Reading Merton to Friends at His Hermitage, ITMS Meeting 2015


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All Saints Day 2012 in Santiago de Compostela

I walked with my friends into Santiago de Compostela, mind clear and heart content, but without elation. I could not conjure any of the two months of walking as I entered the Square in front of the Cathedral of Saint James. Mindful of “all my relations”, I attended the noon Pilgrims’ Mass. The journey ended on Monday, October 29th and I dutifully picked up my “compostella” at the Pilgrims’ Office, the certificate that certifies my pilgrimage to Santiago from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.

Jon CathedralI end this cycle of podcasts with a poem, “Ithaca”, by the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy. In Homer’s Odyssey “Ithaca” was the island home to which Odysseus struggled to return, through many adventures, after his participation in the Trojan War. Here is Cavafy’s poem followed by a podcast of my reading it, then adding a “riff” of my own on his last stanza.

Grateful for everything in the past, I wait in hope for what is to come. Even though I left home alone for Santiago seven months ago to travel through Portugal, England, Italy, Switzerland and now Spain, many have departed with me “in the spirit” and have been my companions through my travels.

Our destinies are one. I don’t know how this can be true on a macro-level, how my destiny is one with everyone in the world, but I am certain how it is true that I share the same destiny with the entire network of my intimates–with all my personal relations. I know that I am, through the network of us, participating in creating the world with  and for those I know best.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like them on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.








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From Camino de Santiago: Jim Gravois Podcast on "The Spirit of the Camino"

A couple of days ago I was thinking about the “Spirit of the Camino,” which probably has as many interpretations as there are pilgrims. I decided to do an audio reflection on this topic on Wednesday in Melide, and then I changed it a bit and recorded an extra treatment, while I was walking along the Camino yesterday (25 Oct.), headed toward Arzua, Spain. Hope you enjoy the sound of my feet slapping their way to Santiago. —Jim Gravois

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From El Camino de Santiago: The Consoling Fragrance of Galician Cow Shit

As we walked out of Villafranca de Bierzo, the river flowing with force past us on our left, we had no notion of the beauty that awaited us, nor did we realize the hard climb up and forward we would have to make into Galicia. Galicia is said to be one of the most economically challenged regions of Spain, but its beauty is incomparable, except perhaps to Ireland. Galicia is a Celtic land made green by constant rain.

Breaking up the climb between Villafranca and O Cebriero, Jim and I stopped over-night in the small village of Portella. It was here that I would encounter the milk cows of Galicia. The cows of Portella were more numerous than its human residents. They daily parade through the narrow streets from milking barns to feeding barns, goaded on by dogs and usually a woman with a stick. Pilgrims encountering the daily ritual passage of Portella’s cows must step aside and let them pass. I have now had this experience of Galician parading cows many times. If I had held out my arms, I could have touched these huge animals. When they looked into my eyes, as many of them did, I wanted to embrace them.

It was in Portella that I remembered my nose’s affinity for cow shit and the smell of the barns where cows are milked or bedded down. My yen for the odors of cow barns is perhaps a legacy of my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents, who were dairy farmers in New Orleans, who continued the traditional work of the Deffes clan out of Alsace-Lorraine. I have not paid enough attention to my mother’s family, but have always more gravitated toward my Montaldo-Paretti roots. The Parettis were green grocers in New Orleans’ French market. The Montaldos managed gambling houses and my grandfather, Charles, managed a saloon in the French Quarter. I have more thought of myself as Italian rather than as my mother’s blend of French (Deffes), Spanish (Gomez) and German (Schindler). My great-niece, Cali, has traced the Deffes clan back to Jews living in Germany in the 1600s. Being in Galicia and bewitched once again by the aromas of dairy cows, my mother’s family is finally claiming its due in me.

