Thursday, September 25, 2008

Experiencing Gethsemani Pt. 4

The hill beside the abbey church had been tiered. A stacked stone retaining wall with a poured concrete side walk led to a statue of Mary who stood overlooking a circular pathway inside the walled enclosure below us. Several small stones had fallen from the wall, insignificant toward its structural strength.

I suppose that time and the long, slow but effective process of water freezing and thawing had caused these small chips to break off and fall. Someone had stacked some of the flatter stones in several of the crevices in the wall giving the appearance that druids had been there and we found that to be a little amusing. We watched as two monks slowly, contemplatively made their way around the pathway below us. I couldn’t help myself. One of these small stones now sits on a shelf in front of me, and, like the rosary prayerfully made by Brother Rene, much more than a memento or keepsake.

Saying that the abbey church is beautiful isn’t based on any concept of modern artistry or fashion. It is very plain. So plain that it is quite stark with its high white walls and ceiling. Its beauty is in its simplicity on account of what takes place there, has taken place there, and ever will take place there as long as monks live, work, pray, and celebrate Mass at Gethsemani.

It is a long way from the back to the front with the choir situated close to the back of the church. I noticed the floor. It was concrete with an exposed aggregate finish and quite fitting as an aspect of the ambiance.

There are no fancy padded wooden pews to be found here but black stacking chairs instead. A glass knee-wall separates the guest seating area in the back and the traditional monastic choir. Viewing all this from the balcony, looking down on where the monks would be seated in choir, and ahead toward the altar, Tabernacle, and burning candle suspended from the ceiling added to the sense of holy awe and worship evoked when we first entered the church.

St. Joseph holding Jesus at the top of the hill was too inviting to pass up. The hill had been mown and looked like it was cultivated for hay containing a blend of grass and pink clover. The pathway that led to the top was mown closer to make it obvious that it was a pathway. We made our way to the top of the hill and sat on the chairs. There were only two chairs. Apparently the hill doesn’t get a lot of group sitters.

We were afforded a spectacular view in every direction. The field to the east was planted in corn, perhaps a hundred acres with a silo and what appeared to be a neighboring dairy farm about a half mile away. The hill with the cross was to the south and beyond it stretched tree covered Kentucky hills. To the west sat the monastery with its wall surrounding it. Farther to the west, and to the north, we could see the knobs that Merton often mentioned and the woods that he loved to visit as he sought an ever deepening solitude and awareness of God.

There was a stiff June breeze blowing across the top of the hill and a blue sky with only a few high clouds. It was really hard to come down from the hill. We could have sat there for hours enjoying both the peaceful scenery and the prayerful solitude that made the scenery even more beautiful. But a lot of miles awaited us before we would arrive at a family reunion in the mountains of North Carolina.

Gethsemani is not a place to visit as if it were some kind of tourist attraction. It is a place to experience, to feel with spiritual senses, where one hears best when they listen with the ears of their heart. It is the kind of place one goes and never leaves. And if we must leave, we leave something of ourselves there and, in exchange, we take something of it with us when we do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Experiencing Gethsemani Pt. 3

God Alone. The words are engraved above the steel bars in a window that allows visitors to look inside the wall at the cloistered front lawn of the monastery. God Alone. The monks have nothing else. But in having nothing else they have Everything in a measure unparalleled in secular society.

Someone in plain work clothes, I presume one of the brothers, was working pruning dead branches from a tree. He wasn’t in a rush. He worked slowly, mindfully, prayerfully, as though the work that he was doing had a sacred nature about it. That’s something that I need to remember when life and people begin pushing me forward at a harried pace. Life is more about living than getting it done.

There is a secular cemetery in front of the guest house and abbey church. I think there is something to be said about graves at the entry of a church and I can’t help but to think the modern church world has given up something extremely important by laying the faithful to rest in impersonal, commercialized grave yards where they are, in a practical sense, all but forgotten.

By going through the guest house we were allowed to visit the little cemetery where Merton is buried. Two fresh mounds of soil tell us that two brothers have been recently returned to the earth from which they came where their physical bodies wait with the others for the Great Resurrection.

It has been forty years since Merton accidentally died in Asia. The earth has settled over his grave creating a small hollow in front of the simple white cross that bears a small engraved plaque with his name on it. No marble monument. No marble slab. There is nothing, other than the small plaque with his name on it, to distinguish his grave from the other graves in the little cemetery even though his life and work made, and continues to make, such a significant contribution to the monastery and the world outside its walls. It is an obscure resting place amidst the brothers whom he loved, quite unlike the secular cemetery out front adorned with large engraved stone markers that call attention to those resting beneath them. In paying my respects to Father Louis I knelt beside his grave and gently touched the small plaque engraved with his name.

