“Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.” Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (p. 361)
In May 2016 I was lucky enough to join a group on a brief excursion to Thomas Merton’s former hermitage. In this small cabin set apart from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton lived out the final four years of his life and monastic vows from 1964 until his untimely death in 1968. The hermitage may have only been a brief chapter in his life given his entrance into the monastery in 1941, but it’s been known to be the birthplace of some of his most transformative and inspiring writings, particularly those writings pertaining to contemplation, social justice, peace, and his vision of unity.
Since I’d been a Merton fan for years prior to this visit, I’d fantasized about the day I might be able to wander upon this particular cabin door. I always imagined Merton would’ve had mixed feelings about these pilgrimages. The precise place he sought for solitude and space was now being trampled on by onlookers and admirers on a regular basis. Though it had been nearly 50 years since Merton had last been within these walls, embarking on this private space seemed like walking in on someone in the middle of their work. It felt like an interruption. It felt as if I was peering into something.
Something of the mystery. Something of the unknown. Something fossilized in the silence.
Alas, I also knew that it was just a space, just a place, and its sacredness and mystical tenor came from the spaciousness and intention Merton held within it–an inner stance which we’re all capable of, yet few come to know.
With 20 or so of us trekking up to the hermitage, I worked hard to contain my child-like excitement. Grinning along the way, I took note of the distance from the monastery, envisioned the walks Merton may have taken, and considered the steps that led him home. Our group gathered inside and out to hear stories from our guide, a current monk, and poet, who happened to know Merton from their time together at the monastery. Our thoughtful discussion considered the work and writing he created within the hermitage and the inspiration it had in our own lives.
When it was time to go, the group began to quickly evaporate into the landscape back towards the Abbey. I sensed an opportunity to spend some time in the back rooms, and wandered into the quietude. After a few minutes had passed, I looked to the window to see the last of the group disappearing in the distance and realized I was entirely alone. Giggling with delight, I felt the hermitage sinking into the hush of emptiness, the tiny cabin seemed to be transforming into a stagnant memory of everything it once held. I sat in the silence.
Somehow, this time alone felt less invasive. I no longer felt like I was intruding but instead felt as if I was communing with something beyond the time and space. I entered each of the rooms in their silence— the chapel, the kitchen, the bedroom— and I spent another hour in the living room by the fireplace, desk, and bookshelves.
In the end, there was no mountaintop experience. It was an inspiring space, no doubt, but it was still just a space. It was only what we brought with us as individuals that made the place spectacular. I surfaced from this hermitage experience pondering the implications of seeking mysticism in such a place. While on this particular day it was more about reverence of space, I couldn’t completely eliminate the hope of getting in touch with that mystical encounter of which we are all so desperate for. And, perhaps I did get in touch with it. Perhaps I didn’t. Undoubtedly, I’ll never know. For the mystical encounter is always as undefinable as it is undeniable. The mystical encounter is always as elusive as it is palpable.
As much as I know that even discussing the idea of attainment only pushes me further from it, I can’t help but consider what it means. To go seeking for something which cannot be sought. To go on looking for something which cannot be found. To attempt to do something which cannot be done.
The only proper response I have to the beauty of such a silent space is… I’ll never know.
“…In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”