One of the reasons I came to the Abbey of Gethsemani was to encounter (confront, deal with) the writer Thomas Merton, who lived here as a monk and priest. I respect him tremendously, but I also have issues with him. I believe his talent and craftsmanship as a writer is unparalleled, but I found myself concerned about the strength of his spiritual commitment sometimes, particularly as he grew older: This is especially vivid in his journals, in which he was unguarded and excruciatingly honest, as opposed to his more polished ‘official’ works, the self-assured piety of The Seven Storey Mountain. He can come across as exasperatingly doubtful, questioning, even neurotic. A most imperfect modern mystic. I felt myself becoming very impatient with him in the weeks before coming here, thinking, what do you do you have to do with me, anyway? Why do you even matter?
This is his place, his home for so many years, though ironically he would die overseas. His bones are here now, only steps away from where I am sitting now. His grave is a touching, moving thing in its simplicity, no shrine there, but a simple cross in a sea of white crosses, for he is buried among his brother monks. Between Foxes, actually, right next to the abbot who gave him so much trouble, Dom James Fox. Wonder what he would think of that.
The monks do not use caskets to bury their dead, so when you stand at the grave of Merton, there is nothing between you and his remains but several feet of dirt. His bones lay at your feet. He is dead now nearly fifty years, a half century, and yet there is a curious timeline of people still connected to him in this world of the living. Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting an elderly monk who had known Merton in his days as a novice. And I know, from all the books I read and lectures that I attend, that the woman Merton loved, known simply as ‘M.’ is also still alive, while his bones molder under the ground. That famous love reduced to an abstraction now, a few tortured chapters in his journal.
But the true, questioning, wandering spirit of Merton is strangely elusive here at 21st century Gethsemani. I expected to be bombarded with it, even crushed by it. But the Abbey is oddly reticent about promoting its own son, perhaps to avoid seeming to favor one monk over all the others. There are his books in the bookstore of course, and in the library; and pictures of him in the visitors’ center. But I feel profoundly disappointed by my inability to feel any real sense of him, as I walk the monastery grounds, or attend the liturgies; even as I stand directly before his grave. I could be at any abbey, I feel, and I can’t connect the monastery with the man: Gethsemani seems almost too tidy and perfect and a bit unreal. Or perhaps the true monastery lies behind those ‘God Alone’ gates, hidden from the view of curious retreatants. I felt, in truth, a bit alienated–from both Merton and his monastery.
I didn’t want to be focused on dead Merton in his simple grave, so I went out hiking into the grounds and fields around the monastery. Into the lands he mentions lovingly in his journals, the essence of his everyday when he was working in his hermitage.He mentioned a hike to Dom Frederic Lake, and so I decide to take the very same walk in the woods myself. It is a surprisingly cool spring morning, when I set out at 9:00 am—just after a lonely breakfast in the ‘talking’ dining room. I have no problem finding the trail to the lake, which is quite undemanding as hikes go, just a little uphill climb toward the end. I see the row of pines Merton mentions, although they are quite elderly now and bare, like skeletons stretching up in to the sky. There is a smattering of redbud trees in bloom, and bits of purple amid the mosses and detritus along the path—tiny star-like flowers, but also deep purple violets, hugging the ground low. A timid spring, here.
But it is here, that to my surprise, I finally feel his presence. I feel it in the wind, which rushes around me and stirs up the dead leaves along the path. And I swear he is there, somewhere. It is inexplicable, since I am not that loopy visionary, mystical sort of person. I’d sooner walk through a shopping mall than a Kentucky forest. But I expect at any moment to suddenly come upon the man himself, loping along in plaid shirt and work pants, grinning. I want to converse with him. I want to apologize for my snarkiness and criticism of his work, and lack of respect. I’d tell him I understand his impatience and restlessness at the abbey, and that relentless need to escape through all that writing and writing and writing. I understand, why he fell in love. And now I’m ready to listen, to whatever more he has to tell me. Perhaps about the value of solitude, as creative aid and pathway to God. He knows certainly about the potent spirituality of nature, for I feel the divine connection too, even if I can’t explain it.
And then I look down, and see, in the dirt by the lake, a perfect little circle of stone, about three quarters of an inch wide. It resembles a tiny millstone, with minute channels radiating out from the center. I dig it out, and see that it is actually a fossil, some strange long-ago sea creature who inhabited the great inland sea that once covered this whole area. Research later in the abbey library will tell me it’s Ordovician or Silurian, about 140 million years old, which makes the half century since Merton’s death seem like a grain of sand on a vast beach. The hole in the middle is perfect for stringing onto the leather lace I happened to be wearing around my wrist. A gift, from Tom in heaven? Nah, I don’t believe in that stuff, even if the suggestion of a millstone is a perfect reminder to me to keep at my own work, grinding out that fiction. But if nothing else, the little fossil is a wearable reminder of the brief bit of communion I had here in the woods with an imperfect but wise, articulate, forever-searching man. And the ageless Creator of that little fossil. I am who am…
I pick up another fossiliferous stone, to bring back to Tom’s grave. It’s tiny, with the vaguest imprint of a cockleshell. It seems an appropriate offering for a man who is fading into a fossil of himself. I don’t mean that as a dismissal or insult. But he is disappearing from the world, both literally and figuratively, from our minds and the public consciousness, and soon there will be only the vaguest imprint of him; he will be nothing more than the quotes printed onto the holy cards the monks give out. I nestle the fossil there with other stones and shells in a little pile beneath his cross. We exchange gifts, Tom and I: And for now, we’re good.