December 4, 2020

Walking through Rain and Desert

Gethsemani Journal 2011 (4)
Part four of my journal from five days of quiet at Gethsemani Abbey.

Thursday, October 14

Perfect! I had hoped for at least one rainy day while I was here so that I could go walking in the gray stillness.

Yesterday, I had three brief conversations, the only ones I’ve had this week. The first came while I was walking along a trail, with a young man who made a comment about my Cubs t-shirt (this is my lifelong penance). Of course, we talked about baseball. He wondered how the Tigers were doing in the playoffs. I told him what I knew. The Tigers? The end is most certainly nigh.

The second conversation was a brief one with the man who minds the desk in the reception area. I asked him if he would show me some things on the aerial picture of the property, so that I could see where best to go walking.

Finally, as I was wandering about the vistor’s garden taking pictures of the magnificent sycamore tree, one of the monks came riding up on a golf cart, likewise carrying a camera. He introduced himself and we talked about photography for a few moments. He asked about what kind of camera I had. When I told him, he recognized the model. then I said something stupid about how I was just making due until I could get an SLR. To a monk I said this.

I can be such an idiot sometimes.

I walked and took pictures in a steady drizzle of rain. Under an umbrella I had grabbed from the car, I walked in the visitor’s gardens, through the gate, across the road, and onto the wooded path that led to “the statues.” The receptionist had told me statues had been placed in the woods, some of which were in honor of an Episcopalian seminary student. I found out from a plaque deep in the woods that he had been “martyred” in Alabama in 1965. I hoped I would learn more about the story in days to come.

It was a peaceful walk. Some of the statues were kitsch, but I found the “Garden of Gethsemane” that had been made in honor of the seminarian moving — Christ with his hands over his face in agony while at a distance, three disciples slumbered. How many times have I slept while Jesus suffered?

The walk yielded many good pictures, I think. I was afraid the grayness might drain the color from the landscape, but it didn’t. I couldn’t get any shots of raindrops dripping off the leaves, however.

After lunch I slept deeply, with complicated, conspiratorial dreams. In one of them I was investigating the case of some monks who had been murdered, who were somehow associated with Thomas Merton. There is no program to report at this point of the investigation.

In Thoughts in Solitude, I found this good word for me when I go home:

The spiritual life is first of all a life.

“It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived. Like all life, it grows sick and dies when it is uprooted from its proper element. Grace is engrafted on our nature and the whole man is sanctified by the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual life is not, therefore, a life entirely uprooted from man’s human condition and transplanted into the realm of angels. We live as spiritual men when we live as men seeking God. If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men. And if there were not evidence of this everywhere in theology, the Mystery of the Incarnation itself would be ample proof of it. Why did Christ become Man if not to save men by uniting them mystically with God through His own Sacred Humanity? Jesus lived the ordinary life of the men of His time, in order to sanctify the ordinary lives of men of all time. If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives. Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God. Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surrounds me everywhere.

At supper I turned to The Wisdom of the Desert for my reading. In this small volume, Merton provides excellent clarification about the motives and practices of the Desert Fathers. He makes the point that many of the bizarre characterizations we have heard about these hermits come from the reports of enthusiastic fans or the pens of literary stylists. Merton, however, asserts that they were humble, simple, down-to-earth, and filled with common sense not esoteric “spiritual wisdom.” They were by and large not ecstatics. They did not have a great deal to say, and the words we have in the Verba Seniorum represent their brief answers to questions, not teaching or proclamation that came of their own initiative. “They were humble, quiet, sensible people, with a deep knowledge of human nature and enough understanding of the things of God to realize that they knew very little about Him.”

They left the cities, not only to escape the “worldliness” and din there, but also the constant chatter of religious controversies that raged at the time. Merton points out that they did not do so in pride, thinking themselves better than the world they left behind. They simple declined to be ruled by the world’s system and had no ambition to argue or rule over others themselves. They were hermits, yes, but they lived under the rule of their Bishops, came together regularly for liturgy, common meals, and discussion of communal affairs, supported themselves by manual labor, and practiced charity and hospitality. The fact that their sayings were preserved testifies to their concern for others, not just themselves. In fact, Merton notes that a constant theme of their sayings is, “the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life.”

I like that he stresses their ordinariness. They did not abandon “normal” life in order to stand out as extraordinary. that, Merton rightly observes, would be to carry the world’s standards of comparison with them into the desert. On the contrary, “the simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age, among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them against themselves.” He portrays the Desert Fathers as survivors of a shipwreck, who courageously refuse to flounder amid the wreckage, but rather swim away from it to save themselves and others.

I know God is calling me to swim back to the world’s shore and take my place amid the noise. Today, I savor the wet chill as he leads me beside still waters.


  1. David Cornwell says

    Your photographs here are very good. I especially like the first one. The composition, mood, and landscape are wonderful and would seem to suit the Abbey perfectly. Will probably also make a great print.

  2. Chaplain Mike,

    This is my first time commenting. I am an avid Merton fan and have so enjoyed your journals. I must say that I check this site every day in hopes of finding a posting of yours. They are so rich and full of insight and beauty. Thank you for all of the work that you do. It does not go unnoticed.

  3. Did you find out the seminary student’s story?