Encounters with Silence – Thomas Merton’s Hermitage

*This essay will be featured in the upcoming book, Notes on Silence.  Order at www.notesonsilence.com 

“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.”

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Thomas Merton’s Hermitage, photo by Cassidy Hall

 

 

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Embracing Winter

 

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Albert Camus

I’ve had a disdain for winter for as long as I can remember. When I was a child in Iowa, my older sister could get me to go outside only by explaining an exciting game we were going to play in the blistering cold. Her games usually involved making food – pizzas in the ground, snow cones in my hands, or building something else completely impossible. But every time, just as soon as the negative temperatures grazed my face, my imagination would halt and lay dormant against the frigid ground. I’d quickly become frustrated, irritated, and just wanted to go inside where it was safe and warm.

Recently, I found myself in an emotional and literal winter. While home visiting family and friends in the midwest, I was simultaneously drudging through my own difficult emotions as the first snowfalls arrived. One day, while shoveling the snow with a friend, I managed to conjure up a few words alongside my sarcastic smile, “thank you for teaching me to love winter again”. These synchronized encounters of winter have challenged me to consider winter as something I could learn to love, even if only because it’s here.

I’ve tried, like so many of us have, to enjoy my winter. To let it be and behold it for the miracle that it is. To cherish the snow falling as if I’m getting to see a snow globe live; to move through my emotional pain and accept it just as I am. This has proven much more difficult than I ever imagined. It’s much easier to despise the winter or suffer through it knowing spring is imminent, but what if it’s not? What if this is the winter that spring never enters into? What if these are the sorrows that never go away?

Though contrasting seasons can assist us in embracing the one that is present, what if a contrast never comes again? I so often hear and tell myself to live here and now – that the day before me is all I have, and I wonder what it might look like if I truly lived like winter is all I had? What if I basked in the freezing temperatures and reveled in the thoughts of snow? What would it feel like to constantly be okay with a flow of tears and an openly aching heart? Loving winter requires a vulnerability I’m still unfamiliar with.

It is certain that in my figurative winter, I’ve been opened up in a way I never knew possible. The rawness of my spirit has forced in a light often too bright to stand — but in my openness, it keeps shining in. Though this can be a painful experience and usually makes me want to dive deeply into hibernation, I’m managing to stay outside longer. I’m learning to be with the light of day. As it always is, getting in touch with my own soreness has made me more aware of those in pain around me. I find myself all the more often sitting side-by-side with those in need as we watch the snow fall together. Then, in our togetherness we become ready to shovel our neighbors out and play as best we can in the hideous bone-chilling cold.

For one of the first times in my life, I’m listening to the exciting games of winter and joining in their fun, doing my best to forget the pain of the wind against my face, doing my best to be here, now. Sometimes, or usually, my laughter is in vain, and my cheer is fake – but I’m still going outside and doing my best.

At the end of the day I know winter is a sure sign of spring, but it is still worthy of my imperfect effort to enjoy – especially knowing there are so many already out there scooping the sidewalks of strangers, just so we can all play.

“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Parker J. Palmer

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Ames, Iowa (Photo by Cassidy Hall)