MY MOON SELF: a spiritual memoir through poetry by Philomena Moriarty


As I flipped through the pages of My Moon Self I glimpsed traces of my own spiritual journey, beginning with Catholicism and leading straight to Buddhism.  Although I decided to return to Catholicism, the author, Philomena Moriarty, clearly did not make any returns to one or the other, but rather works with poetry as a way to deepen her spiritual sense.  In my first reading of this memoir made up of poetry and short reflections I was grateful for the gentle overlap with my own spiritual journey.  Shenpa (p.6), for instance gets at the very heart of suffering with its tale of two minds:

one that sees clearly
one that tells a story

one washes dishes at six
the other wakes you
suddenly at two am

The poem seemed to be getting at something underneath my skin. Something quite personal. My fear and resulting tendency to get hooked by it were simply stated on the page. A soothing verse entreats the attentive interlocutor  to take some precautions:

Tie a string to what is real
when you row out too far
land no longer visible
make your way back hand over hand

As I struggle to make sense of my world and the particular challenges I am given, walking on rice paper (p.12), brought it all into relief.

The universe even now
has uses for broken pottery
an opportunity
searching for glue
found this poem
the pieces of a mosaic

the new one
you wanted to create
but didn’t know how

Yes, I do not know how. Not at all. But then, creation is like that isn’t it? A mystery borne out of a relationship between the human and the spiritual worlds. What I like here is that creation springs forth from that which we humans quickly dismiss as broken.

As I read and re-read, I noticed what I had briefly noticed before, but upon second and third reading I began to consider properly. Catholicism giving way to Buddhism seemed almost natural. I was not surprised. But, then I could see a sort of giving back on the part of Buddhism. Surprise! Philomena Moriarty is quite clear about her Catholic upbringing. She speaks to those of us who went to “Sunday school” or took “Catechism classes” to learn and subsequently internalize guilt. Children today attend “Faith Formation” and could hardly know what being raised Catholic years ago meant:

I grew up kneeling to say the rosary, fasting for communion, eating fish on Fridays, starting confession at age 6, hearing Mass in Latin and having a mother who went to Mass every morning (p25).

I had similar experiences, and remember worrying about what ‘sin’ I was going to make up before I went to confession because I could not for the life of me figure out what terrible things I was supposed to confess. And so, the way I understood Catholicism was very much the same way Philomena came to understand it: sin, sinner, sinful… and let’s throw in the word shame just in case you did not get that there is a basic badness about you.

Philomena, however, does not dwell on the bad. Rather, she gives a reading of Catholicism through the eyes of Buddhism. I do not believe she sets out intentionally to soften Catholicism, but her years of study and practice in Buddhism, and steady presence opens her poems treating her Catholic inheritance to what I see as Catholicism’s true nature. And so she confesses in Acts of Contrition (p.28):

Bless me, mother, father, husband, son, friend
for I have once again missed the mark.

To have “missed the mark” is a better expression of sin, whose Hebrew roots suggest this “missing” in translation as a “missing of the mark.”

Because Philomena refuses to accept what has been essentially governed by men, the interpretation of biblical texts and doctrines, she illuminates connections between Catholicism and Buddhism. When I read quotes from The Way of the Bodhisattva (p.2), and then read her poem Meditation on the St. Francis Prayer (p.27), I was struck by the shared longing of Shantideva who writes, “May I be an Isle for those who long for landfall,” and St. Francis who asks “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  Could it be that traditional Catholic teachings have “missed the mark”?

Philomena then writes several more poems that exalt the feminine, in body and spirit. She rages against the arrows hitting the mark of her own saint name, St. Philomena, and honors the Saint by giving a litany of sins committed against women:

What worth woman?
pearls and diamonds
a history of cattle and land
each woman
guardian at the gate
of the opening
between her legs

I love Philomena’s honesty, and ability to resist the temptation to get taken in by anything. She writes of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as something that awakened feelings of disgust in her. Moving forward on her spiritual journey she does not focus on the frightening and downright macabre in either Buddhism or Catholicism. Her final poems express a love toward her own kin and we are right back to the here and now of her many guides along the way: Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Eckhart Tolle (among others).

Appropriately, I will end at the beginning with If poems were wishes (p.4)

If poems were wishes
then as you read these words
the atoms between us would glow
with our connection

we would wake
each day
a glorious mystery

While certainly the path is not always joyous, this book celebrates the joy while acknowledging the pain. In the end, the balance of gratitude shines through each poem and gives to the reader a real sense of connection.

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