Monday, June 23, 2014

Walking with Thomas Merton, Surprised at the Abbey

How does that Teddy Bears Picnic song go? "If you go out to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise...." Well, when I went out to the Abbey of Gethsemane on Day 2 of our writers' pilgrimage, I was in for a surprise! 

First, did you know that there is a place called the Holy Land in Kentucky? It is named so for all the Catholic churches tucked here in the hills, thanks to the brave-hearted Catholic religious who came out here into the wilderness in the 1700s to build churches, monasteries and convents. As our fellow pilgrim Beth drives us through the hilly countryside on very winding roads, we see so many beautiful, old, brick churches with tall spires, perched on the tops of hillsides. 

We are making our way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. This Trappist community of monks was home to the writer Thomas Merton, who became Fr. Louis in 1941. Having read Thomas Merton's astounding autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, I felt like I was seeing this monastery for the first time just as he recounts his first experience of it in the book. The churches perched atop the hills also remind me of how in St. Antonin, France, where Thomas lived with his father as a child, he was struck by the way the church fitted into the landscape:

"The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility," he wrote. "The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, in proclaiming the glory of God" (The Seven Storey Mountain).

Thomas Merton later mentioned how the cloistered Abbey of Gethsemani was the closest thing to a medieval French village to be found in America, and I would have to concur.

Walking up to the white-walled abbey, we were met with signs saying, "Silence beyond this point." The silence is what distinguishes the Trappists, who observe their days in silence, except for their communal prayers, which include the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass. It is this silence and solitude that so attracted Thomas Merton to fling himself headlong into the monastery. He wanted "GOD ALONE" - as the words that appear over the gate of their enclosed community proclaim.


I expect to be brought up to the second level of the church to look down over the monks as Merton experienced as a lay person, but we are in fact, after Terce is over, invited to walk in and sit just behind the monks for Sunday Mass. Tracing the footsteps of Merton, I am struck by the simplicity and beauty of this humble life of a monk, hidden to the world so as to be totally available to God. 

Then out of the silence emerges the words of the liturgy and the chanting of the Mass parts in Latin. Then come the readings from Scripture and the voice of God issuing forth out of the silence, reaching into the darkest corners of the soul, beckoning me out into the light of the Gospel. 

I see in the monks' habits of white, covered in a dark, brown, wooded scapular, both symbols of light and darkness, of purity and sin, the struggle of every human soul. Because it is the feast of Corpus Christi (Body and Blood of Christ) we hold candles at the end of Mass and make a small procession with the Eucharist exposed in a monstrance to a smaller chapel, where we kneel down to adore Our Lord, who we believe is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity under the appearance of bread.

 It is walking through Gethsemani that I get the sense like Merton of the freedom that can be found within the church's walls, like being in the garden of life. 

One of the monks in the crowd (and we were pleased to see many young monks about my age!) was wearing only the white habit. He hadn't received his brown scapular with hood and belt yet. I thought of Fr. Louis, who writes about each Trappist's slow fade from the world until he becomes "lost" in the community. Merton wrote about the wonder of seeing a man stand out from the others in his all-white garment, until suddenly one day, when Merton looked, he was gone. Snuffed out like a candle flame. Engulfed in the rest of them wearing the same thing and you couldn't pick him out. 

Wow, do we need to see more of that kind of total abandonment to God in this world!! It's a beautiful testament to the desire of every human soul to approach God. Yet Merton's spirituality, which was Catholic, was that "For him the vital religious questions will always be variants of the question: Who am I, and who am I meant to be?" as Paul Elie puts it in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It was at the abbey that Thomas become fully himself, fully Thomas Merton.

While Trappists spend their days in silent contemplation and prayer, growing the inner spiritual life, they also do a lot of hard work and manual labor. They are self-sufficient in that they work in the fields, growing food and harvesting it, cooking and using their hands to build and do carpentry and work to take care of the land. It would be true to call these monastic orders "tree huggers" for all they do to be good stewards of creation. For all curious, more about Thomas Merton can be found here.

And for the surprise! At Mass I spotted a familiar face - a friend I'd known five years ago and graduated with from Franciscan University of Steubenville was praying just a few rows ahead of me! She just happened to be there on retreat for the weekend. It is moments like these that one is aware that God knows where we are and can plop down right in my path a friend of the past. Indeed, wherever you are, whatever path you are trodding right now, I firmly believe God knows where each and every one of us are at and He walks with us through this valley of tears until we reach the heights of joys.

When have you felt like God found you in the midst of life?

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