema offers comfort:

These feelings [of sadness or anxiety that come from reflecting on the passage of time and reality of impermanence] aren't a sign of something being wrong. We don't have to push them away. We don't have to label them as negative or reject them in any way. Instead, we can develop openheartedness to our painful emotions around impermanence. We can learn to sit with these feelings, to become curious about them, to see what vulnerability has to offer. In that very fear, in that very melancholy, is our compassionate heart, our immeasurable wisdom, our connection to all other living beings on this planet, each of whom are going through their own bardos [in-between states]. When we stay present with our transitory experience and all that its fleetingness evokes, we get in touch with our braver self, our deepest nature.

May this new year be one of deep connection and deep compassion for and with all creation as we change and grow together.

Let us walk in the holy presence.


A Christmas-Day walk to the lake offered us these scenes. 60-degree weather last week changed that landscape quite a bit though!

Friday, December 23, 2022

A fuller meaning of Christmas

A handful of our brave staff and volunteers ventured out to the soup kitchen for our Christmas dinner this afternoon amidst some pretty hazardous driving and weather conditions. While the snowfall isn't too deep here yet, the wind and the chill are dangerous. I am grateful to those organizing and running our city's shelter, especially during these days.

I am always amazed by the faithfulness of the Emmaus community, but I shouldn't be; they always show up. Whether it was the height of the pandemic when so much about our safety and wellbeing was uncertain, to a rather serious and extended Christmas storm today, so many are selfless when it comes to living the gospel in the daily.

I recently stumbled upon this reflection from Old Monk in her book, A Monk in the Inner City. The reflection is titled "Yuletide Carols," and it captures so wonderfully why we wait in hope for the coming of our incarnated Savior.

The Advent season is especially meaningful this year. The snows are heavy and deep and comforting. It is easy to pray with Isaiah,

Though your sins be red as crimson,
I will make them white as wool.

And there is such silence. City noises, encased in yards of white swaddling, are muffled. Cars, concrete sidewalks, and other hard objects lie buried under the soft snow.

We are forced to slow down—walk carefully so we don’t slip; drive cautiously so we don’t skid. We can spend more time indoors reading, listening to music, and praying. We prepare. For soon, “when the earth is in peaceful silence, and the night is in the midst of its course, your almighty Word, O Lord, will leap down from heaven.”

It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that this is what Christmas is all about.

Thank God for the soup kitchen. Is there a lonelier place on earth as Christmas nears? The guys start drinking in the middle of the month so that by Christmas week they can’t even hear the words “I’ll be home for Christmas” blaring on the radio. It’s their only defense. We try to make it less sad. But even handing out brightly wrapped socks and scarves and lotions, or having a party and singing Christmas carols and drinking hot chocolate doesn’t ease the heartbreak.

I’m grateful for both experiences—quiet confident joy at the coming of the Savior, tempered by the harsh reality of human suffering. Together, they capture a fuller meaning of Christmas.

Thank you, Old Monk. And Christmas blessings to you all! May you be incarnated love each day.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Mary graces our Emmaus office, also waiting hopefully.

The tree graces chapel, and the photo doesn't do it justice.
It's from our woods, and it's totally magnificent.
The liminality of Advent and Christmas on display.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Pizzelles: A Perfectionist's Perspective

Everyone gets on my case about being a perfectionist. And while it causes undue anxiety and tension in my life, there are times when it's helpful. And there are also times when others come out to play the game with me!

Pizzelle night is one of those moments.

A yearly tradition at the monastery, everyone looks to make the *perfect* circle with the pizzelle irons, getting just the right amount of batter at just the right location for just the right amount of time. And when they do, they want everyone to know. And we all rejoice in those satisfying shapes.

Marilyn, responsible, for the operation, gives us all pointers before we start, elevating the hope that the perfect circle is within our reach!

You can see many of my attempts above...Maybe not perfect, but they certainly offered an opportunity to appreciate diversity!

Many joined in on the fun!

Here was my best attempt of the evening!

But, of course, when they aren't perfect, we have to cut off the extra ends...and eat them, too! Maybe imperfections aren't so bad!

The anise and vanilla cookies are all boxed and ready to savor on Christmas Eve after Liturgy... Anticipation!

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

To Be of Use: More on Advent

One of my favorite scenes at the monastery these days can be spotted in our courtyard. Each Advent one of our sisters decorates with lights. It used to be just the magnolia tree, but now it has extended to the bushes on the west side of the courtyard. And this year, another extension! Look at Mary herself!

Salve Regina!

It makes me think of a Marge Piercy poem I love.

To be of use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Mary wants to be of use, too.

We know Mary isn't the passive young mother in the way history has portrayed her. No, she was fully submerged in the task of being the Mother of God, and she is a model for us today. She, too, is an incarnation of God's love in our world—teaching us mercy, compassion, resiliency, and courage. No wonder God opted for incarnation; we, too, are here to be put to use.


My friend shared with me a most beautiful rendition of the first lines of Isaiah 54 from the group Sweet Honey in the Rock—Sing Oh Barren One. It's worth the 12 minutes, I promise!


I just finished a book called lighter by yung pueblo. The cover has the appearance a self-help book, which can be off-putting to me, but I found it to be one of the most profound books that I've read about doing inner work, i.e. making it an appropriate and beautiful Advent read.

In between his prose, yung pueblo (It's a pseudonym meaning "young people" and signifying that "humanity is entering an era of remarkable growth and healing, when many will expand their self-awareness and release old burdens.") intersperses some short, thought-provoking poetry.

It's that inner work, or as monastics would call it—conversatio—that allows us to more fully express the truth of incarnation.

Here's an example of these poems, one which I think is also fitting for this liturgical season:

we allow ourselves to love because it's worth the risk
even though there is the chance of loss or hurt
we take the leap again and again
because love is one of the best parts of being alive
we don't do it because it's easy
we do it because connection makes everything brighter

Let us keep taking the risks of love—even when it doesn't feel useful, even when we feel barren.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Advent: A Different Perspective

On the first day that we heard Isaiah proclaimed at morning prayer our sister read with such conviction those dreamy, yet possible passages of hope, light, and promise. 

It must be Advent! And how good that is...

... because Advent offers us an opportunity to hope and dream of what it might look like if we took more seriously the reality of incarnation, the truth that we are embodied love.

It's a perspective we could really use these days. (Isn't that the kind of stuff we say each Advent?!)

I love this poem by Jan Richardson because it gives us a different perspective on the Annunciation. Of course we ponder for ourselves how insurmountable it might have felt for Mary to say "Yes" and hope we might muster up the courage to give a real, heartfelt one ourselves at least once in our lives.

But, how must it have felt to bear the news to Mary, to have to be the one to tell her about God's big ask? No wonder it took an angel!

I hope you love the poem, too.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Gabriel’s Annunciation
Jan Richardson

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

On Monastic Prayer, continued + 1,000 Hours

You know those alarm clocks that allow you to "wake up" to the sounds of nature. I had one as a kid, and I remember choosing the ...