If you knew my background, you would not expect me to write in appreciation of a Trappist monastery. I was born into a family with very little interest in religion and a definite prejudice against anything Roman Catholic. Both my mother and my father had Baptist backgrounds, but my earliest memories of church are of attending séances. At the time, my mother was trying to cope with a failing marriage in a Spiritualist Church in St. Louis which taught that, through a medium, you could contact the late departed for three years after they died. My father was an alcoholic. When he was sober, he was an atheist; when he was drunk, he was a fundamentalist. After we moved to the Missouri Ozarks in 1937, my father, when barely coherent and mobile, would drag my brother Gene and me to Cave Spring Landmark Missionary Baptist Church about a mile from the farm we lived on. Landmark Baptists seriously doubted whether any except their kind of Baptists were Christians, and they certainly wouldn’t have included Roman Catholics.
To describe in full the journey that brought me to an expression of appreciation for the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani would require me to speak about baptism in Brush Creek at Cuba, Missouri, at age twelve, a crisis of faith and vocation during my sophomore and junior years at Washington University in St. Louis, a call to ministry that brought me to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, deafness that prevented me from doing mission work in some distant land, and employment as a teacher at Southern Seminary, first in New Testament and then in church history. Let me leapfrog across all of those to get to a series of happenings that led me to make arrangements to take students to the Abbey of Gethsemani and totally transformed my impression of Roman Catholicism and the contemplative vocation of monks at that famed monastery.
A Pope and a Monk
As I think about it, I don’t believe I would have thought of taking students to Gethsemani had it not been for Pope John XXIII. Angelo Roncalli succeeded Pope Pius XII on November 4, 1958, less than a year before I began my teaching career. Almost immediately this humble “servant of the servants of God” started speaking about Protestants as “separated brethren” and then, on January 25, 1959, announced the convening of a general council that he hoped would usher in a “New Pentecost.” He soon put the brilliant young German theologian Hans Küng to work laying out a plan for it in The Council, Reform and Reunion. Cautiously, Protestants applauded, but applauders included few Southern Baptists. A believer in Christian unity, I found that my whole being tingled with excitement. The very first semester I taught church history, in the fall of 1960, I took the bold step of taking my students, about seventy-five of them, to the Abbey of Gethsemani. No, not to meet Thomas Merton, about whom I knew little. I had heard about but had not read The Seven Storey Mountain. I took the students there to expose them to the Middle Ages, and we were not disappointed. Gethsemani in 1960 was thoroughly medieval!
Thomas Merton was our bonus. Had it not been for him, I don’t think that either my students or I would have come to appreciate Our Lady of Gethsemani as I do today. Oh, a tour of the monastery corrected some false and distorted impressions we carried with us. Most of this group of Baptists from the Deep South came with the expectation that we would meet people who couldn’t hack it in the world and had thus fled to this strange place to escape. Men we met there proved how erroneous these ideas were. They were among the happiest, best adjusted, most at-ease people we had ever met. And Thomas Merton helped us to get to the heart of this vocation and to go away with an awareness that Gethsemani had something we desperately needed to understand and learn from and appropriate in Baptist life.
What that something was smacked me in the face when Merton, after talking about the monastic life, asked if anyone had a question. One of the students blurted out what I feared one would ask: “What is a smart fellow like you doing throwing his life away in a place like this?”
I waited for Merton to open up his mouth and eat this guy alive, but he didn’t. He grinned and just let love flow out, and he said, “I am here because this is my vocation. I believe in prayer.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had never met anyone who believed in prayer enough to think of it as a vocation. All the way back to Southern Seminary that afternoon, Merton’s words kept drumming in my head alongside the Protestant rubric, “God has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no voice but our voice.” I began to pray that Merton might be right, for if our world totally depends on us and on what we do, it is in a desperate condition.
Two weeks after we made our first visit, Merton sent me a card to say that he was coming to Louisville and would like to stop and see me. I wrote back, “Great! How about speaking to my class?” He replied on another postcard, “I can’t speak to groups, but if some of my friends happen to be around, I can talk to them.” I got the Southern Seminary faculty together on that Saturday morning, and we spent two delightful hours with this extraordinary monk and writer. I don’t think a single person who attended went away without a drastically different perception of Roman Catholicism and monasticism than he or she came with.
