Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:
“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”
I entered a saint’s house today, Thomas Merton’s hermitage In Gethsemane, Kentucky, A stark cinder-block hut With walls unpainted Stuck incongruously At the end of a long muddy path Covered with stones And fallen brown leaves In a bleak December woods. The journey to Gethsemane was tedious But grand – Two hours along twisting roads Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch With their stunning landscapes Of rolling bluegrass hills And endless farms Dotted with double-wides And red brick mansions With identical Christmas lights Following the contours of their disparate roofs And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns. Near the monastery I passed huge black distilleries of presaging Spirits -- Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey. Merton’s hermitage had a large living room, A bedroom with a narrow cot On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed Of that nurse in Louisville Who won his heart And made him human For the rest of us. There was a kitchen and bathroom And a chapel too With a small square altar And a wall with the Coptic icons So dear to that mystic’s soul. We sat in a circle Twenty of us In Father Louis’ living room On folding chairs Spotted with rust Between a smoking fire And the desk where “Louie” Used to write. Jacques Maritain once sat with him there, We were told, And MLK would’ve as well Had not the assassin’s bullet Aborted his planned pilgrimage To the Great Man’s feet. We listened to Brother Paul Read his poetry – A gloss on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In the winter cold, Some dozed, One snored. But brother Paul was on fire, His breath’s vapor blending With the hearth’s smoke. For the wakeful, His words lit flames That made wood fire redundant. All of us are poor He said. None of this is ours Everything is gift. Prayer knows the Reality That is always there But not perceived. It is coming to realize What we already sense But normally do not recognize. Prayer is a pause That shifts the atmosphere Of the soul. It is encountering a Christ Who comes in ways hidden, But not recognized For a long time. Paul quoted Emily Dickinson “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too? . . . How dreary to be somebody!” Suddenly Paul jumped up. “It’s time for Vespers," he said, And ran off. The rest of us scurried to follow him To the monastery chapel. “I used to live like this,” I thought as I stared at the monks In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle. There were perhaps thirty of them Mostly middle-aged and older One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded. “I did this for twenty-years,” I thought. I wondered how. All men, dressed identically, Praying together seven times each day, Keeping long silences Punctuating endless hours of chaste study, Now and then catching glimpses of women And wondering about them Before driving those thoughts from our minds. I’m glad I failed at that. But Brother Paul was right. It is all gift. Trying to be somebody Is quite dreary Truly I was born without anything . So were you. My goal is To keep most of it Till I die. What’s yours?