Tuesday 22 July 2008

Quest, Pilgrimage and Sacred Place - An Essay

Quest, Pilgrimage and Sacred Place

For my pilgrimage, I must go back a few years. My pilgrimage began years before the actual journey and has yet to be completed. It began with a name, the name of Thomas Merton. In my readings, I kept running across this name, references to this man, his body of work, quotes by him. It seemed that every time I was intrigued by something, it was somehow linked to Thomas Mert
on. Then in my first year here at the University of Waterloo, I did a course with Dr. Michael Higgins, "Faith Quests". One of the books we did was Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander; it was the first Merton book I was to read, though definitely not the last. My pilgrimage is three-fold. The first was into the writings of Thomas Merton and the writings about him. Second was a growing desire to visit Gethsemani where Merton was a monk. Finally, is the continuing desire to return to that place for a longer time. In examining my quest, we will look at Merton the man and the Monk. We will look at my journey to Gethsemani, and we will look at the hunger to return.

Thomas Merton (1915-1958) was an enigma. He w
as a monk, a man and a myth. He created the myth with his bestseller The Seven Story Mountain and then spent most of the rest of his life trying to change that story. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, states: "The discovery of culture and the folk-mind means that there cannot be universal principles of understanding. Reason is a myth that makes mythmaking impossible to comprehend." This was one of Merton's problems. He made the myth, but the myth was no longer the man. In a previous essay, I examined the man, the monk, and some of his writings on monasticism. Monks have often been on the leading edge of religious life, and theological reform. The earliest desert fathers were trying to get back to a truer, purer form of Christianity. Then the Benedictines were an attempt to return to the fathers. The order Merton belonged to, which was founded in about 1100A.D., formed a stricter, more austere form of the Benedictine monasticism. Merton Himself continually pushed the boundaries; he was a monk who rebelled, but rebelled respectfully. Michael W. Higgins said it best, "Merton's life was fraught with contradictions, polarities and wild paradoxes." Yet the legacy of his writings continues to affect new generations of readers. Many of these readers like myself have been drawn into pilgrimage to Gethsemani.

There have literally been hundreds of books and articles written about Merton and his works. I cannot do justice to that industry here, but I will summarize some of the key points in his development, in hopes that understanding his development can help us understand why others are drawn into his w
orks, and through that to this special place. Also, it explains why I have been drawn into this quest.
Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in the south of France to an American mother and a New Zealander father. He died in 1968 in Bangkok of accidental electrocution. His life was a constant oscillation between retreat from and attack on the world. When he was 6 years old, his mother died. At age 10, he was enrolled at a private school; often being sick, he spent most of his time alone and in nature exploring abandoned monasteries. At 15, he moved to England and was soon after orphaned. Then, at age 18, he visited Rome; he found himself drawn to churches, and there he discovered Christ. He attended Cambridge and then Columbia University. He graduated in 1935 from Columbia and then he taught at a junior college. In 1941, at age 26, he entered the Trappist Monastery of the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani. In 1949, he was ordained as a priest. The year before this he published The Seven Story Mountain. Yet all of these are just facts. Who was the man Thomas Merton? He was a seeker, a quester, and a pilgrim. Michael Higgins in Heretic Blood states: "He knew that the route to human authenticity was lonely, full of risk, a pilgrim's terror." Merton the man was such a pilgrim, willing to face pain and trials, to follow the quest. In following Merton's journey I have been on a quest myself.
Yet Merton was much more than just a man; he was also a poet, and as a poet, he saw his role to be a reclaimer of words: "Merton saw the scar of the fall in language and he came to understand the poet's role as nothing less than the restitution of the word; the restoration of its sacredness, and its liberation from the uses of deception, slick rhetoric, and ideological manipulation to become once more the quiet servant of truth." Also, "The word must be cleansed. As we are made whole by the Word, so words are made whole by the poet." But he recognized the constraints in that he was a monk who took a vow of silence, yet he could not stop the flow of his words. This is summed up by Higgins: "His diaries communicate his earnest struggle with the many contradictions that defined his life; the writer who is vowed to silence; the Columbia bohemian who is a consecrated religious; the solitary man compelled to address the public order; the "hidden one", marked by fame." He not only recognized these contradictions within himself, but he worked at resolving or balancing out the ones he could.

Merton was an intellectual, he was probably brilliant or even genius, but genius is often seen as madness. He was not a typical theologian; he was more of a religious thinker. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, states: "I must reiterate that Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsc
he are thinkers of the very highest order. This is, in fact, precisely my point. We must relearn what this means and also that there are others who belong in the same rank." Merton was such a man. He did not think for us but he wrote to make us think. Yet we only saw what he wanted us to see, or what he was willing to show us. "The masks of the Gethsemani diarist are many: there is the monk as a rebel, the monk as visionary, the monk as artist, the monk as divided self, the monk as conscience of the nation, the monk as troublesome charge, the monk as renegade, the monk as dutiful son, and the monk as guru. As an assemblage of masks, of personae, they tell us something about the essential Merton. They tell us what he would have us know." And this leads us to a second view - Merton as monk.