Whatever the source, I have always liked the smell of cows and their shit. I remember visiting Bellefontaine Abbey in France, the motherhouse of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where my cousin is a monk. On the first morning after my arrival at Bellefontaine, I attended Lauds and Eucharist in the twelfth-century abbey church. When Mass had ended, I walked out of the church and got a whiff of cow shit from the monastic barn. I thought back then how wonderful it was that these French monks had built their church so close to the cow barn. Psalmody and a cow barn harmonize with one another—the heights of singing for God linked to one of our souls’ basic elements.

Cistercian abbeys in America no longer have cow barns. No matter how reasonable it is that American Cistercians no longer drink the milk of their own cows, nor enjoy a daily dose of the aroma of their shit, something essential to their monasticism might now have gone missing. Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, once a working farm, no longer has an animal on its property under the care of its monks. No matter how foolish it might seem, given the inexorable decrease of their numbers, perhaps it’s time for Gethsemani to bring back the cow shit. Monks might need to be farmers again.

The fragrance of Galician cows brings me back down-to-earth from flights of fancy I am entertaining as I walk El Camino. Before I open my mouth publicly again, orally or in writing, I’m now vowing to pause a moment and recall the odor of cow barns. Perhaps I should spend a little of my social security money to have a perfumer concoct a fragrance of cow barn odors that I could lightly touch behind my ears before addressing an audience. I could call it Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache. If it could be made cheaply enough, in addition to storing it in beautiful bottles for my own use, I could send Vatican City 500 bottles for future use in consistories that raise men to the rank of Cardinal. My gift would designate that each new Cardinal receive a bottle of Bouse de Vache in a crimson-silk lined box, bearing their coats-of-arms, along with a note: “A gift for your wise use as you become a Prince of the Holy Roman Church”.

Holding the sole patent on Cologne deBouse de Vache, I would exercise my prejudice to insure that no woman ever received a bottle, no matter how high the station to which she rose. Women already have a natural facility for smelling bullshit whenever its equivalent in speech reaches their mouths or their ears.

Walking through Galicia, I have meditated on these things. It’s a crazy notion—bottling the essence of cow barn. However, I might do a video for You-Tube in which I explain my idea. It might go viral enough that it would become a meme widely used by anyone finding themselves trapped in an audience with a pompous speaker (someone like me).  In such a situation and without much thought, a person would turn and whisper to another sitting in an adjacent chair, “If only he had remembered to wear Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache!”

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From El Camino de Santiago: A New Blog and Podcast from Jim Gravois in O Cebreiro in Galicia

I am writing a few words today in O Cebreiro, one of the highest points along the Camino, and certainly one of the most beautiful. When the weather is clear, as it was yesterday upon our arrival here, the views of the surrounding green hills and mountains are spectacular. The sunset yesterday was something to behold. Today it is windy, foggy, rainy, and chilly. I am reminded of the power of Nature, especially in high places. Will we even see the sun at all today? The Camino contains so many metaphors for life: its challenges, its disappointments, its surprising rewards. As we approach the final stage of this grand adventure, I offer some audio reflections on what the Camino may mean for the rest of my life. —Jim Gravois

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From El Camino de Santiago: Deciding To Travel Your Own "Road To Joy"

When he considered the vastness of the cosmos, the French philosopher Blasé Pascal wrote that its “infinite spaces” terrified him. The stars humbled his existence. In their light he was nothing. Even as a young man I transposed Pascal’s anxiety to describe my own. It wasn’t the infinite spaces but the “infinite faces” that scared me. All those billions of human beings who have come before me, and the billions that exist now, who am I in the light of the infinite variety of their stories and individual existences?

As a corollary to my primal fear, my grammar school self at Sacred Heart of Jesus in New Orleans refused to conceive of heaven as a huge hall with all “the just” surrounding the Lord’s throne and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” for all eternity. Not only did this not strike me as fun, but I asked myself how all those “Egyptians” [I don’t know why I zeroed in on them] would crowd around the throne. Would there be room for me?

Yet why should the cosmos of seemingly infinite human existences, flowing out from and passing into one another, be a source of sadness and dismay? Why could not I choose to rejoice that I have been bestowed a “gift” to be part of this great parade, this never ending pilgrimage of humanity coming to fruition and dying as fertile seed for more life? Do I have the choice to not view my life as just a road to inevitable sadness and, instead, consider myself fortunate to have been blessed with “one wild and precious life” [Mary Oliver]?

