Many years ago in the early 1980s, at a time of faith crisis in my life, the Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, became a guide through his many books. Recently I came across one of Merton’s prayers I copied out long ago. Today, on the brink of ending my 19 year literary romance of the Scottish Terrier in Great Scots Magazine, I find Merton’s prayer resonates in my soul even more than it did 30+ years ago. Perhaps blog readers can identify with these candid prayer-words, too:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton, Trappist monk)
Re-reading Merton’s prayer at this time in my life when my own path-closing is clearer than my path-opening, brought back vivid memories of my journey to Bardstown, KY., and to the nearby Abbey of Gethsemane Monastery, where Merton was a monk and where he was buried in 1968 following his death by electrocution on a trip to Thailand. I remember finding the grave marker in reverent silence and sitting among the gravestones in journaled dialogue with the dead Trappist whom I admired. Here’s the conversation I had with Thomas Merton in that graveyard in 1983 . . .
[On occasion of first visit to Abbey of Gethsemane Monastery, Trappist, Ky., 25 June 1983 . . . ]
I stand, motionless in the garden, soul straining, with outstretched hands in search of the heart of you. This church in which you read the Litany; this garden wall from which you met philosopher insects in russet fur; this air heavy with humidity of focused prayer; this solitude, stolid as a fortress in Jesus’ Name, surrounded by guardian hills, made safe by rigorous isolation; these clockwork prayers, sung by metronomes with soft mouths and pleasant faces; this silence, so full of the murmur of life—were these the things which accounted for you, which impelled you to judge by your choices the sedentary ease of my generation?
Who are you, Father Louis? Why are you? And does it really matter, after all?
In silence I pay respects to your grave marker, in every way nondescript, indistinguishable from the others which stand like summer dandelions beside the church wall. Yours simply says,”fr. Louis Merton died Dec. 10,1968.” Nothing more. So your quest after the heart of the Mystic, which led you through Eastern thought and into a reformer’s role in your own Order, ends here indistinguishable from every other; your quest which led you away from community ends in a communal grave. What does it all mean? Was your hermit’s heart at rest in Gethsemane? Was your idealist heart nurtured in the solitude and the silence of religious isolation? Why, then, the voluble pen, the dispensations to invade the outside? Why the paradoxes at your center which so eloquently speak of the uniqueness of you?
I hear your answers in the ambiguity of the place: the “yes” and “no” of idealism protected from realism’s glare by cloistered isolation. Which are you, fr Merton? An anachronism nursing the corpse of medieval mysticism, so focused on heavenly answers you can’t hear earthly cries and questions? Or a realist so sensitively tuned to the human predicament you lose faith in the validity of professional withdrawal? Did Gethsemane’s high wall keep sin out any more effectively than it kept you in?
I sit in this garden lost in a slice of thick solitude; I sit contemplating the symbolism of your Gethsemane wall. Was it high enough to keep out ambition? Was it thick enough to keep out the world in your heart? Your fame transcended it . . . What else escaped?
When the relentless awareness came to your heart that the same earth touches your wall on both sides, what did you tell your soul: that your own “Hermitage” would give what the community lacked?; that the quest is to discover unique, holy ground, untouched by defiling “earth”? And when you tasted your self-exile, and took root in your sacred isolation, was your own hand-made wall within a wall at last effective? Was the ground purer in its inaccessibility? And in your isolation, was your heart truly free?
Today I conversed with one of your Brothers and found myself depressed by his anonymity. He had neither opinion nor insight, only gentle, guileless grin. A Brother at Gethsemane since 1940– 43 years taking the starch out of his personality, leaving a limp, shapeless ” habit.” Is this, fr. Louis, the work of Gethsemane? Yet you show both charismatic personality as well as profound insight. How can monasticism accent the individuality of one brother while obliterating the individuality of another? How can it give to one, international voice, while it invokes silence from the others? History seems to argue that the individual exists for the Order, not the Order for the individual. This makes the impress of your personhood the more remarkable, and raises to my mind questions re: the private anguish of your soul. What warfare was waged within your poet’s heart between ” the one-and-the-many”? What battles did you fight to surrender your will and still preserve your selfhood? Was it that warfare which drove you to your Hermitage; and was it that struggle which sent you to Thailand and to your death?
Which was the real fr. Louis? The Hermit, self-exiled in the woods of Gethsemane; or the Trappist representative and spokesman to the world? Who is the real Thomas Merton? In which pursuit was your authentic joy, fr. Louis: in the isolation or the integration? Where was your treasure? And was it enough?
Today, I find my questions put to the dead “fr. Louis” as relevant to me as to him back then. I don’t have answers. I’ve built my own cloistered world inside high adobe walls, was sure Charlotte and the animals were all I needed in my ‘hermitage’ … But now, the Life ‘given’ is not the one planned and the cocoon that nourished me I feel must be shed for new Life to flourish.
Thirty-one years after my ‘interview’ at Thomas Merton’s grave I’m still asking questions of Merton, of Myself … of Life. These days I have fewer answers than back then.
Like Merton’s prayer, in which he stakes everything on authentic desire, I find comfort in this truth I hold dear in my life — it’s not the grasp, but the reach that is the measure of this Scottie Man’s life well-lived
Joseph Harvill, publisher Great Scots Magazine