December 4, 2020

Close to the Fire

Gethsemani Journal 2011 (5)
Here is the fifth and final installment of my journal from a five-day personal retreat at Gethsemani Abbey.

• • •

Friday, October 14

Martin Luther shows up in the most unexpected places.

I arose at 5 am, showered, packed my bags and took them to the car. I attended Lauds and Mass. Many of the readings this week have been from Romans, and the priest who presided at Mass this morning preached from the Epistle, focusing primarily on the day’s reading from chapter four.

One of the last things I thought I would hear during these days at a Roman Catholic monastery was a sermon on justification, faith and works, the Reformation and Martin Luther (in a positive light), and the supremacy of the grace of God. Yet that was precisely the Word of God proclaimed this morning.

I liked the way this priest burrowed down to the ultimate issue. He asked, “Are we justified by faith or by works?” He answered, “Neither and both.”

In the end, the priest proclaimed, we are justified by GRACE — “God justifies the ungodly” — and neither our faith nor our works is the ultimate issue. It is God’s fidelity (faith, faithfulness) and Christ’s works that bring our justification to pass. God’s faith and works are what matter in the end.

As Paul says in his constant, ringing refrain in Ephesians: “all to the praise of his glorious grace!”

After breakfast, I glanced out the window and saw that the light was perfect, so I ran to the car, retrieved my camera, and took some shots as the morning sun began mounting the clear blue sky.

If I have benefited from one practice here at Gethsemani besides the silence, it has been the experience of being immersed in Scripture all day long. I love the way the monks, after a reading, observe a period of complete silence, to let the Scriptures soak in. I’ve been swimming in an ocean of Scripture all week.

I have come to the conclusion that the monks are a sign to the church and to the world, that places like Gethsemani are an exhibit of life’s foundations.

Not everyone, of course, is called to a monk’s life. And monks like those at Gethsemani are not to be thought of as somehow surpassing the piety and devotion of the majority who live out their life with God in the home, workplace, and community. They are not spiritual “superstars” to be revered. “Leaving the world” is not a better or higher calling. It is a different calling, and it instructs those of us who do not leave the world, cloister ourselves, live under vows of obedience to an order, pray seven times a day, and live and work together as a communal religious brotherhood.

As I say, the life of Gethsemani is a sign. The monks teach us. They have taught me.

And what do we learn?

We learn that there is no part of the day or night in which God is not involved. We learn that we may pray to him at any time, in any circumstance, for any reason, alone or with others. We learn that it is good to work with our hands, to use the strength God gives us as the means by which he provides for our needs. We learn that life, at its core, is simple. It involves waking, eating, praying, walking, working, times of silence and times to converse, time alone and time in community with others. It involves turning our hearts to God throughout the day and being aware of the needs of our neighbors around us. It is best lived when we feed continually on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We learn that each day has a rhythm, that its moments pass as they will, and we cannot hurry them along; that it is best to welcome them, to see God in them, to ask how we may participate in what he is doing in them, and not to waste so many of them in frivolity.

Monks may do different things than I do because of their calling. In essence, however, they live the same life — the ordinary life of labor and love. I do not covet the particularities of their lifestyle. I do not falsely assume that it takes more spiritual vitality to live as they do than it does for me to live out my calling. I honor them for the willingness to devote themselves to their vocation and to live it, day in and day out. Stripped of most of the accoutrements of worldly life, they focus on life’s fundamentals. They teach that words must emerge from silence, food from labor, community from the depths of each person’s individuality and walk with God, love for others from accepting God’s love for me, and every day from the grace of God who made me, redeemed me, and in whom I live and move and have my being.

At Gethsemani this week, I have felt like a passenger on an ocean liner who has left my cabin, the decks, the dining rooms, and all the places where my fellow passengers and I participate in our daily activities. I follow a long set of stairways and passages down into the bowels of the ship. Eventually I pass through a door behind which I hear a loud, thundering roar. A blast of heat takes my breath away.

I have come to the boiler room.

I watch as workmen tend the power plant of the ship. On great piles of coal, men with blackened faces lift shovels full of ore and deposit into large carts. Other workers wheel those carts toward the monstrous boilers. Those who await their delivery jam shovels into the carts and lift the coal out, pushing it through the furnace door held open by the tender. They do this until the cart is emptied and sent back for more. By means of this continuous cycle of silent, laborious effort, the fire is kept stoked, the ship keeps going.

These men live close to that fire. They do not get to enjoy the activities on deck. By and large, their life consists of sleeping, waking, eating, and working together near the flames. The work is not glamorous and most of us would not desire it. The passengers above don’t think much about these men and rarely see them. Yet the ship depends on the labor they provide. For the workers in the boiler room, life is simple and unadorned; basic — live near the fire and keep it burning so that we all may make our journey. Their hidden life is not for everyone, but it is essential.

I, for one, have learned to appreciate it more.


  1. It is essential that Christians be reminded that it is Christ that justifies, and too many Lutherans and Catholics, as well as Calvinists, pentacostals, etc. make the mistake of trusting their faith, or decisions, or works, as the source of salvation.