In his journals Merton highlighted his choice in the decision placed before him to choose death or life: “Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and praise. Beyond all and in all is God. “Perhaps the ‘Book of Life’, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and, if one has lived nothing, he is not in the Book of Life. “I have always wanted to write about everything. That does not mean to write a book that covers everything–which would be impossible. But a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of nothing. That has its own life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a “book.” [Journals 3, July 17, 1956]

Over and over in his journals Merton urged himself to realize that his life, just as it was in all its particulars, constituted “God’s will” for him. To accept “God’s will” was to accept the parents who bore him, the monastery he had entered, his adopted country America just as it was, “bomb and all”. Merton’s lived mysticism and theology was to identity God’s love for him as inextricably connected with all his life’s relations: the people whom he loved and in turn loved him, the places where his life’s most significant moments were enacted, the culture of the societies of his time, the art, music and literature that most turned him on.

I turn on my sequentially new bunk beds on El Camino de Santiago, often being awake at 3:00 AM with no where to go without disturbing the thirty people sleeping with me in the dorm, wondering through the night what might be the “final significance” of my life. I admit all the blessings that have come my way. I realize that I have not suffered uniquely. My few accomplishments have been satisfying but limited. I am still the son of Irwin and Florence and no more precious a plant than one of the thousands of strange varieties that New Orleans breeds in abundance. I suspect that my dreams of receiving the Palme D’Or at Cannes for Best Actor in a Supporting role in a Comedy, with everyone tearfully on their feet to award me an unstoppable standing ovation, will probably not materialize. I doubt that there will be a movement for my beatification once I’m dead. I’ll get my fifteen minutes of “Poor Jonathan”, and then everyone will go over to Diana and Wesley’s for beer and pizza. And that will be a wrap.

A certain gospel story has always made me uncomfortable. It’s the moment when Jesus is preaching in a follower’s house. Someone comes to the door, and interrupts him to inform him that his mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. Jesus then responds, “Who is my mother? Who is my brother except those who do my Father’s will?” I have always wondered if and how he could get away with voicing that question. If Mary had an ounce of “New Orleans mother” in her, I imagine that, when Jesus finally came out of the house to greet her, she showed him the back of her hand. “Don’t you ever, young man, ask “Who is my mother?” when I’m standing ten feet away from you outside, waiting patiently for you to finish your honeyed words. I didn’t say my “Yes” to the angel Gabriel, to bear your holy ass into existence, so that I could hear you insult me in front of people who don’t know our family. Are you getting my drift, Jesus bar Joseph? You have a lot of book knowledge, son, but no common sense.”

At that moment Jesus had a choice. He could have bowed his head and accepted an illuminative lesson in humility, but no, he had to think himself extraordinary. He just couldn’t bring himself to abandon his starring role in his latest delusion of grandeur: “Woman,” he responded,” don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” [Bam! Slap! “I didn’t mean it, mama”. Whomp!]. Jesus had to learn his truth the hard way: you place yourself in spiritual, and even physical, peril when you go around preaching theologies your own mother can’t understand.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Answers” speaks beautifully to the tension between “mere learning” and a “wisdom” that stays close to the ground that bore you into life and will always bear you forward to where you really want to go:


If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.
That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of trees.
My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooked and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

New and Selected Poems, Volume One: 235

We have spent two days in the mountains before coming down to Ponferrada. The ascents were hard, but the descents were even harder, the paths down were steep, full of jagged slate and large rocks. Descents are always harder, but you need to negotiate them eventually to land where you really need to go.