Merton tells us, “A monk is a man who has given up everything in order to possess everything. He is one who has abandoned desire in order to achieve the highest fulfillment of all desire. He has renounced his liberty in order to become free. He goes to war because he has found a kind of war that is peace.”[1]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, p. 3

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Experiencing Gethsemani Pt. 2

After spending the night in the town that was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, we didn’t know this when we reserved a room online at the motel but should have had something of an idea when the restaurant where we ate dinner had a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest hanging on a wall in the foyer, we took a leisurely back road drive across Tennessee, into Kentucky, and on to Bardstown where we spent the night. To have taken the interstate we would have been there in three and a half hours. Our alternate scenic route took us most of the day and suited us a lot better than speeding along over the hills and through the hollows in interstate traffic.

Bardstown has something of a tourist feel to it and there are quite a few attractions, particularly the distilleries. We were more interested in another spirit. Once we had breakfasted and loaded the car we followed the directions from Bardstown to the abbey.

One and a half centuries of daily prayers, a schedule of prayer that begins at 3:00 a.m. and incorporates the seven liturgical hours throughout the day as part of the monastic profession, have permeated the hills that surround the Abbey of Gethsemani. Prayer is the heartbeat, the pulse of monastic life.

These prayers are felt long before arriving at the caution light where you turn into the abbey, long before the large statue of St. Joseph holding the Infant comes into view atop the hill across from the guest parking lot, or the large cross on an adjacent hill. It causes me to wonder how many of the travelers on their way past, or maybe I should say driving through since the property owned by the monastery stretches out on both sides of the road, have any sense that there is something special, sacred, holy about this place and the grounds that surround it.

Brother Rene makes rosaries. I didn’t meet him but in the gift shop I did buy one of his prayerfully made works of art fashioned from seeds that he grows. In the gift shop we met Father Seamus and Brother Camillus. Brother Camillus entered Gethsemani fifty years ago and knew Merton. Father Seamus blessed my rosary.

Like a couple of tourists we had our picture taken with them. I couldn’t help myself and asked Brother Camillus if I could hug him before we left. He was appreciative of the idea and the embrace was a genuinely holy one, sharing something much deeper than mere human touch. I recall Merton writing about how joyful monks are, that people have a mistaken notion that monks are somber, when they are really filled with joy. This joyfulness was abundantly evident in the lives of Father Seamus and Brother Camillus.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Experiencing Gethsemani Pt. 1

Before I visited St. Bernard Abbey and became an Oblate of St. Benedict the only monasteries I had visited were in Germany while I was in the Army in the mid seventies. All but one of those was ancient, abandoned, and falling down and my reason for visiting these ruins was purely superficial. I was bored and needed something to do when I wasn’t on duty. The reason for visiting the other one was also superficial. I went there to drink some beer and eat bread made by the monks. Both the beer and the bread were in a class all their own. In retrospect, now that I think about it, so were the monks who made them.

I owe my interest in monasticism to Thomas Merton and will ever be indebted to a dear friend who introduced me to Merton’s writings eight years ago. Little did I know, at that time, that the path of my life would lead me to where I am now. Nothing in my past history as a Christian in the evangelical world embraced or fostered the monastic life. In fact, back in my Bible College days in Houston (1979-1984), we were taught that the early monks who followed Antony into the desert to live as religious hermits were merely deranged and that Luther’s reforms made him something of a savior who rescued the Church from the errors of Catholicism.

So, for me, there has been a tremendous change in the way I understand and go about living a life of faith, change that I view as positive and healthy even though it has come with something of a price tag attached to it. It’s more than interesting what happens when an evangelical, not to mention a fundamental evangelical preacher, embraces Catholicism and monasticism. In some cases it’s as though we’ve contracted leprosy. In a lot of cases we experience more subtle forms of rejection and coldness.

Visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani wasn’t my idea but, when Shirli suggested it as part of our vacation, I was ready to go. I knew it would have special significance but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected in the center of my being. I looked forward to visiting the abbey where Merton lived and wrote, to do some serious browsing and shopping in the monastery gift shop, and to see where this significant contributor to my life is buried.


