It’s 6:45 in the evening, Tuesday, August 4. About 15 minutes ago, having just finished my supper, I fetched a book from my room at the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery retreat house and walked into the library to pass some of the week’s silence in reading. Upon arriving there, something beckoned me to go outside. I whispered to my friend that I was headed downstairs to the garden.
I didn’t realize a storm was brewing.
I descended one flight of stairs to the first floor, walked through the dimly lit dining room and out the glass doors onto the patio. Now, the surrounding garden looks and sounds like summer, albeit a pleasantly comfortable evening for August in Kentucky.
The cicadas and crickets and tree frogs sing and chirp their tunes loudly. Birds flutter playfully in the many bright-green trees lining the back of the patio and encircling the garden one level below.
Quarter till 7: I have enjoyed a peaceful, stress-free day wrapped gently with the silence of the monastery. The lone interruptions have been most welcome — regular prayer with the monks and listening to Father Seamus share some interesting background about those monks, as well as reflect on matters of Thomas Merton and other points of spiritual interest.
My three friends and I did go off for an hour to discuss that talk and what we have been reading – also based on Merton, the celebrated and prolific Trappist monk who lived at this Abbey and wrote here for 27 years until his death in 1968.
I have pondered Merton a bit since arriving yesterday. I have been drawn into the chanting prayer of the Psalms. I have felt comfort. No hurry. Save for praying for my wife, family and friends, I have encountered few thoughts of the world I left 320 miles behind in Missouri for this five-day leg of my life’s journey.
Mostly, I have tried to shut up – not just verbally but spiritually, internally. I have done as Jesus advised:
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:6)
My “inner room” is my mind, my heart. My soul. There I enter. There I gently, in silence, close the door. There I pray in secret.
Quarter till 7: I intend to read. I really do. But the chirping birds distract me. I watch them for a bit and notice they are moving more quickly to other trees. I notice the trees, rustling a little more than they had been minutes earlier. For a moment I am entranced by them. In a wide clearing between some of them about a half-mile away, I can see the sky now has darkened somewhat, not really ominous but somewhere between blue and black. Off in what seems like a long distance thunder rumbles.
I open my book, written by Dr. Anthony Padovano, to page 35 and read the first paragraph:
“Home is, first of all, a state of mind and then it is a place. Home is the experience of authenticity and acceptance. We need to be who we are. Those who receive us become our community and our home.”
I pause and consider all my “homes:” The house in which I live with my wife, Donna. Not long ago, the funeral home and the funeral Mass where my immediate family and I said good-bye to my mom while surrounded by hundreds of extended family and friends. St. Cletus Catholic Church, my home parish in St. Charles. Sunday night family dinners, when we are surrounded by children and sons-in-law and grandchildren. Saturday mornings with my brothers in Christ at a local restaurant. The car ride to this Kentucky monastery with three friends. Holy Mass. The confessional. At my computer keyboard. Any opportunity to have lunch with my best friend. Opportunities to laugh with a group of friends I have loved deeply for 40 years. Dozens of retreats.
All of that floated through my mind like canoes down a river; slowly, yet in a matter of a few seconds.
Then I remember a conversation I had recently with one of my most treasured friends. He was telling me of all the squabbling involving his two brothers and his sister about their anticipated inheritance after the second of their parents recently passed away. They had expected more money, apparently. They complained loudly and rudely.
“I told them after this, that’s it,” my friend said. “It really doesn’t matter to me if I ever see them again.”
My heart broke for him. “Don’t burn your bridges,” I counseled. “Someday, years from now, you might wish you had a relationship with them. They are family.”
My friend paused, sipped his beer, looked around the room that was filled with a couple of dozen guys. Some of those are men my friend and I love deeply, unconditionally. “My friends,” he said, “are my family.”
Indeed, we felt at home.
With large flashes of lightning occasionally appearing and the thunder growing louder, more frequent, I notice the sky now distinctly darker, nearly black. I read further on page 35:
“Merton observes in his book Seeds of Contemplation that for him to be a saint, he must be himself. Nothing else is required. The most fundamental of all our vocations is the calling God gives to be ourselves. All else we do can be done as well or better by others except this one and absolutely unique responsibility, to be who we must be.”
At that moment a raindrop falls on my right forearm. I decide that the birds must have sensed the impending storm, so I move back toward the glass doors, hold one of them open for a couple of people to enter ahead of me. Rain is falling more steadily.
I was baptized a Catholic on June 11, 1961, exactly one week after I was born. Obviously, I recall nothing of that event. But now, on the patio of a monastery in rural Kentucky, surrounded by silence and a storm, I feel like I know a little what that must have felt like.
I close the door and watch the skies open. Suddenly it’s raining hard. Just as suddenly, the winds pick up and the downpour of rain is falling more heavily and at an angle. The sky, the thunder, the lightning, the rain – they are majestic, beautiful, holy.
A sign on the patio gently commands: “No Talking In These Gardens.”
Apparently God doesn’t obey man’s signs.