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From El Camino de Santiago: More Words from Jim Gravois

I asked Jim to write a few words of introduction about himself before posting his third podcast:

“I am not especially schooled in Thomas Merton, though I did read The Seven Story Mountain long ago. Nor am I especially interested in monasticism, though I did spend two years in a Jesuit Novitiate after high-school. I somehow developed an interest in walking the Camino Frances to Santiago about a dozen years ago. My motivations were primarily cultural, physical & spiritual, in that order. And I am a guy who has met certain physical challenges during my life: 1) cross-USA bicycle trip; 2) training for and completing several 26-mile marathons. So just the idea of walking 500 miles to Santiago was a strong draw to my zeal to make retirement “interesting.” Plus I love foreign places, having spent a year or so in Europe (trying to find myself) back in my twenties.

I love and miss my wife, Lucille, and our two sons, Orion and Michael, all of whom are currently in Alabama. I want to go back to them, but not so much to Alabama.

Here is Jim Gravois’ third podcast from El Camino de Santiago:

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From El Camino de Santiago: Christianity Consists of Far More Than Inner Experiences

I was swept away touring the Cathedral at Burgos. I do not remember experiencing so much beauty in one place, a beauty that lifted my spirit to commune again with everything I have really loved since my childhood. How I spend the rest of my “one, wild precious life” (a phrase in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”), in as much as I shall have a choice in future circumstances that I cannot foresee (personal illness, the needs of others whom I love, etc.), is being determined by events, both interior and exterior, that are forming my experiences on El Camino de Santiago.

Yesterday in León, sitting in front of the remains of St. Isidore of Seville, in the Church that bears his name, I prayed for the courage to allow myself to accept the validity, if only for my own life, of all that I have loved in Christianity and monasticism. El Camino de Santiago is teaching me to speak again  to myself of my love for God that “dares not speak its name”.

This morning, as I participated at the noon Mass at León’s Cathedral, my mind blew more than once.. As the priest appeared from behind the chapel altar, I was shocked at how much he was the image of Patrick Hart. my mentor at Gethsemani. Not only did the priest look exactly like him, but his facial gestures were the same, and his way of being in his body was the same. What does Patrick Hart’s “double” celebrating this Mass mean? [BOOM!]. And then the first reading from Ecclesiasticus: “For everything there is a season, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to be born and a time to die…” What season have I entered perhaps to last until my end? [BOOM!]

I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
a thousand miles in the desert repenting.
You only have to let your soft body
love what it loves.”

I am experiencing again the force of the symbols that have more moved my “soft body” through my life more than any others. These Spanish cathedrals are reconnecting me to the world of all those who have come before me and who will live after I have departed from my “hard body”.

Stephen Batchelor has explored Buddhist temples and lived in them. An Englishman who became a Buddhist monk, and who later put off his robes to marry a once Buddhist nun, is a writer of great clarity and insight. My favorite books of his include Buddhism Without Beliefs and Living with The Devil: A Meditation on Evil. In the passage below Batchelor reflects upon all those unseen folk who contributed to Buddhism’s culture and civilization. These hidden folk were not the intellectuals, the makers of laws and movers of money that are the subject of historical investigations. These are the nameless ones to us. They their own spirits by transforming rude and raw “things” into beautiful tabernacles of what is best in the world in which we move and have our being. One has only to substitute “Christianity” for “Buddhism” in Batchelor’s reflection to apprehend the same realities mirrored in the beauty unknown artisans have created for and bequeathed to all of us who are their heirs “in Christ”.

“As a culture and a civilization, Buddhism consists of far more than inner experiences. It is known through buildings, gardens, sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, poetry and craftwork. It is present in each mark made by artists and artisans on rocks, clay votive tablets, fragile palm leaves, primed canvases, hand-pressed paper, wooden printing blocks, raked gravel, and paper lanterns. On my visits to monasteries in Tibet, the polished furrows in the rock, worn into the mountain by centuries of passing feet, moved me far more than the shrines to which they led. ….Who were the men and women who made them? ….We don’t know.

“These forgotten people are my fellows. They are the silent ones on whose behalf I want to speak. I know nothing of their religious beliefs or spiritual attainments. Their understanding of the subtleties of Buddhist doctrine is irrelevant. They left behind visible and tangible objects created by their own hands: dumb things that speak to me across the centuries in a language that no text can reproduce. Irrespective of what Buddhist icon a painted scroll may depict, it embodies the intelligence and imagination, the passion and care of its creator. I feel an affinity with the makers of these things. A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught in the most erudite treatise on emptiness.

