Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kentucky -- Louisville and Gethsemani

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Saturday night. I have just arrived at the hermitage at Bethany Spring Retreat, now owned by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, directed by Jonathan Montaldo, Merton expert and graduate of Cor Jesu, a Brothers’ school in New Orleans which became our present school, Brother Martin High. But I get ahead of myself…

I had to work late on Thursday, and I’ve been working fairly long hours even for me the past few weeks, so Friday I woke up kinda late. I had wanted to leave early to be sure I got to Louisville in time for the start of the conference at Bellarmine University, but I realized that I needed to do laundry, so that cost me a couple of hours. I finally left the house about 2 pm, figuring that four hours in the car would put me there around 6:00, plenty of time to find the place where I was staying, drop off my stuff, and get to Bellarmine in time for the 7:00 keynote address. Of course, it didn’t work out quite that way. Getting to Louisville was no problem, apart from having forgotten about the time zone change, and finding the place where I was staying was easy enough, but my usual skill at navigating came through again, which means that covering the 3 miles from my room to Bellarmine and finding the right building took 45 minutes. Sheesh – sometimes I think I could get lost in my own house…At least I got to see some nice parts of Louisville. Anyway, I finally found the place and heard the last half-hour or so of the talk, shook a few hands, grabbed some dinner, and went back to my room. I work nights, of course, so I couldn’t get to sleep until late, and I had to get up early (earlier because of the time change!) to be back for the start of affairs the next morning. The conference was very good, and there were a lot of folks there who are important in Merton circles: Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO; Fr. George Kilcourse; Lyn Szabo; Ron Seitz; and so on. I got to meet Tommie O’Callaghan, a tiny woman with a lot of feistiness in her eyes, who was a Louisville friend of Merton’s back in the mid-to-late 60’s. The talks were quite good, despite my lack of sleep that had me fading in and out a couple of times during the day. At lunch I went up to the Merton Center in Bellarmine’s library, saw the marvelous collections of photographs, Merton books in various and sundry languages, artwork, and a few score theses and dissertations on every conceivable aspect of Merton’s life and work. I wouldn’t mind hiding in there for a few months and reading a couple (dozen) of those…

Overall the conference was really great; one talk even gave me an idea for a paper doing an interface between Merton and Walter Brueggemann on their notions of poetry and prophecy – one of the presenters said it was a great idea and encouraged me to pursue it. When it all ended about 8:45, Br. Paul offered to let me follow him down to Gethsemani, since the place where I’m staying is only about a mile away. Tomorrow I’ll go over to the abbey to tour, go to one or two of the offices, including mass, and, thanks to Br. Paul, join a group that is going up to Merton’s hermitage! Couldn’t pass that one up…

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Morning in the hermitage was splendid; although there is heat and air conditioning, I left them off last night so I could feel the chill that lets me know that fall is finally falling. Not cold, but brisk enough to make me move through my morning ablutions with a purpose. The shower quickly ran out of hot water, reminded me of Klagetoh at Christmas, made me want to be out there again. A quick bowl of soup with a perfectly ripe avocado scooped in, a little poetry by Jalal-ud’din Rumi, and I was gone.

