At the Edge of Civilization, Part 1

In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien… I […]

Ben Self / 8.27.18

In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien… I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it.

— Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

The Abbey of Gethsemani (alt. spelling) is probably my favorite place in Kentucky, which is actually saying something. Those who’ve lived very long in “knob country” know that there are in fact quite a few lovely places around this state, though most of them won’t be listed in any travel guide. It’s not entirely accidental in my view that authors as eminent as Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Merton, and Robert Penn Warren all had a foothold here, to say nothing of the large contingent of Kentuckians represented in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But this particular soggy plot of earth about an hour south of Louisville is, to me, something special. It’s home to the oldest and perhaps most famous monastery still operating in the United States, a beloved community of shuffling gray-headed Trappist/Cistercian monks, living out their days amongst the trees in relative silence, according the austere Rule of St. Benedict. While the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance” may not be what most folks would choose for a career path, as the perfect contrast to the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, it’s hard not to feel at least a bit of wistful attraction to it while you’re here.

Indeed, something precious in its enveloping silence always haunts me when I’m away. It’s a place that instills in you a blessed quiet, a warm blanket of darkness, a bright and buoyant emptiness that echoes within long after you’ve returned to the ‘real’ world and keeps calling you back. It imprints on your psyche an aching intimation of peace, which once experienced always feels rather like an absence. This, I suppose, is a species of that silent healing Word that echoes down through the ages and enlightens and endures all peoples, all civilizations, all worlds.

Thomas Merton, this Abbey’s most famous (fmr.) resident, understood better than most the value of such silence, even as he filled endless pages with his own voice. He was a man full of such contradictions, one who emphasized the role of grace in every aspect of life but at the same time felt utterly burdened by the law—ever restlessly striving for perfection, for God’s peace, God’s presence. Ultimately, Merton found his pearl of great price in the silent contemplation “that springs from the love of God,” and it was from that deep well that he drew much living water. Here he writes in Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage:

I live in the woods out of necessity. I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and, with my face on the floor, say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night.

It is necessary for me to live here alone… for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.

In fact, after having practically begged his Abbot for years to let him live in full-time hermitage, Merton did at last have his request granted in 1965, more than two decades after arriving at Gethsemani. But his love affair with quiet had blossomed long before his escape to the woods was made complete; already by 1949 he’d published Seeds of Contemplation, his first of numerous tracts waxing eloquent about the joys of solitude and contemplative prayer.

Most likely, for Merton, there had always been at the heart of his restless search an incurable loneliness that drove him into solitude. As Kathleen Deignan put it in her introduction to a recent collection of Merton’s writings, “his wedding to the solitude of the forest allowed this orphan man to feel in earnest the raw and excruciating wound of loneliness,” which in turn enabled him, to use Richard Rohr’s phrase, to be most fully “alone with the Alone”.

I’m hardly the first to suggest that this same incurable loneliness spurs us all in our “spiritual” quests, not least those that end at the bottom of a bottle. It’s a loneliness only intensified by the “post-modernity” of the world we inhabit, which has stripped us of the false security of worldly identities and left us exposed and restless, with no place left in the end to find identity but in God.

Yesterday, I drove down here on I-65, presumably in search of my own “Alone” time—a few days of blessed quiet before I return to my chaotic day-job as a Middle School English teacher. Several years ago, when I first made the trip to Gethsemani, I followed the same two-lane road from Louisville that Merton had first taken in 1941, with its now six million traffic lights. This time I took the highway. As I sped towards my retreat, I felt little out of the ordinary: at most a bit of perturbation at how a butterfly—“perfectly made, with mottled golden wings” (Merton)—had recently flown a kamikaze mission into my windshield, and how no amount of spray and wiping seemed sufficient to erase its guts from view. Sitting there listening to a podcast in between phone calls, it occurred to me how strange it was to be barreling down an interstate at 80 miles an hour en route to a monastery.

Perhaps God meets us most directly in a place like Gethsemani, at the edge of civilization, at the edge of culture and language, of podcasts, at the edge of worlds, at the edge of our selves. Perhaps it’s true, as Merton suggests ad nauseam, that we are best able to sense the silent healing Word when silence has cleansed the palate of our minds—“washed clean the deep, dark inward mirror of [the] soul”. Of course, it shouldn’t require that. And it doesn’t. I’m not very good at practicing silence myself. And anyway: no practice, discipline, self-quarantining or self-flagellation can guarantee a thing. That’s not how God works. Grace is grace. And I know that, which is why I feel lucky to be here. In a world oppressed and beleaguered by noise and stimulation and constant activity, a little silence can’t hurt.