“Just as a farmer irrigates his fields,” said Gotama in the Dhammapada, “just as a fletcher fashions an arrow, just as a carpenter shapes a block of wood, so does the sage tame the self.” This is an odd statement. Rather than encouraging the renunciation of self, here, if we follow these metaphors, the Buddha seemed to be encouraging the creation of a self. To “tame” in this context means to pacify the selfish and unruly aspects of oneself in order to begin forging a more caring, focused, and integrated character. The examples he used are of working people: farmers, fletchers, carpenters. Just as he compared practice of mindfulness to the way a skilled woodturner uses his tools, here he admired the work of those who till the soil, make arrows, and carve wood. Their handicrafts served to illustrate how to nurture, fashion, and direct the raw materials—sensations, feelings, emotions, perceptions, intentions—of one’s self.

“Rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, Gotama presented it as a project to be realized. By “self” he referred not to the transcendent Self of the brahmins, which, by definition, cannot be anything other than what it eternally Is, but the functional, moral self that breathes and acts in this world. He compared this self to a field, a potentially fertile ground that, when irrigated and tended, enables plants to flourish. He compared it to an arrow: a wooden shaft, metal head, and feather fletcher which, when assembled, can be projected on an unerring course to its target. And he compared the self to a block of wood, something one can fashion and shape into a utensil or roof beam. In each case, simple things are worked and transformed to achieve human ends.

“Such a model of self is more pertinent to a layman or laywoman living in this world than to a monk or nun intent on renouncing it. It presents a very different sort of challenge. Instead of training oneself to achieve a serene detachment from the turbulent events of this life, it encourages one to grapple with these events in order to imbue them with meaning and purpose. The emphasis is on action rather than inaction, on engagement rather than disengagement. And there are social implications too. If a person is the result of what he or she does, rather than what he or she is, than any notion of a divinely ordained system of social identity breaks down. Gotama said, “By action is one a farmer, by action a craftsman…”

[Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (NY: Spigel & Grau, 2010: 151-152)

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From El Camino de Santiago: A Word from Symeon the New Theologian on Being Aware of False Teachers

Those who set themselves up as givers of retreats and as writers on “spiritual matters” should never fail to make, as St. Ignatius of Loyola directs, daily “examinations of conscience”. There’s too much bullshit being circulated [and I include my own part in its manufacture] by those who have only read books.

It’s one thing for a medical scientest to prescribe the safest method of performing triple-by-pass. heart surgery. It’s a whole different reality when teachers prescribe ways for their students to become spiritually enlightened and “realized” human beings. Symeon the New Theologian offers hard warnings to those who dare to teach. He also offers a student a way for discerning if the “spiritual teacher” is for real: has he overcome his “passions”? If not, walk away and never look back.

Thomas Merton was an honest broker of the spiritual life. He did not consider himself a spiritual master nor a guru. He was the first to admit that any treasure he could offer was dispensed in a fractured jar. Everyone who teaches should humble themselves before their students, and confide that the only wisdom they truly possess is the truth that, on the road to a “realized life”–a courageous and joyful life in serving their neighbors–they have not traveled very far at all.

If I were sending a gift to all the successful “spiritual writers” of our day, it would be a ribbon of admonition, offered by Chuang Tzu, to be taped to the bottom of their computer screen: “Achievement is the beginning of failure. Fame is the beginning of disgrace.”

Sitting at the feet of his Spiritual Master, Montaldo has just asked Dietzie for direction, “Do you know the way to San Jose”? and the Master has just replied that he hasn’t a clue.