I had never so much as heard of Thomas Merton until, just short of a decade ago, a good friend showed me his copy of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. A couple years later, at a time when my former life was crumbing into a heap, a little unction prompted me to buy a copy of New Seeds. Coinciding with purchasing New Seeds, we also found a first edition hardback of The Seven Story Mountain at a yard sale in New Jersey. It cost a buck. One weekend, on a little getaway into Pennsylvania, we picked up a fine copy of A Thomas Merton Reader at an estate sale. It, as well, cost a buck.

When I began to read Merton, I had, at the time, no idea that this deceased Trappist monk would become such an instrumental mentor directing me to where I am today. That’s the way it is with lamplighters though. It’s been quite a journey, one that is really only now beginning to show some flowering, one that is still only beginning, one that will always be beginning, one being lived out in the warm glow of the Eternal Light in ways I’d never previously considered.

Merton lived on the cusp of changing times and had a very clear way of describing in advance the consequences of falling headlong into the pit that modernism had begun to open, a pit that is now excavated broader and deeper than at the time of Merton’s life and writing. His was, and still is, a prophetic life and witness. Monastic life is a testament that dares to hold onto the bedrock of living historic ideals. It also serves as a prophetic testimony, a voice of sound reason, in a world given to and spilling over with ever changing social values and norms.

I need the grounding and stability that I’ve discovered in the historical and prophetic witness, something that was either overlooked, ignored, or abandoned by those responsible for my earlier Protestant Christian formation. I do not say this as a railing accusation. It is simply a matter of fact. We are where we are when we are there and no apologies are necessarily needed for this. It’s not enough though to be conservative, fundamental, or anything else if what we become in the process is based on the faulty premises that serve as the major contributors to a myriad of sensational divisions.

It’s also not enough to be comfortable where we are while comfortably neglecting such a vast storehouse of historical Truth and Tradition. We do ourselves a terrible disservice when we do, something akin to holding our breath when there’s nothing wrong with the air around us. Merton tells us, “The living Tradition of Catholicism is like a breath of a physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet, peaceful revolution against death.”[1]

We see the ideals of Benedictine spirituality in Merton’s statement. We also see its life renewing origin and base. There is nothing tepid about Benedictine spirituality. Nor is there any sensationalism about it. “Christianity loses its meaning when it is described in the language of those whose mind is a constant series of uninterpreted sensations.”[2]

Everything will come to light and all deeds will be manifest. Definitely. Perhaps not immediately. But definitely. Christ’s words to us today tell us, “No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.”[3]

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 142
[2] Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, p. 143
[3] Luke 8:16-18
Photo: Merton's grave marker.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

As Though Nothing Else Mattered

“The favors of the LORD are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness. My portion is the LORD, says my soul; therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24

R/. I will walk in the presence of God, in the light of the living.[1]

Dawn is undoubtedly my favorite time of day. It brings with it a gentle sense of personal hope, reminders that encourage me to trust, questions that keep me wondering. A lot of mornings I’m sitting here in my chair watching the daybreak and sunrise through an East facing window in my little study. There is a sameness about every dawn. Yet, every dawn is different. God’s mercies are renewed, not because of anything I have done, but because of his faithfulness.

It seems rather appropriate that our Epistle reading today regards the resurrection.[2] Is this something that we really take seriously, seriously enough to live as though nothing else mattered? Thomas `a Kempis tells us, “It is vanity to seek material wealth that cannot last and to place your trust in it. It is also vanity to seek recognition and status. It is vanity to chase after what the world says you should want and to long for things you should not have, things that you will pay a high price for later on if you get them. It is vanity to wish for a long life and to care little about a good life. It is vanity to focus only on your present life and not to look ahead to your future life.”[3]

Words like these are not easily accepted by residents of the 21st Century, regardless of their denominational stripe. No surprise. The words come to us from the 15th Century, long before our age of crippled and corrupted modernisms, an age that conditions us to interpret everything in a way that leaves us feeling justified in our selfish endeavors. I’m ok. Your ok. As long as we don’t do anything to upset the status quo and those who set its accepted boundaries. What then if we do? Our world grows smaller. We’re labeled as being out of step with the times, radicals, crazies, irresponsible fanatics. Are these labels bad and undesirable? I think not.

Oh, to be such good soil that the sown seed can grow and produce fruit in my life![4] No hard, trampled path where the seed only feeds the passing starlings and crows. No rocky ground devoid of life giving moisture. No thorn infested ground that chokes the life out of the better planting. Only good soil, productive soil, where the sown seed can thrive and produce its desirable intended fruit.

