And so my monastery retreat is over. As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Elkview, West Virginia, in a kind of second, micro-retreat: It seems the Almighty thought it would be pretty funny to make me drive to and from Gethsemani Abbey in snowstorms, even though it is mid-April. Since the Cumberland Gap is expected to be hit hardest—and I’ve already had the scary experience of trying to maneuver my little toy car through those mountains in high wind and icy roads—I’m hunkered down here, in what seems like a luxurious parody of my little room at the monastery. A gigantic, soft comfortable bed, HD-TV with a zillion channels, and a big desk for my computer and papers. And the view: Lovely soaring West Virginia hills, still wintry brown and white, and at their base—A big ol’ shopping center, complete with a Dollar Store.
Still, it’s quiet, almost as quiet as the abbey was, and my fellow retreatants here are a lot chattier and nicer. There’s even a very friendly black Labrador retriever I keep encountering in the elevator. It’s actually a great place to sit and regroup, and think about what the last week has meant to me. But I’m not going to make any conclusions about it all just yet. I still don’t know what to make of it: Gethsemani was a beautiful place, very soulful, and I was thrilled to make a kind of quasi-mystical connection with Merton there. The liturgical experience was interesting and at times, moving. But I found myself constantly questioning the value of solitude and aloneness as a path to God. It just seems contradictory to all that I truly believe, that the path to God lies in love and in others. So how does closing yourself off to the world get you there? I need to think about that more. Ironically, as I was sealed away at Gethsemani, the Pope brought out his groundbreaking pronouncement on family life and love. You might not think much of it, but I thought it was huge, and it seemed to support my own personal beliefs on the importance of love and family and connection in coming to God.
I suppose the value of the retreat was mostly as a temporary break, an escape from my very secular and unspiritual day to day world. A time to reflect, to read and to write with abandon. And in that respect, it was a complete success.
So here is the news: At Gethsemani I wrote four chapters of a novel that I had been thinking about at home. I didn’t know that I would do another novel so soon, especially considering the mixed results I’m having with The Novice Master, but it all just came to me there in the monastery; it’s all plotted out, and it works, it is a real, viable thing: I will have a new work of fiction this year. Of course I think it’s going to be the best thing I ever wrote! I wrote much of it in the odd little library there, with its paltry little shelf of Mertonia and plentitude of moldering old Catholic ‘classics,’ plus some motley books obviously left behind by other retreatants. (Am kicking myself for not bringing along a copy of The Novice Master and sneaking it onto the fiction shelf there.)
The inspiration for this novel comes not necessarily from Gethsemani or Merton, but indeed, from my fellow retreatants. That tight-lipped, seemingly troubled bunch: I found myself covertly studying them, trying to figure out their motives for being there, trying to understand them as individual human beings and—Voila! I had some characters. Now, I did meet a few lovely people, exchanged smiles with a few shy souls, and even talked with a few monks. But now I am actually grateful to the majority of retreatants who kept to themselves (well, it was a silent retreat, after all) and regarded my smiles and conversational overtures with coolness and rejection. They actually did me a great service. So my stay at Gethsemani was humbling, and even a bit humiliating, but a lot of good is going to come of it, regardless.
My dearest friends in the blogosphere: You have been so patient and supportive despite my bombardment of posts these past few days, and thank you for putting up with it. My posts will likely thin out now for the next few months, as I work passionately on my next project, which I might start discussing when I am a little further along. I will be doing another chapter or two today, as I wait patiently for the snow gods to settle down.
And then I think I might just mosey down to that shopping center later…Supper at Bob Evans! Because good fiction requires a combination of the transcendent and reality, the nitty-gritty down-to-earth stuff. Yeah, the spiritual part of this pilgrimage is definitely over! Turn up the bluegrass…