Our Merton was not only a man, he was also a monk, and a monk of the 'strict observance' at that. The problem with Merton is that once you have categorized him, the next piece of his writings you read breaks th
at mold or box you have just put him in. Michael Higgins describes him this way: "Merton was, and remains, a phenomenon, an utterly engaging figure, controversial, iconic, the paradigmatic monk for our century." As such he draws seekers, or questers, into his body of work or into relationship with Gethsemani.

Now that we have looked at the man and some of his writings, let us look at the place. Gethsemani was founded in 1848 by the Trappists (an order of Cistercians founded in 1098 in France). It is settled on more than 7000 acres of land outside of Louisville Kentucky. It is a place of great beauty, and profound spiritual impact. From the first of Merton's books I read, I had wanted to visit Gethsemani. I received the chance to make this trip by chance. A friend of mine had moved to Texas after graduation; he worked there two years, but did not enjoy living in the States. He asked me to help him move back. He didn't have a license to drive and I did. He flew me to Texas and we rented a UHaul to move him back. My condition for helping him was a side trip to Gethsemani. We loaded up in Texas on a Wednesday morning. We drove all day and through the night. We arrived at the monastery late the next afternoon. We were greeted with a sign:and again at the door to the visitor's center:
and we were received like as Christ. We only had a few hours. We were given free rein of the public places on the site and we walked, prayed, and stood silently. As we were leaving, my friend mentioned to me that though he grew up in a tradition that did not consider place or buildings sacred, he did feel something very different here in this space. We drove away in silence for many miles, both caught up in our thoughts and our prayers. This short visit gave me an even greater thirst for Merton's writings and for things monastic. Now we return to the man, Thomas Merton.

When Merton entered the monastery he had clear ideals and views. As time would pass, things would become less clear to him. As can be seen from two final quotes, in his own words: "It is true that when I came to this monastery where I am, I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there was so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk, so much superficial and needless stimulation, that I could not remember who I was." And "When I first became a monk, yes I was more sure of 'answers'. But as I grew old in the monastic life and advanced further into solitude, I became aware that I have questions. And what are the questions? Can man make sense out of his existence?" Merton was thus a spiritual quester whose quest began in earnest when he thought he had reached the grail. We can all learn from Merton. We can apply the essence of the contemplative no matter where we are.

And in that spirit, I know I will return to Gethsemani for a weekend, a week, a month. And I know I will again leave the place changed and transformed. To begin again the quest and pilgrimage back into the world.

(Here is a power point I used while presenting this material.)


  1. Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Touchstone 1987, p.307
  2. Higgins, Michael W., Heretic Blood, Toronto: Stoddart, 1998, p.9
  3. Higgins, Michael W., Heretic Blood, Toronto: Stoddart, 1998, p.180
  4. Higgins, Michael W., Heretic Blood, Toronto: Stoddart, 1998, p.133
  5. Higgins, Michael W., Heretic Blood, Toronto: Stoddart, 1998, p.150
  6. Higgins, Michael W., The Making and Remaking: The Many Masks of Thomas Merton Michael Keenen Memorial lecture, Second Lecture 1988, Muenster: St Thoman College, 1988, p.10
  7. Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Touchstone 1987, p.240
  8. Higgins, Michael W., The Making and Remaking: The Many Masks of Thomas Merton Michael Keenen Memorial lecture, Second Lecture 1988, Muenster: St Thomas College, 1988, p.9
  9. Higgins, Michael W., Heretic Blood, Toronto: Stoddart, 1998, p.2
  10. Merton, Thomas; The Monastic Journey Ed. Brother Patrick Hart London: Sheldon, 1977, p.424
  11. Merton, Thomas; The Monastic Journey Ed. Brother Patrick Hart London: Sheldon, 1977, p.424

Aprile, Dianne The Abbey of Gethsemani
Louisville, KY, Trout Lily Press, 1998

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind.
New York: Touchstone, 1987

Downey, Michael Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire
Mahwah, New Jersey, Paulist Press, 1997

Higgins, Michael W. The Making and Remaking: The Many Masks of Thomas Merton
Michael Keenen Memorial lecture, Second Lecture 1988
Muenster: St Thomas College, 1988

Heretic Blood.
Toronto: Stoddart, 1998

Merton, Thomas The Monastic Journey Ed. Brother Patrick Hart
London: Sheldon, 1977

The Hidden Ground of Love. Ed. William H. Shannon
New York: F, S & G, 1983

A Vow of Conversion.
New York: F, S & G, 1988

The Pasternak Affair.
New York: F, S & G. 1960

Spiritual Master. Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham
Mahwah: Paulist, 1992

McEvoy, Steven R. Thomas Merton, The Man, the Monk, on Monasticism
U Waterloo, 1998, Essay for Peter Frick

(First written for RS272 Sacred Places Winter 2005.)

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