“Often remember that saying: ‘The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.’” Make every effort, then, to shift your affections from the things that you can see to the things you cannot see, for people who live in the world on its own terms instead of on God’s terms stain their conscience and lose God’s grace.”[5]

[1] Responsorial, Saturday, 24th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-49
[3] Thomas `a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 1, Para. 4
[4] Luke 8:4-15
[5] The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 1, Para. 5

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Let Me See Again

The story of Christ healing the blind man at Bethsaida[1] is a moving one. Especially when I realize just how blind I have been and yet can be.

I have to admit that I’ve spent most of my life blindly looking at the world, looking at life, even my own religious life, conditioned in a way that caused me to focus with a very narrow historical and eternal field of vision. As a result, a lot of that time was spent focusing on ideals and images of my own choosing and making, the logical fruit of those earnest souls that I trusted in my own personal formation as a child and later entrusted to professors and preachers of the Protestant persuasion.

Like any faithful student, I developed and paid close attention to my own set of conditioned preferences and conclusions without regard or consideration for a fuller, more complete, historical picture and presentation of the Truth. Because of this early conditioning, it was easy for the well-intentioned formational dissuasion to create distractions that drew my mind away from an even greater and purer Light that often chooses to manifest itself like the soft and warm glow of a candle rather than as a glaring and brilliant floodlight.

It’s not that I want to see visions or come to some series of personal revelations. I don’t think I’m capable of interpreting or handling such things. There was a time when I thought I was but I’ve come to realize that a lot of what I thought was merely doses of well intentioned self-deception during seasons of seeing things out of focus. Let me see again [2] is the cry of another blind man who encountered Jesus. It is, in a very practical sense, a prayer for the grace to return to the simplicity of a childlike faith that dares to see and trust God in the fullness of his Reality and to view ourselves as totally dependent upon his fullness in light of our own personal incompleteness and need.

I need, more than ever, to be able to see through the clear lenses of faith, hope, and love and pray daily for an increase of these virtues in my life. Any other set of lenses is nothing more than a set of obstacles that hinders seeing clearly. The optical lenses of faith, hope, and love are the only lenses that offer a clear view of the divine ideals that direct our relationships with people and our communion with God.

My eyes need to be continually treated with salve to melt away the cataracts created by selfishness, greed, and pride. As long as these cataracts grow in their effort to cover my eyes there is no need in looking through the finely ground lenses of faith, hope, and love. Selfishness, greed, and pride create a mirror effect that always redirects one’s view back toward their own malformed self. These three unholy cousins are always filled with selfishness. Self-interest will always obscure our vision of God. They interfere with the flow of God’s grace into and then through our lives.

Seeing is necessary in order to remain focused on the Author and Finisher of the faith. I need to be able to see him as he truly is. I need to see him glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father as a reminder that he ever lives and is making intercession for me[3]. I also need to see him brutalized and agonizing in death on the Cross as a result of my sins lest I forget how awful my crimes against him have been and are if I choose to commit them.

I need to be able to see in order to follow him as he leads me to where I am going. I don’t know how to get there on my own. On my own I can’t always discern a clearly defined pathway that meanders through the fields and woods of life. The winds of life cover the pathway with drifts and debris. One day I’m a little too nearsighted. The next day I’m a little too farsighted. Some days I can’t wipe the sleep from my eyes. Other days I’m looking where I ought not. I need eyes that see clearly. I need the sight of others who have already walked this way, those who have already successfully accomplished the journey, the cloud of witnesses[4] whose voices fill the halls of heaven with praise.

No one had to tell Bartimaeus that he was physically blind. His condition was plainly obvious to him and his dire personal need compelled him to cry out for mercy from the Lord. Spiritual blindness isn’t something so obvious. We think we see well enough and think we have no need for anyone to lead us. How can the blind lead the blind?[5] The blind can’t even find their own way along lighted paths.

[1] Mark 8:22-26
[2] Luke 18,35-43
[3] Hebrews 7:25
[4] Hebrews 12:1
[5] Matthew 15:14

Friday, September 12, 2008

In Remembrance of Father Thomas O'Connor

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. And let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

I didn’t have the privilege of a long relationship with him but the few years that I did have, in fact, the few hours that I was privileged to sit, listen, and talk with him, are cherished pearls. This gentle, peaceful Benedictine monk made a remarkable impression on me, especially at an important transitional time in my life. I was at the confluence of two streams. One was flowing and carrying me into the Catholic Church. One was flowing and carrying me into Benedictine spirituality.