I got to the monastery about 9:45, and Terce (one of the 7 daily prayer periods at the monastery) started at 10:20, so I had a little time to walk around. Nice place, nothing exceptional (which one should expect from a Trappist monastery), but I couldn’t stop wondering what exactly it looked like in Merton’s day. Even the “GOD ALONE” sign over one of the archways wasn’t the same one I had seen in older pictures of the place. I went into the abbey church a little early, looking for some quiet, but there was a group on retreat, and a lot of them were already in there, and they were a fidgety bunch, fiddling with cell phones and cameras and stage-whispering to each other about how great the quiet is. Terce finally started, a brief and slightly off-key affair, although whether that was because of the monks or the guests, I’m not sure. (*On a side note, in all the monasteries I have ever visited, they always use music that has no recognizable pattern or melody, and they go so slow as to make it almost inevitable that people will lose the beat. Doing that more than once every blue moon would drive me batty.*) After Terce, one of the monks opened a little gate that separated us from the monks’ choir stalls, and we all filed forward for Mass. The principal celebrant (the abbot, I later discovered) exuded a relaxed but no-nonsense kind of simplicity that made the liturgy very nice, all the crazy chant tones aside. Afterward, I went outside and found Br. Paul Quenon already gathering the group he had invited me to join the evening before, plus Fr. George Kilcourse assembling a group of his students from Bellarmine for a tour and picnic. I stuck with Br. Paul, who took us right away to Merton’s hermitage. It looked very much like I had expected, although not WHERE I had expected it. There were about 20 people in the group, all talking and bustling around and handling everything, so it didn’t feel quite right at first, but since I was bustling around too, taking pictures of everything, I couldn’t exactly resent them for wanting to do the same. Finally they all gathered for a lecture and I was able to find a tree trunk to curl up under and read some Edward Abbey. By this time it had become a perfect fall afternoon, ideal for doing what I was doing, and I went back and forth between reading a few pages and moving into meditation. It felt at once like I spent hours and like I was only there a few minutes, and I got an idea of why my co-worker and teacher Belden Lane writes about “backpacking with the saints” – bringing spiritual classics with him when he goes hiking or camping: reading a book by a crusty old desert rat like Ed Abbey while at the hermitage of another famous solitary somehow felt right.

After a couple of hours out there, I came back with Br. Paul to the retreat house where I was staying. The place, for a long time run by a community of sisters, was just bought by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and, as serendipity would have it, that was the day of the dedication ceremony, which they invited me to attend. I met the abbot, who I knew was a longtime friend of my former co-worker Judy Stewart, and Br. Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary, as well as various and sundry board members and other Merton-philes. The ceremony was a little too long, a couple of speeches turned into verbal back-slapping of a thousand old buddies (you know the kind I mean), but all in all it was fine, and I was able to sneak away to my hermitage when the reception started.
I went back to the abbey for Vespers (evening prayer) at 5:30, then back to the retreat center for one of those wonderful, spontaneous meals in which a bunch of people show up unexpectedly, each bringing something, and strangers end up lingering at table because such a resonance occurs. The only two other people under 50 at the table were a young couple, younger than I, who are riding their bikes from Maine to Nashville, then going to a 5-week Vipassana (Buddhist) retreat. Both were very nice, so I invited them back to the hermitage after supper to see the place. We talked for a couple of hours about Merton, Buddhism, mysticism East and West, and so on. Very nice, but very telling that two former Christians went to Buddhism because they didn’t see Christianity having any kind of mystical tradition to offer. Of course it’s there, but we don’t do a good job of making it known or available – what a failure on our part to offer people more than minimalisms and legalism!

Monday, 22 October 2007

Got up early today, said my goodbyes, and got on the road. Stopped by Gethsemani again, went to the Trappists' cemetary and saw Merton's grave marker. There was still a Tibetan scarf there from when the Dalai Lama came to honor Merton. After a very minor bit of thinking, I left my cross there, the one I wear every day. I figure I'll get it back when I go next month with my students, but it seemed appropriate to offer something as important to me as that cross to the memory of a person who continues to be so important to me and to so many other people.


Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you had a great trip. The pictures are terrific. Did you get new tires for your car?

Anonymous said...

I went to Cor Jesu with an Irwin Montaldo, who became a Jesuit (but who left before ordination). I wonder if Jonathan Montaldo is his cousin. I sense in you an attraction to the contemplative life.

Br. Patrick said...

Dear anonymous,

Jonathan was a Jesuit for a time -- perhaps he goes by Jonathan now? As for the contemplative life, I am very attracted to a life of more serious solitude and distance, but not to a contemplative order of monks...

Linda K. said...

I ran across this blog on the internet, and was stunned to realize you visited the Hermitage right after I left it! I was the guest who accidentally broke two of the window cranks :(. During my stay, crews were preparing the grounds for the dedication. I didn't mind the drill & saw noise too awfully much, and after I returned, a friend pointed out that it was quite appropriate, as I was under construction myself. Anyway, I just happen to have returned from another stay at the Hermitage just last week. I love the place--have enjoyed much serendipity there, as well as divine communication through prayer and meditation. I hope you get to return sometime and experience a less hectic time there.
Linda K.