I come out of the woods and cross Monk’s Road to another road that says “No Trespassing.” I’ll bet this is it, I think, and decide I’ll be damned if I’m going to travel two thousand miles not to see the hermitage of Thomas Merton, the closest thing to a hero I’ve had since John F. Kennedy.
When my wife, Mary Lee, first introduced me to Merton’s writings, I knew some of his story—cosmopolitan young man and promising writer leaves New York, enters the monastery here at Gethsemane and becomes a Trappist monk—but I didn’t understand much of what he wrote. Then, when my daughter was lying in the hospital, dying from cancer, I hated what I thought I did understand. I remember one night at the Ronald McDonald House reading from New Seeds of Contemplation—“All sorrow, hardship, difficulty, pain, unhappiness, and ultimately death itself can be traced to rebellion against God’s love for us”—and throwing the goddamned book across the room.
Ten years later, however, as I recovered from bilateral hip surgery, I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This came at a time when I was starting to feel that after thirty years in public education, it was time for me to do something else. But what? Merton showed me that I should start living the life I wanted to, and trust that God would reveal some way to make it work. So I began writing—took a summer workshop, joined a writing group—became more active in my church, started going on spiritual retreats. And it worked: I retired from public school teaching, found a part-time job as a writing assistant at a nearby college and worked on my writing, which soon became tied to my discovery of contemplative prayer, where Merton became my guide through books such as Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, The Secular Journals, Selected Poems, Wisdom of the Desert, Raids on the Unspeakable, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. I even reread New Seeds of Contemplation.
Now, I’ve made a pilgrimage to Gethsemane Abbey because I’m again struggling, both with my writing and with the rest of my life. After years of working on a memoir about the death of my daughter and my resulting faith journey, I’ve realized I still don’t have the perspective to analyze the years since Laurie’s death that a good memoir requires. I’ve decided to turn the memoir into a novel, in the hopes of distancing myself from the events as I change them to suit the arc of the story. But someone whose opinion I value wondered recently if I’m not stuck in the past, unable to let go of Laurie’s memory and my grief; and I’m worried that he might be right—that I’m wasting both my time and God’s with my writing instead of doing something more active, such as teaching a class at the state prison, doing more pastoral care, working in the soup kitchen or with Compassionate Friends.
So far, this pilgrimage hasn’t helped me find any answers. Ever since Mary Lee and I have been at Gethsemane, I’ve felt like an outsider, a tourist instead of a pilgrim. As a non-Catholic, I haven’t been able to take communion. Merton’s hermitage, where he wrote so many of his books, is, I’m told, off limits to visitors. Late September in Kentucky is hot. The air smells charred. Leaves are chewed and full of holes, tinged with brown or black. In the afternoon, storm clouds mass over the burnt-brown hills like an army preparing to attack.
My only consolation has been reading in Merton’s journals about how often here at Gethsemane, he, too, felt like an outsider, how often he questioned his life, whether he ought to be writing, even whether he ought to be a monk.
Then, yesterday afternoon, as I sat under a tree beside the cemetery of white crosses where Merton is buried, I read a journal entry in which he writes about how he’d found his “deepest self” through a “creative consent to God.”
I’m not sure what that means, but this morning I’ve been on “A Walk to the Statues,” along a stone walkway leading to a field, past a lake, and up some wooden stairs to a path through the woods, where I passed a variety of statues—some modern, some traditional—of cherubs, monks, and a variety of Madonnas.
Turning a corner, I saw two statues depicting Jesus and three of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. (And if you’d like to see and read more about these statues, see my earlier blog, “Locked in the Garden of Gethsemane.) At first—probably because of my mood over the last few days—I identified with Jesus’s feeling despised and forsaken. But then I saw on a rock, a bronze plaque explaining that sculptor Walker Hancock created these two statues in memory of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal divinity student who was martyred in Alabama in 1965.
Suddenly, I remembered the end of poet Gregory Orr’s memoir The Blessing, when eighteen-year-old Gregory, still suffering the trauma of having accidently killed his brother in a hunting accident, beholds artist David Smith’s almost three hundred sculptures arrayed in long rows across a field, and sees in them the human spirit rising up, trying to transcend the limitations of our mortal, human bodies and at the same time trying to celebrate them; and how Orr realized that language, too, can transcend death by giving it shape. Poetry, Orr wrote in another essay, “sustains us in crises…[as] “…an expression of your experience with disorder and your need for order.”
And I realized that by giving shape to my grief, my writing was helping me stay alive: that I couldn’t not write. What might or might not happen to anything I wrote afterwards wasn’t up to me. Jesus’s words from that night in the Garden of Gethsemane came back to me, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Maybe, I thought, this is the kind of “creative consent” Merton was talking about in his journal.
Which made me feel better, and which has prompted me to follow this forbidden road behind Gethsemane Abbey, figuring I can plead ignorance—“Oh, am I trespassing? I didn’t see the sign”—if anyone comes along.
I come to another turn off, this one marked “Monastic Enclosure.” I decide not to push my luck and keep going until I come to a power line. I follow it and then double back through the woods to a clearing. Yes! I recognize from photographs that I am indeed looking at Merton’s hermitage. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I take a picture.
I turn to see the fields and the barn and the monastery grounds that he wrote about from where he saw them—memories I will take home with me both for the strength and solace to continue writing and for the serenity to accept whatever happens to it.
I head back to the power line. I suppose I should pray, Forgive me my trespasses, but I’m not very sorry. Somehow, in finding Merton’s hermitage, I’ve found something in myself.