I’m trying to recover over Christmas from a very busy and rushed period of my life. A while ago, I read with total absorption ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the story of Thomas Merton’s conversion and entry into the Gethsemane community of Trappist monks. There were some things I could relate to in the events reading up to Thomas Merton’s conversion. He had come from a background in which there was very little religion. Although my upbringing was saturated in religion, I had turned away from it and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the church. In his case and mine, the call to grace came sudden and unexpected, although many little things led up to it.
However, I felt that I couldn’t relate to what happened after Thomas Merton was received into the church. In fact, I became quite jealous of the freedom, support and opportunities he had to explore Catholicism. When he became Catholic, he was a graduate student with a fairly flexible timetable. This allowed him to start each day with Mass and Communion. He wrote:
After the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.
Writing about the period of his life, a year or so after his conversion, he said
I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me.
He visited Cuba, taught English in a Catholic University and then followed the call to become a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane. It wasn’t easy, and he experienced struggles discerning his vocation, but the contrasts with my own situation were huge. I became a Catholic at a time when I had many family responsibilities. On top of that, I started retraining to do a demanding job. Where is God in the harassed life of a busy mother? Thomas Merton became a monk to dedicate his life to prayer and contemplation. He had plenty of peace to discover his new faith, didn’t he?
By the time, I read the end of his autobiography, I realised that perhaps things weren’t quite so simple. Thomas Merton entered the monastery expecting peace and consolation and time to read and write and pray. However, he found out that it was a difficult life and a tough rule. The monks had a busy life, working in the fields producing their own food.
A few months after he entered the monastery, Thomas Merton became ill with the flu. He had been so busy up until then, that he actually welcomed the illness, writing:
My secret joy at entering the infirmary came from the thought: “Now at last I will have some solitude and I will have plenty of time to pray.” I should have added: “And to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.” I was fully convinced that I was going to indulge all the selfish appetites that I did not yet know how to recognise as selfish because they appeared so spiritual in their new disguise.
Thomas Merton’s life as a monk was busy and full of duties. He gave up his ambitions to be a writer, but was told by his superior, fortunately for many people, such as me, not to stop writing as it was part of his vocation. In the epilogue to ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, he addresses God directly:
You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: “Solitude, solitude.” And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, “Leave all those things and follow me,” and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?
Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, … It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.
….But before I could even begin to pray, I had to drop that kind of thinking.
By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what … the contemplative vocation was …. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.
That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.
Thomas Merton knew what it was to be busy and rushed and asked to do a multitude of things when he was gasping for some peace and quiet. The only thing he knew for certain was that this was God’s will for his life. Somehow, in the midst of that, God was there, and that was enough.