Monday, March 20, 2017

Visiting Merton's Hermitage

Last week I had the rare opportunity to step inside the hermitage of one of my spiritual (and interfaith) heroes, Thomas Merton - a place that is usually off-limit to visitors. I was visiting Gethsemani in Kentucky to interview Br. Paul Quenlon, who has been at the monastery for over 60 years. Merton was Br. Paul's novice master (his spiritual director).
The drive there took me over miles upon miles of small, winding roads - it feels so hidden among the Kentucky downs. After getting lost, and stopping at a home to ask directions, the monastery finally emerged in the distance.
Merton wrote of Gethsemani, in his Seven Storey Mountain, that he had discovered there "the still point around which the whole country revolves without knowing it." When I mentioned his observation to Br. Paul, he said that Merton had written this fairly early on, and probably regretted it. Merton's writings show a deep love for this Cistertian Trappist monastery, yet also many struggles, not least with his superiors who were always in his business.

I mentioned to Br. Paul in the car that I, too, struggle with a circular passion (Icarus too near the sun?) followed by disillusionment (usually involving wounds) with religion and, particularly, the church. "As you should," he said, remarking that perhaps this is the mark of a balanced spiritual life. Bless him, I needed to hear that.
 Beginning as a postulant on December 10, 1941, Merton would remain here for 27 years until his death, steeped in prayer, teaching and writing, for which he was famous. He would have also participated in the daily hours - a time of communal prayer and singing of the Psalms - with the other monks inside this chapel. Br. Paul invited me to join them for None, in which we prayed Psalms 125-127, before driving out to Merton's hermitage. Because this is a place of silence, the click of my boots produced a pronounced echo off these walls - many people take a silent retreat here to contemplate God.
 This is the hermitage where Merton was permitted to live in solitude, focused on prayer and writing. The place itself is a simple box of cinderblock, sparsely furnished. But Br. Paul pointed out that the magic of this place was, of course, the vast view around it of the hilly woodland.

 Br. Paul pointed out this large cross with a wheel at its foot. This speaks so much to the spirit of Merton, who was of course Catholic and yet had a profound appreciation of the Eastern religions, especially Buddhism - it is, indeed, a symbol of the Buddhist wheel. (My daughter Lorelei calls it the "wheelbarrow cross" - ha!)
 The view!

 I love the "Shalom" beside the door of this place of peace.

I noticed hints of Merton's love of the Far East, as well as the iconography of the Near East.

One of Merton's most beloved books. He, too, found great wisdom tucked within the writings of the early fathers of the church, particularly the desert fathers and, later, St. John of the Cross. Br. Paul pointed out a painting on the wall, somewhat abstract, representing these figures.
 What I love so much about Merton is how deeply human he was, on wonderful display in his writing. Yes, people think of him as a mystic, a spiritual master, a poet and lover of philosophy and religion. A bridge builder. But he was also a man who struggled, and he knew it. And with great vulnerability, he shared his spiritual journey - marked with as many highs and lows, pot-holes and imperfections, as those winding Kentucky roads to Gethsemani - with the world.
At the end of the visit, before our visit to the rest of the grounds and Merton's grave, Br. Paul suggested I play a game of "Merton Roulette." He had me choose one of Merton's journals from the bookshelf, just whichever stood out to me, then opened to the entry for March 15 (the day of my visit), 1959 - Passion Sunday. I only caught a bit of it, which consisted of a sort of disjointed stream of consciousness, bouncing from one topic to the next (with quite a bit about interfaith work and his frustration with his superior's treatment), before my phone ran out of memory. But just this snippet of a much larger entry was oh-so-Merton:

"Same struggle in the depths..."
Br. Paul Quenlon's podcast interview will be featured on TheLift in the coming weeks. I will never forget his generosity, spending hours with me in conversation and touring the grounds (and I can't wait for the end of Lent, when I can finally sample the large stack of homemade fudge he gifted to me)! Thank you, Br. Paul, for this day I will forever cherish.