    Catholics and Lutherans have always agreed we are justified BY grace earned by Christ’s death on the cross. It’s the way in which that grace is given to us, and its effect, that we fight about. Does the receipt of that grace change a person’s soul to be inherently holy and enable one to do good works, to earn more and more grace, thereby becoming meritorious in God’s eyes? Or does the receipt of that grace occur when faith is given, clothing the person in Christ’s righeousness, and providing the assurance of forgiveness despite the sinful nature remaining with its inability to do what one should, but with faith now motivating the true desire to live a Christian life in one’s vocations.

    • bz, I agree that there are still some details to be worked out. But when the grace of God is stressed as this preacher stressed it — with a focus on God’s faithfulness and God’s works — the first thing it automatically did for me was lead me to trust God and what he has done and second, to want to live for him.

      My faith and works emerge naturally and organically when the focus is on God’s fidelity and actions toward me in Christ.

  2. TruthOverfaith says

    Comment removed by moderator. In essence, it mocks the idea of Christ’s sacrifice using unacceptable language.

    Replies also removed.

  3. Mike, what I would give to have been there with you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your journal with us, Chaplain Mike. The monastery looks like a beautiful place and I am glad that Merton was able to inspire you too. I have enjoyed and benefitted from his writings as well.

  5. This is beautiful and inspiring, Mike. I love the image of the ocean liner. The question for me then becomes, how do I live near the fire in my own life and calling?

  6. I love the image of the ocean liner. It’s a brilliant way of explaining why monastic life is valid and as Damaris writes: how do we live near the fire? How do I stoke the fire and serve my community of faith? In a way we all have that hidden life that only we and God know about yet it is that which feeds the visible life. I like the emphasis on the simplicity of it – we don’t need programs and fads – just the basic stuff of the disciplines of prayer and reading scripture. Thank you Mike.

  7. One more Mike says

    Perhaps this is why Merton referred to “the Christ of the burned men”? When all the “trappings” burn away, what’s left? Merton wrote 70+ books on the inner life but left no prescription. There is no prescription. If there were, we wouldn’t still be arguing about it. We still must work out our own salvation. Still work close to our own fire. Still seek the Christ of the burned men.

    Thanks again for sharing your journal with us.

  8. “we are justified by GRACE … and neither our faith nor our works is the ultimate issue. It is God’s fidelity (faith, faithfulness) and Christ’s works that bring our justification to pass.”

    “Neither and both.” I’m definitely going to be using this in the future. Probably a lot. I’ve got way too many friends that are on either end of this spectrum (just need faith, works don’t matter/works are more important than faith) that need to hear this message.

    Thanks, again, Chaplain Mike.

    • I agree with the above quote, my faith isn’t strong enough to save me. IIf I love Jesus I will want to please Him., but my acts won’t save me. There is always a, “but” This discussion has been going on for centries.

    • Josh in FW says

      I also agree with the “neither and both” statement. Thank you Chaplain Mike for sharing that story. The timing, of me reading it, is down right providential.

  9. Monks may do different things than I do because of their calling. In essence, however, they live the same life — the ordinary life of labor and love. I do not covet the particularities of their lifestyle. I do not falsely assume that it takes more spiritual vitality to live as they do than it does for me to live out my calling. I honor them for the willingness to devote themselves to their vocation and to live it, day in and day out.

    yes. amen. those ‘gifts+callings’ a peculiar element of our spiritual nature. God wires us as He sees fit. then ‘fits’ us together in a Body with different, yet vital, members doing tasks we all benefit from as we ‘live & move & have our being’ in this earthly existence…

    what an amazing consideration. thanx for the gentle reminder…


    For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Rom 12:3

  10. David Cornwell says

    It seems to me that much of the stress of modern life is related to the complications of seeking more than we need, accumulating material goods, “making life better.” We always want more. The monks give to us the gift of showing what the essence of life really is. They show us the simplicity of praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Their lives are a gift to all of us in many ways. And like any gift we must receive it with grace and thankfulness.

    Your journal writings have been a blessing Chaplain Mike. Thank you.

  11. Chaplain Mike,
    What a great metaphor the ocean liner is. The monks are unheralded but their work is important. I think that is why it has lasted for tens of centuries. Thank you for your insights.

  12. Margaret Catherine says

    In the account of the martyrdom of the Benedictine monks in Tibhirine, Algeria, it’s stated that they were requested to stay, despite the growing danger, because their presence and their unseen prayers were so vital for the entire Church in Algeria. They didn’t convert Algeria or even the local villagers; but they were essential nonetheless, through a martyrdom begun years before their actual death.

    For me, I think that the calling is a higher one, how erlse could it be a sighn for ‘the rest of us’? But the men who answer it are the same as we, as able to respond to or ignore grace.

    • A partial excerpt of theTestament of Dom Christian de Cherge` (Opened on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996)
      “If it should happen one day – and it could be today –
      that I become a victim of the trrorism which now seems ready to engulf
      all the foreigners living in Algeria,
      I would like my community, my Church and my family
      to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
      I ask them to accept the fact that the master of all life
      was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
      I would ask them to pray for me:
      for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
      I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones
      which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
      My life has no more value than any other.
      Nor any less value.
      In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
      I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
      which seems to prevail so terribly in the world,
      even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
      I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
      which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
      and of my fellow human beings,
      and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who strikes me down.”
      He finishes the letter with this statement to his soon to be assassin:
      “And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
      Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a ‘GOD-BLESS’ for you, too,
      because in God’s face I see yours.
      May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”
      Algiers, 1st Dec. 1993
      Tibhirine, 1st Jan. 1994

      Christian +