Last Sunday, over Memorial Day weekend, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, a quest I actually promised myself to take for more than three decades.
I was visiting family ,only several hours away from the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, a place made famous by Thomas Merton. It was Merton who drew me to this place and his work that helped me to begin an understanding about prayer not being at its heart formulaic, but real one-on-one communications with God, and about action in the world not being divorced from contemplation, but intimately connected.
I could actually feel my heart beat a bit faster and stronger as I got closer to the abbey that dates back to 1848, though surprised, I guess, at the emotional pull I was feeling.
I went with no appointment, no agenda, and no map—just a sense of wanting in my own way to connect to and pay homage to that spirit in this 100th year of his birth, a humble gratitude walking where he walked. I just thought I would go to Mass there, walk the grounds, and then drive back.
While I was able to do these things, I was also invited by a most open and hospitable monk to take a walk with a group going to see the “St. Ann Hermitage.” The hermitage was a very simple, now dilapidated, former tool shed that was moved outside the walls of the abbey as a place for Merton to write and reflect.
The porch is now gone in the heavily treed area that then looked onto a meadow. That shed, with a simple table, chair, and pot-bellied stove, was where the monk wrote his Thoughts in Solitude, a book that Franciscan Media is going to release as an audio book and audio download in the fall of 2014, just before the centenary of his birth in January.
For me, the chance to walk the path from the abbey through the walls and to the hermitage that Merton walked more than 60 years ago gave me a better sense and the most faintest of ties to his journey that in many ways changed Western appreciation of prayer and contemplation and its connection to being so invested in action in this world. His was a journey of connecting faith and connecting worlds—the world of faith and the sacred and the world of the secular and the everyday concerns of modern life.
This special pilgrimage for me will do what spiritual pilgrimages can do for us — encourage the future study, appreciation, understanding and integration into our lives of those you have gone before us and ultimately to connect more deeply with God.
One place to start are works coming out from Franciscan Media, including: the soon-released Simply Merton: Wisdom from His Journals by Linus Mundy, and those out in early fall The Spiritual Genius of Thomas Merton by Anthony Padovano and audios of Merton’s own words, “New Seeds of Contemplation” and the aforementioned “Thoughts in Solitude.” There are also Franciscan Media products already out, including: Thomas Merton: An Introduction by William H. Shannon and the audios “No Man Is an Island,” “The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals” and “Contemplative Prayer,” which I listened to in my car on the way to the abbey.