Here’s a “word” from Symeon the New Theologian on the matter of “false teachers”:

1.4 “Those who simply teach do not gain the Lord’s blessing. It is for those who have practiced the commandments and so have deserved to see and contemplate the shining and brilliant radiance of the Spirit within themselves. For with this vision, this knowledge and power, the Spirit instructs them fully in all that they must speak and teach to others. So, as I have said, all those who try to teach must first of all become students lest they wander off and lose themselves by speaking of things outside their experience. This is the fate of [those] who [only] trust in themselves.”

1.41 “When a man can see with his eyes, he knows when it is night and when it is day. But a blind man is unaware of both. And when a man looks upward through the Spirit and sees through the eyes of the mind, he contemplates the true and inaccessible light. So if he then falls back into his former blindness through carelessness and is deprived of the light, he will really suffer the loss and know the reason for it all too well. But the man who is blind from birth knows nothing of these things, either from experience or his efforts, unless perhaps he catches something from hearsay and so learns about things he has never seen. Such a man may tell others what he has heard, but neither he nor his audience will know what he is talking about.”

1.48 “If you want to renounce the world and be instructed in the evangelical way of life, then do not surrender yourself to a master without experience, or to one still subject to the passions, because he might initiate you into the diabolical life instead of the evangelical. Good masters give good doctrine, but the evil teach evil. Bad seeds always produce rotten fruit.”

1.49 “Call on God with prayers and tears to send you a holy guide who has overcome the passions. For yourself you should search the divine writings, especially the ascetical works of the holy fathers [and mothers]. If you compare these with the teachings of your own tutor and master, you will be able to see and learn all these things as if in a mirror. Whatever is in agreement with the sacred writings hold to your heart and keep in your thoughts, but discern whatever elements are different or adulterated and cast them away so that you will not be led astray. You must understand that there are all too many deceivers and false teachers these days.”

1.50 “A deceiver is one who is blind…but who still tries to guide other people. He leads all who follow him to their ruination in a ditch, just as the Lord said: “If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into the pit.”

1.60 “God and Lord of all things, who have power over all life and each soul, you alone can heal me. Listen to the prayer of [one who is wretched]. By the power of your all-holy Spirit bring death to the serpent coiled in my heart and make it disappear. I am poor and naked, devoid of any virtue, but make me worthy to fall in tears at the feet of my holy father, and make his holy soul bend to compassion and pity for me. Lord, give me that lowliness in my heart and my thoughts that is right for a sinner who has resolved to repent. Never finally abandon a soul that has once surrendered to you, confessed its faith in you, and chosen and prized you before the whole world. For you know, Lord, that I wish to be saved in spite of all the evil habits that still fetter me. For you, Master, all things are possible which are impossible to [us human beings]. ”

“Thank you, Blessed Symeon. Your words have pierced me to the quick.”

Da nada, Jonnie Montaldo. Have a nice day!”

Quotations from Symeon the New Theologian. The Practical and Theological Chapters (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982).

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From El Camino de Santiago: A New Form of Monasticism

I walked alone today, as did Jim, toward San Juan de Ortega, a route through a forest that featured steep climbs to equal those I had encountered in the Pyrenees. There were no cafes along the way, a three-and-a-half hour trek without respite in a comforting fog.

The monastery church of San Juan de Ortega, a traditional pilgrimage stop, is exceptionally beautiful. Coming out of the forest, to see it in the distance, reminded me of so many monasteries I had approached in just the same way, not walking but by car. Although I had been reading Merton since I was thirteen, I did not visit the Monastery of Gethsemani until 1974, when I was writing my thesis on Merton at Emory University in Atlanta, after my tour with the Navy. I traveled to Gethsemani by car with an old friend from Jesuit days, Ed Lauden (now a priest, after being married and becoming a widower).

Ed Lauden and I spent hours at Grand Coteau in the Jesuit seminary discussing Merton’s books. Merton was still alive and publishing when Lauden and I were at GC. We were becoming Jesuits, but both heard Merton’s music. We enjoyed an “outlaw” status in the Jesuits for our monk-leanings. [At one point, my novice master actually forbade me to read Merton: “You are becoming a Jesuit”. I was obedient to his “word” in all things save this admonishment.

