December 4, 2020

Bad Monk in Paradise

Gethsemani Journal 2011 (3)
Part three of my journal from a five-day silent retreat at The Abbey of Gethsemani.

• • •

Wednesday, October 13

What a terrible monk I would make! I would need to wear one of those armbands a football quarterback wears. You know, the ones that list all the plays so he can check them during the game.

I still don’t have the schedule here clear in my mind after two days. Last night I set my alarm for 2 am because I had gotten it in my mind that Vigils was at 2:15. It is at 3:15. So after barely sleeping a wink I awoke, splashed water on my face, dressed, and went out and sat in a dark church. Where was everyone? One monk was down there, sitting in his stall. (Perhaps he needs an armband too, or something to help him sleep.)

Realizing my error after about fifteen minutes of nothing happening, I went back to my room and laid down until the alarm, now correctly set, woke me again. The Vigil service contained some longer psalms, and these were spoken responsively, not chanted. A good number of retreatants joined me in the balcony, some wrapped in blankets.

Afterwards, I went back to bed, and now I was truly sleepy. So sleepy, in fact, that my sluggish mind imagined that Mass came after the 7:30 Terce service rather than after 5:45 Lauds. I snoozed through the earlier services, got up, showered, and went downstairs thinking to get some breakfast.

Too late. I grabbed an apple and a cup of coffee and uttered the sigh of the clueless.

This morning, I began Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. The early pages are promising, written in clean and simple prose belying its depths.

His musings on the desert started me thinking.

“The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself — that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.”

As I hiked the westward path leading away from the Abbey, I began to meditate. If the desert is so important as a “school of Christ,” why then are seekers invited to a place like Gethsemani, in the midst of the fertile farmland, woods and hills of Kentucky? If we need the wilderness, why are we called to a paradise? If asceticism and renunciation in desolate surroundings make a contemplative, why then welcome guests into this garden of delights?

The wilderness played an important roles in Scripture’s story. The Creation account tells us that the Promised Land was at first “waste and void” (tohu wabohu) — that is, unformed and unfilled, not fit for human habitation. It was a wilderness of darkness and sea. God, however, formed the Land and filled it, calling it “good” (tob). The Promised Land was his Temple and in his royal gardens he placed humans to represent him, to be fruitful and multiply and extend his rule throughout the whole earth.

The patriarchs and matriarchs did not go to the desert places. True, they wandered and found no settled place in which to dwell, but their sojournings were mostly within the Promised Land. God met them there, in the place he designed as their inheritance. In that place he taught them faith, but did not allow them to make it their permanent home.

It was Moses who became the father of all those who seek God in the wilderness. Because of his own sin and in fear for his life, he fled Egypt and went to Midian. There, in the wilderness, he tended flocks. For Moses, this was his seminary education. Forty years of feeding and watering sheep prepared him to lead Israel. He learned to hear the voice of God there and what it means to take off one’s shoes before a burning bush.

Sent back to the city of human power, by God’s greater power Moses set the slaves free and led them through the sea into the wilderness between Egypt and Sinai. This was Israel’s first experience in the desert, and it was where God tested them and taught them to trust. His angel led them. He fed them manna and quail. He gave them water from the Rock and healed all their diseases. Their shoes did not wear out. In the wilderness, a broken group of slaves began to cohere into a people.

After Sinai, where Israel became God’s covenant people, his light to the nations, they went into the desert once more to make their way to the Promised Land. This time, instead of God testing them, they tested God, and he spoke judgment against them. Not even Moses would find burial rest in Canaan. The wilderness became an entire generation’s punishment, their exile, their death.

Years later, another prophet like Moses arose, named Elijah. He was the next servant of God to be educated in the waste places. There, he too learned that God can be trusted to feed his hungry people. Elijah received daily deliveries of sustenance from the birds, even as the brook by which he sat dried up before his eyes. It was also in that dry, barren land that God led him to fee the poor and needy, the fatherless and widows, trusting only in God’s miraculous supply. After his greatest triumph on Mt. Carmel and a subsequent threat on his life, Elijah retraced the steps of Moses back into the desert, back to Mt. Sinai, hoping that God would reveal his glory to him as he had to his forebear. However, God remained silent, and Elijah was sent back to do what he was called to do in his own generation. Elijah learned that one person’s experience in the desert does not automatically translate into another person’s experience.

In the wilderness, David ran from King Saul and other pursuers and found that God was his refuge and strength. He sets paths for us where there are none. Where footing is treacherous, he opens up wide, smooth boulevards. He opens up hiding places when one is outflanked and fully exposed to the foe. He is our strength, our sword, our shield, our salvation. The wilderness is a place of danger, but God shepherds his own, even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The heirs of David’s throne and the kings of the divided nation did not trust God as David had. After a period of steady decline, Israel and Judah were invaded by the Assyrians and Babylonians, who turned the Promised Land into a wilderness once more. They leveled Jerusalem and the Temple, pillaged the Land, and carried the people off into exile. The land of milk and honey was ransacked and turned to desert in punishment for Israel’s habitual unbelief and disobedience.

