Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki—“Mother of the Spirituality of Nonviolence”
By Fr. John Dear (Jan. 2023)
The Benedictine Sisters of Erie gave Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki a beautiful send off this week after her death on January 6, 2023 from a long battle with cancer. Three hundred people attended her wake and story telling session on Monday, and then her funeral on Tuesday, where Sr. Joan Chittister spoke eloquently about Mary Lou’s great gifts and faithful monastic life.
During the evening story telling session, I told a funny story about “Lou” from way back when she was the Pax Christi national coordinator in the 1980s, but then reflected on Nancy Small’s insightful comment that Mary Lou was “the mother of the spirituality of nonviolence.” I think this is true and therefore Mary Lou’s contribution needs further study, reflection and appreciation.
I knew Mary Lou for almost forty years and was in touch with her throughout my whole life, up until the end. She was a friend and colleague, but really a teacher and mentor for me.
I was amazed the way she could write fiercely and poetically against nuclear weapons, war, sexism, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction, then quickly turn to talk about God.
She often quoted Merton’s definition of God from the last line of his journal, The Sign of Jonas: “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy.” Since we serve and worship “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy,” she taught in effect, we are becoming people of “Mercy within Mercy within Mercy,” that is, people of Gospel nonviolence and universal love—and so, naturally, we spend our lives working for the abolition of war, poverty, racism, sexism, gun violence, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. We are teachers and practitioners of universal mercy, universal love, and universal peace. And so, we live, practice and promote a spirituality of nonviolence.
In 1990, I gathered all Mary Lou’s writings on peace and spent a year editing them into a book on a spirituality of nonviolence, but I could not find one publisher who would dare print it. Who cares about a spirituality of nonviolence? they wrote.
Just before the pandemic began, I stayed with Sr. Mary Lou and her colleague Sr. Mary at their little house in downtown Erie, near their soup kitchen, neighborhood center, and Benetvision office. They invited me to morning prayer before breakfast, and there, as we prayed the psalms, I witnessed Mary Lou’s spirituality and prayer of nonviolence. When we came to the Lord’s Prayer, Mary Lou bowed her head in devotion and worship and called upon “Almighty God,” not with the ancient words “Our Father” or even “Our Mother,” but “Eternal Beauty.” In that moment, she resembled my other monk friend, the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh who spoke of God in the same way whenever we prayed together. Mary Lou had moved beyond all anger, worry, ego, power, hostility and any trace of violence, into the deep peace which is God.
For Mary Lou, a spirituality of nonviolence meant a life of public service for the poor and needy, as well as prophetic speaking against the structures of violence, injustice and war, and steadfast movement organizing in the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. King to create a new culture of nonviolence—but also then a whole other world of inner and interpersonal nonviolence, which she learned from her Benedictine tradition.
Mary Lou practiced faithful, devout prayer and contemplation every day of her life, which rooted and grounded her peacemaking work in the God of peace. She taught, organized, envisioned new projects, gave speeches, held countless meetings and zooms with “Monasteries of the Heart,” while serving inner-city kids and their Moms in Erie. A spirituality of nonviolence for her meant that she was always building community, forming friendships, and making life easier and better for everyone everywhere. It was as simple—and as difficult—as that.
If you study her beautiful little Pax Christi book, The Nonviolent Moment, you will find there everything you need to practice nonviolence as your ordinary, every day spirituality.
Her teachings were basic: reverence and loving kindness toward every human being and all creation; forgiveness toward everyone who ever hurt you and healing and reconciliation with broken relationships; pondering God as unconditional love and infinite mercy; reliance on God with steadfast service to the poor and needy; pitching in to help the grassroots movements for justice, equality, disarmament and creation; building good friendships and widening the beloved community in everything you do; living in the present moment of God’s peace; and cultivating wonder, gratitude and joy so that you are always on the side of resurrection.
She was clear too: never harm another human being ever again. Instead, try to love yourself and every human being, and show that love in concrete deeds, especially toward those being marginalized or killed by our nation. Speak out publicly for justice and disarmament; don’t give up on peace and justice work; and make every day a living prayer for peace. Take risks for justice and peace, and envision new ways to build a culture of nonviolence. Keep at it till the end.
Her spirituality of nonviolence was not overly pious, but it was seriously practical. This is where her Benedictine monasticism flavored her approach to nonviolence so that her pursuit of nonviolence led to new projects, programs, movements and visions that actually helped people. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of them.
As I ponder the legacy of our friend, and her spirituality of nonviolence, I keep returning to a prayer she wrote 20 years ago. I’ve renamed it Mary Lou’s Prayer, and hope we can all share it, pray it, and use it to deepen our own spirituality of nonviolence and our journey to the God of peace that we too might be faithful peacemakers every day of our lives. That would be the best tribute we can give to our friend and teacher, Mary Lou Kownacki, the mother of the spirituality of nonviolence.
Mary Lou’s Prayer:
I bow to the sacred in all creation.
May my spirit fill the world with beauty and wonder. May my mind seek truth with humility and openness.
May my heart forgive without limit. May my love for friend, enemy and outcast be without measure. May my needs be few and my living simple.
May my actions bear witness to the suffering of others. May my hands never harm a living being. May my steps stay on the journey of justice.
May my tongue speak for those who are poor without fear of the powerful. May my prayers rise with patient discontent until no child is hungry.
May my life’s work be a passion for peace and nonviolence. May my soul rejoice in the present moment.
May my imagination overcome death and despair with new possibility. And may I risk reputation, comfort and security to bring this hope to the children. In the name of the God of peace, Amen.