These two, in a real sense, became one stream in October, 2006 at St. Bernard Abbey when Father Thomas O’Connor accepted my First Promise as an Oblate of St. Benedict. I had, after decades of wandering, finally found my way home and it happened that Father O’Connor was the porter at the door who welcomed me in.

I received the news of Father’s death a few days ago at our local Oblate meeting at St. Joseph’s. I felt a tinge of deep mournful grief. I felt that I had lost a dear spiritual parent. I also felt great joy on behalf of Father O’Connor. He had left behind people who deeply loved him as a brother and a priest but, in leaving us behind, he had gone to where he desired to go. He had gone to see the face of the Lord whom he had so loved and served for many years. He died in his sleep at age 89, only a few days after being retired as Prior and Oblate Director at St. Bernard Abbey.

I always visit the monastery cemetery when I visit the abbey, walking slowly along the gravel pathway leading to it and the cemetery chapel, taking time to meditate on the Stations of the Cross as I walk. Before now there has been no personal familiarity with any of the names on the little crosses marking the graves of the brothers. These brothers, although I never knew them personally, are representatives of my own “Hero’s Hall of Faith,” role models in a world that desperately needs their testimony, one now quietly proclaimed by the markers that bear their names. Father O’Connor’s quiet, gentle voice now joins their quiet testimony, one that speaks louder than words. I'll visit Father when I'm there.

Draw near unto him,
O kingdom of priests,
You race set apart
For his sacred feast.
From burdens and sorrow,
From laboring cease.
For God will himself
Be our Sabbath of rest.

For the repose of the soul of Father Thomas O’Connor … Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Following the Leader

It started out simply enough. At first we were walking a well-worn path that was wide enough to accommodate a small truck. But, as we walked, the road narrowed until we came to an intersection that broke off into two trails wide enough for a recreational all-terrain vehicle. We took the trail that bent to the right. It was narrower, less easy to travel, and following it eventually required that we walk single file.

Our destination was four and a half miles from where we had parked at daybreak. Getting there required that we travel barely discernable paths, pick our way across beaver dams, balance ourselves on logs that had been dropped across creeks, and trudge through bogs.

This was no casual walk in a park. I had no idea of how to get to our destination and, I have to admit, halfway there I was totally lost. Thoughts occurred to me. I’m totally lost with no sense of direction. I’m already tired from all the difficult walking and everywhere I look there is only more difficult walking to look forward to. Bears. There is no shortage of bears in this wilderness. We had seen plenty of signs that told us they were here. A second admission - a certain sense of panic began to seize me.

It was at that point that I had to remind myself that my guide knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going. He had been here before. Experience had been his teacher and he was confident in his ability to take us to a destination visited only with great intention. I had to tell myself to not listen to my own fears and anxieties, to relax and enjoy the sights of a landscape that only a very small number of people will ever see, to have faith in the one guiding me through this difficult but beautiful terrain.

Four and a half miles took us half a day. Midway we stopped for a short break. I read aloud a Psalm that had touched me the day before. We prayed and worshipped God beside a beaver pond and experienced a connectedness that spanned the ages of Christian history.

At noon we were sitting down resting and eating our lunch on a spot of ground that an elk had used as a bed. We were surrounded by wilderness. In front of us was a beautiful small lake. The only sounds to be heard were the sounds of nature broken only by the words that we spoke to one another. I found a tuft of elk hair on the ground in front of me and put it into a sandwich bag to save as a reminder of this special moment in time that I had shared with my friend.

A life of faith is no less a journey through difficult terrain. But somehow we’ve grown accustomed to thinking that this journey of faith should be something easy. We look for guides that can point us along courses of ease where manicured brick paths are lined with cultivated varieties of garden growth. Walking is easier here and we acclimate ourselves to sharing the path with others even though we are constantly rubbing shoulders with them. Individuality, if not lost altogether, is so mingled with the masses on this brick path that our own interior landscape is barely discernable. And we are discouraged from stepping off the brick path, discouraged from wandering through the vales and woods alongside that call us to enter their solitude.

Jesus took time to wander off and encouraged his disciples to spend time in solitude as well. I need to remember this. "Come apart for a while." An hour of silence and contemplative prayer. Longer seasons of personal retreat. A life surrendered to the monastic spirituality that I find in the leadership of St. Benedict. These are destinations as real as the lake deep in the Canadian bush. Destinations never descend upon us out of the blue. They are arrived at with discipline and devotion that teach us how to cease exerting our will in order to accept Christ’s will.

Follow the Leader. He leads through quiet places that inspire us and provide rest for our souls.