Though many Jews returned to the Land after the Exile, rebuilt the Holy City and God’s House and resettled in Canaan, the people remained in a kind of wilderness state. Constantly overrun by enemies, serving other nations that conquered and ruled over them, never regaining the glory days of David and Solomon, they pined for deliverance from spiritual exile.

On day, a voice came crying in that wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord!” In the desolate places of Judea, John reenacted the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan by leading repentant sinners into its waters and baptizing them. He proclaimed to the people that a new “Joshua” was coming to end their wilderness days forever.

And so Jesus came, was baptized by John in the Jordan, and affirmed God’s royal Son. As he began his ministry, Jesus, we are told, went immediately into the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. As Israel was tested, so was God’s Son. Whereas Israel failed the test and perished in the desert, Jesus emerged victorious, having prevailed “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

So then, in the Bible, the wilderness is a place of training, testing, punishment, ministry, salvation. Jesus overcame the world, the flesh, and the devil in the wilderness. It is clear why many throughout church history have sought God in the desert places. In most cases, God has used this setting to shape and form his people and prepare them for usefulness among their neighbors. Some felt such a desperate need for God that they ran for their lives to go there to find him. Of course, running from the world still leaves two powerful opponents: the flesh and the devil. Leaving the world does not mean leaving the battle. Indeed, the situation may become fiercer.

• • •

Nevertheless, I am not in the wilderness. I am here at Gethsemani. In the late afternoon light at at sunset. I tried to capture its beauty in pictures. As I surveyed this beautiful land, I continued to wonder how to square my conventional understanding of the monastic life as renunciation in the desert with such a lush setting. Merton writes about this in his books — how he longs for the desert, how he wonders how a place with comfortable beds, hot showers, three square meals, climate-controlled buildings, and few wants can be an adequate training ground for the kind of monk he longed to become — one set apart for God alone.

And here I am. Too lazy to even keep the monk’s daily schedule.

I wander around paradise snapping pictures and awaiting the next meal.


  1. Chaplin Mike ~ you are revealing the American NOW mindset. You were only there 2 days and you are berating yourself!! Wasn’t Paul in the wilderness for 3 years? As you point out Moses was on the backside of the desert for 40 years. We Americans even want to develop new habits NOW. We Christians want God to speak to us, remake us, renew us etc. on our time schedule. We are not good at living in eternity time. I hope you proceeded to unwind and begin to feel the flow of the routine at the Abbey as the days passed. This is such a wonderful experience for me to “live this retreat” through you. Thank you for being transparent and for including us through your journal.

  2. One more Mike says

    “Geography is no cure for what’s wrong with you. You take yourself wherever you go.” Hemingway, in one of his books, I can’t remember which one right now. I don’t know if Merton ever spent significant time in an actual desert, but if a desert is a metaphor for a spiritual annealing process, then a desert can be anywhere, even in the relative paradise of Gethsemani. Anyplace where it’s just you and God can be a desert. “I love the desert. It’s so clean” Peter O’Toole, in “Lawrence of Arabia”, though the quote can’t be attributed to Lawrence himself.

    Gotta go. I may come back later, when I might make more sense. I am wandering in a (allegorical) desert after all.

  3. Things were a little more austere in Merton’s day. No talking except to the Abbot – on your knees; everything wit sign language. The furnishings were not so cushy and no central air. Nonetheless the real desert we know is the spiritual one~the one some never find their way through.

  4. i have been a more ‘disciplined’ saint at particular sections of my faith journey. did the daily rosary devotion my dad inititiated after his Cursillo weekend until it fizzled. when i was wandering down the Evangelical section of my path i did the read-thru-the-bible-in-a-year thing. did early morning scripture readings+meditations. went to an early morning men’s discipleship gathering before work which started @ 6:00 am. did other things during my prophetic training that supposedly were designed to get me in ‘tune’ with the Spirit of God…


    and yes, i wanted to experience some quantifiable ‘result’ to measure against not doing those things. there were other self-discipline things i incorporated into my spiritual life for short bursts of participation. not sure it ever gave my Holy Spirit goosebumps or ecstatic encounters with the Big Guy…

    i am going golfing soon. my way of meeting God on a small course like Paradise. i will add more to these thoughts when i return…

  5. Chaplain Mike, May I ask why the special interest in Thomas Merton?

    • Gethsemani was Merton’s Abbey, and Merton was Michael Spencer’s hero. Michael awakened my interest in him, and I used my retreat as an opportunity to get to know Merton and his writings better.

      • One more Mike says

        He’s my spiritual hero also; people named Mike just gravitate to him, partly, but not entirely because he was such a handsome bald man…