Skip to main content
Mary Lou preaches at outdoor Mass, circa 1990

That which surprises and liberates us

For over twenty years, Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, edited and compiled the weekly Vision and Viewpoint newsletter, as part of her ministry as director of Benetvision. Sister Mary Lou died on January 6, 2023, at the age of 81, after more than three years of living very fully despite a diagnosis of incurable uveal melanoma. Read her full obituary here.

This edition of Vision and Viewpoint is in memory of her life and work as a peace activist, writer and editor, prophet and visionary, and dear friend to many.

Once I heard an interview with John Lennon on the radio, a section of which I copied into my journal. Lennon was asked why he devoted so much energy to peace, and wasn’t that a waste of time? Lennon replied that he believed that it was Leonardo da Vinci who made flying possible by projecting it, by bringing it into people’s consciousness as even a possibility. “What a person projects will eventually happen,” Lennon said. “Therefore, I always want to project peace. I want to put the possibility of peace into the public imagination. And I know, as certain as I am standing here, that someday, peace will be.”

Can we imagine peace and nonviolence? Can we imagine what ear has not heard, what eye has not seen, what has not yet captured the human heart? In his landmark book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes: “The church must be a poetic community. A poetic community that offers explosive, concrete, subversive, critical images around which people can organize their lives.” We are desperate for poetry, for that which surprises and liberates us, opens our minds to new possibilities, poetry that nurtures hope beyond cynicism, that frees us, and evokes a new social reality. 

I think of storytellers like Eduardo Galeano. He tells us that in Uruguay, political prisoners must not talk without permission, or whistle, smile, sing, walk fast, or greet other prisoners, nor may they look at images of pregnant women, couples, butterflies, or birds.

A schoolteacher is jailed for “having ideological ideas,” and undergoes torture. One day, Galeano says, the teacher is visited by his daughter, Milay, age 5. She brings him a drawing of birds. The guards grab the paper and destroy it at the entrance of the jail. On the following Sunday, Milay brings a drawing of trees. Trees are not forbidden, and the drawing gets through. The teacher praises her work and asks about the colored circles scattered in the treetops, many small circles half-hidden among the branches. “Are they oranges? What fruit is it?” Milay puts her finger to her mouth: “Shhh.” And she whispers in his ear, “Silly, they’re eyes. They’re the eyes of the birds that I’ve smuggled in for you.” Galeano and little Milay overcome death and despair with new possibility. 

I think of people like Gene Knudsen Hoffman who, for twenty years, has been speaking and writing about compassionate listening. She goes into troubled spots like the Middle East and brings together those on both sides of the conflict. “We peace people have always listened to the oppressed and disenfranchised. That’s very important,” she writes. “One of the new steps I think we should take is to listen to those we consider ‘the enemy,’ with the same openness and compassion we bring to those with whom our sympathies lie. We must learn to listen deeply and understand the suffering of both sides.” 

And I think of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu who led South Africa toward healing through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Or we can turn to Australia where, in 1988, the people created “Sorry Days” to apologize to the indigenous people for the crimes their government committed against the aboriginal people. All of these give us glimpses of a new heaven and a new Earth.

Most of all, I think of Jesus. Through stories and parables and a brief life that lit a black sky with a moment of brilliant light, Jesus helped us to imagine. His words and life were a poem of promise: the blind shall see, the lame walk, the hungry will be fed, the sorrowing consoled, and tears wiped away. “Nothing is impossible,” is Jesus’ legacy. Like the fig tree in the parable, Jesus expects us to fly in the face of the expected and produce fruit out of season. You and I are made for the impossible.

—from The Nonviolent Moment: Spirituality for the 21st Century, by Mary Lou Kownacki
(Pax Christi USA)