Lauden was driving for our first Gethsemani trip in 1974. We had come from Atlanta, and approached Gethsemani via New Haven, the back way. When Gethsemani came into view over the corn fields, we both let out a chorus of “Oh, mans” and “Holy Shits”. We stayed in the old guest house. I had made an appointment to meet Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, to “talk about Merton”. He welcomed me as warmly as I know he has welcomed everyone who has sought him out (and they are still coming today) for a “word” since Merton’s death in 1968.

Patrick Hart & Thomas Merton, 1968

Before I left our appointment, I had brought Patrick a gift of an Easter egg that I had dyed and decorated in the Russian manner. He accepted it with a smile, turned away from me (no doubt rolling his eyes) and placed the egg in a niche in the monastery’s enclosure wall. I realized that he wasn’t going to take it to his cell, but was going to let it rot right there. I judged it “odd” then, but Patrick, ever since I’ve known him, is not a man who “clings”. He’s learned the art of letting pilgrims to him go. Some fifteen years later, Brother Patrick would become the father of the best, most productive years of my life, as he lifted me up and gave me the opportunity to “professionalize” my long interest and love for monasticism and Thomas Merton’s works.

It’s clear to me that I was infected at an early age with a romantic and idealized view of monastic life which has survived my head-on confrontation with reality many times. The monastic life can be and is beautiful. Monks, like Patrick Hart, are living witnesses to a monastic life well lived. They incarnate its beauty and it being a viable way to express one’s deepest humanity. But real monks are not romantics, or, they are romantics only for a two-hour walk on a Sunday afternoon.

The book that I now realize most slipped me the “golden view” of monasticism was a book for which Merton wrote an introduction. Silence in Heaven was a book of photographs of the lives of monks at Pierre Qui Vire in France taken during the Fifties. Seeing young monks my own age, teenagers, bathed in light from the monastery’s 12-century windows, dazzled me. I can still pick it up again and be dazzled. I wonder how many have experienced the same thing from this now long-out-of-print work?

Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox priest who was a great teacher and theologian at Saint Valdimir’s Seminary, was well-acquainted with pious seminarians who had a rose-colored view of monasticism and whose attraction was based on “aesthetics” rather than reality. Schmemann reacted strongly to what he viewed an inauthentic view of the monastic dimension of living the Christian life. I read Schmemann’s words as an antidote, wheneverI become re-infested with the angels from my pious youth.

Here is Schmemann’s proposal for what he calls a “new monsticism” without religious vows. I suspect that Schmemann might agree with me in viewing Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, as an icon of a “new monasticism”.

Here are Schmemann’s three rules for “a new form of monasticism…without celibacy and without the desert but with three specific vows [a rule of prayer; obedience; and acceptance]:

“The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer; an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God, what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort and—what is the most difficult—regularity. Nothing indeed is more dangerous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to measure other’s people’s spirituality, and emotionalism. What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but also living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one that could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less important today. [People] are moved only by what you are, and this means the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, and dedication [emphasis added].

Dorothy Day

“Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. Each one tailors for [oneself one’s] own kind of “Orthodoxy”, [one’s] own ideal of the Church, [one’s] own style of life. And yet, the whole literature of spirituality emphasizes obedience as the condition of all spiritual progress. What I mean [by this second vow], however, is something very practical…obedience to the movement [of life] itself…obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work…[those things which are] the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hysterical individualism: “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do.

“The third vow, acceptance, could be described, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” [St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We must dig our own wells.”] So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against changing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best possible conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions, and the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone pass or fail.

“We must think in terms of a remnant, of a movement, of service. We must begin with ourselves, if we are to be of service to the Church. When God gives something, a talent, He wants us to invest it. He wants us to serve. There is no other way of following Christ.”

From Alexander Schmemann, “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” Concern 3 (1968, reprinted by Conciliar Press, 1989, 1994). [Quoted in a superb article by Michael Plekon. “Monasticism in the Marketplace, the Monastery, the World, and Within: An Eastern Church Perspective.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 34.3 (1999).

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