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Thinking Out Loud

Merton's Road to Gethsemani

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Road to GethsemaniIt used to be harder to get to Gethsemani Abbey. Geographically, that is. It has never been easy to get there spiritually and vocationally.

Trains and poor quality roads have been replaced by planes and multi-lane highways, making physical travel much easier. But the spiritual distance between the life secular and the life of the cloistered religious is still long and arduous. Every Cistercian monk (or Trappist as they are also called), including Thomas Merton, walked this path.

"Contemplation ...," wrote Merton, "demands silence, solitude, poverty, detachment. And the contemplative life is a life which is organized with one end alone in view: to isolate man from the noise and bustle of temporal activity and to establish him in the profound peace of the presence of God," [Thomas Merton, Cistercian Contemplatives: A Guide to Trappist Life (The Monks of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) p. 10.]

Merton's early impressions of the Cistercian order, in fact, had left him cold. The austerity and solitude of the life of the Trappist, he says in The Seven Storey Mountain, "almost reduced me to jelly."

After his first visit to Gethsemani, however, for a Holy Week retreat in 1941, he wrote: "I felt the deep, deep silence of the night, and of peace, and of holiness enfold me like love, like safety. The embrace of it, the silence! I had entered into a solitude ... that enfolded me, spoke to me, and spoke louder and more eloquently than any voice." [Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 1948) p. 321.]

Not long ago, in a visit with Father Seamus, the guestmaster at Gethsemani Abbey, I asked him to describe the road one must travel to enter the Cistercian community. Father Seamus found it helpful at a number of points in the conversation to use the language of courtship and marriage to describe the process of discerning the monastic vocation. Those familiar only with the process for ordination in most Protestant denominations will be amazed at the depth of examination and the length of preparation required to become a contemplative monastic.

"You're forced to go into your head," said Father Seamus, and those helping the inquirer must "analyze his motives," and try to discern if "he is acting selflessly" in seeking a religious vocation.

You don't become a Trappist to run away from life. It is a sacred vocation. And, as in every calling, one submits to a community of discernment to better understand oneself. In particular, the community seeks to help the potential monk discern what gifts he has which might serve the community. The inquirer may not even know what his gifts are, and it is frequently the case that others in the community discover his giftedness and how these gifts might help the community and the potential monk himself.

The entire process of becoming a Trappist takes at least five-and-a-half years, though the first step in the process may take as little time or as much as an inquirer wishes, that of the “observer.” At this initial stage, a person makes known his interest in the monastic life and is invited to stay and dine in the guest quarters while praying and working with the monks themselves.

The observer will not, Father Seamus emphasized, eat and sleep in the cloister. The level of intimacy that attends table fellowship and actually living side-by-side with the monks would be inappropriate for an observer. Father Seamus commented, a bit sheepishly and with his eyebrows raised in shock, that such level of intimacy would be like "going all the way on a first date." The observer will spend a lot of time with the vocation director to try to understand his own motives and to clarify his calling, to discover whether or not this special vocation and its relationship should go further. He may also spend time with the novice master or his assistant, learning more about the monastic life.

If the observer wishes, in due time, he may subsequently ask to be admitted to the monastery whereupon he becomes a "postulant." The application process for postulants includes an interview with the abbot and an evaluation by a psychiatrist. One cannot be admitted to become a postulant if one has outstanding financial or family obligations.

Merton famously described the moment when he entered Gethsemani as a postulant in December of 1941, and how when the cloister gate closed behind him he felt as though he had been "enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom" (Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 372). Many who engage in retreats at Gethsemani also speak of the feeling of freedom they experience whenever they walk through the monastery's doors.

The postulant stage lasts six months, at the end of which one asks to enter the "novitiate." The abbot of the community and the vocation committee of the abbey engage in discernment to determine if the postulant is ready to be admitted as a novice. This is an extremely important stage because it is as a novice that one will take annual vows of obedience, conversion of manners (which includes celibacy and poverty) and stability. One must remain a novice for two years, after which one may take annual vows for a period of three years. At the end of these three years, one must either take solemn vows for life or leave the monastery.

The concept of a "conversion of manners" is worthy of reflection for those who are not called to a monastery. We often speak of conversion as an event, especially in certain branches of Evangelical Christianity. But a conversion of manners, which is essential to the monastic vows (and one might also consider what this might mean for all Christians) requires an inhabiting of a way of being that is much more gradual. A conversion of manners requires a slow, steady reinforcement in a community of practices of faith that undergird, strengthen and sustain a whole new life.

The monastic community listens to and observes the novice to discern whether their lives are "singular" - which is not a good thing. To be singular is deliberately to try to get the attention of others, either by affecting outwardly to be especially holy, or to stand apart from the community in some way.

Even asceticism can be taken too far. A monk may only fast when the community enters into fasts. Otherwise he would have to have special permission from the abbot. Merton mentions the way the monks sing the liturgy in unison, observing that only when you make a mistake do you ever stand out.

The road from the world to the monastery requires a process of discovering what it means to be a member of a community, what it means to give up striving for individuality, but also what it means to allow your distinctive gifts to emerge in a natural way.

One can only imagine what a loss it would have been to the world and to Merton himself if his first abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, had not encouraged him to share his gift of written expression. Within the community, within the four walls of the cloister, enclosed in this freedom he was liberated from everything that degraded and distracted him, to employ his gifts. His vows bound him tightly to this particular freedom.

There were times, especially under his next abbot, Dom James Fox, that the ties that bound him within the community chafed and scarred Merton. There were many occasions when he contemplated leaving Gethsemani. But there was something about the disciplines and the strict vows, the daily engagements and duties, no less than the solitude and silence, that liberated Merton as a writer.

The paradox of freedom which is manifested as an inner reality, not merely an absence of restraint, is no less profound than the paradox between the momentary experience of conversion and the practices of faithful living which become habitual and distinguish a converted life from mere intentions and words. Both paradoxes are alive in a monastic community, and both are life-giving for all Christians.

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