From that November in 1960 until Merton’s death on December 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand, one sabbatical excepted, I took students to Gethsemani every semester. Although Merton had to give up meeting with my classes in the fall of 1964 as a concession to Dom James Fox that would permit him to live in his hermitage, he always slipped around to meet with me privately. We also continued to correspond between visits.
From my first visit to Gethsemani I have had some fear that group visits like ours would not only impose on the monastery’s hospitality but, if they grew, interfere with and distort the life of prayer that is at the center of the monastic vocation. From Merton’s journals I have learned subsequently that he often did feel imposed upon and worried about the same thing. In the nearly half century since that time, I have witnessed a dramatic evolution of an institution that one might expect to be most likely to resist change. Gethsemani still makes cheese and fruit cakes, but it now leases much of its fertile fields to local farmers to till, and its chief industry seems now to be a ministry to retreatants and the marketing of its products—cheese, fruit cakes, books, CDs, tapes of sermons, and other goods. My fears and all of the change notwithstanding, however, I still try to take students and other interested persons to Gethsemani every semester, encourage dozens to take retreats there, and go myself at every opportunity. Why? What do I appreciate about Gethsemani?
The Benedictine Tradition
My first response may surprise you a little if you are aware of Baptist phobias, but I think it is the answer with which I should begin. Gethsemani represents to me the best of the tradition that goes back to Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–c. 550), a tradition rooted in revelation and rich in insight about life. New Testament studies had already helped me to discover the importance of tradition, Greek paradosis, but Thomas Merton enhanced my appreciation still more by distinguishing between tradition and convention. “Tradition” is the essence, the kernel, he said. “Convention” is the external, the husk. A light clicked on: What Baptists have railed against so often is not tradition but convention!
I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that I quickly saw the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict and centuries of living by it and reflecting on it. The fact is, when Thomas Merton sent me the manuals he assembled for teaching novices, most of which consist of excerpts about prayer from scriptures, the desert fathers and mothers, Evagrius, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, Aelred of Rievaulx, Teresa of Avila, and more recent writers, their relevance for the ministers I taught rolled over me like water off a duck’s back. When he gave me an autographed copy of Spiritual Direction and Meditation in 1961, I read it without the slightest thought that I would one day require ministers to study it in a class on “Ministers as Spiritual Guides.” Obviously neither my students nor I had the motivation or the conditioning we needed to learn from a great spiritual master and tradition.
Being Contemplative in a World of Action
What do I appreciate most about the tradition that gets its name from Benedict of Nursia? So many things could be cited, but I think what has enriched my own life and ministry the most is not just contemplation, a life of prayer, but a way of being a contemplative in a world of action. Not long after Thomas Merton’s all-too-short life came to an end in 1968, I tried to incorporate into A Serious Call to a Contemplative Life-Style (Westminster 1974) what the Benedictine tradition that Merton articulated and accommodated so brilliantly said to someone like me, who lives an overly busy life. In that brief period when “secular theology” questioned so many Christian and Church activities, this great tradition demonstrated to me that we don’t have to edge God out to the periphery of the life of every day. It showed precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer mused in his Letters and Papers From Prison, viz., that God is “beyond in the midst of our lives.”
Is there not a clue to the spiritual interknittedness of all of life in the Benedictine regimen—three or four hours of Opus Dei, the daily offices; three or four hours of lectio divina; and six hours of manual labor done in silence? In a trying period not unlike our own, Benedict of Nursia whittled the spiritual life down to essentials. The lectio divina is once more proving itself adaptable for people in almost any walk of life and circumstances. Here we have laid out before us a way to God which offers something for everyone who will try it. Its anchorage in scriptures is particularly fortuitous for Protestants, who have placed the Bible at the center of their devotion.
Thomas Kelly, a Quaker, discovered Benedict’s wisdom long ago. In his classic A Testament of Devotion he reminds us that we can live life on two levels, of activity and of the interior life, at the same time. Sadly, some people live life only on the level of activities. They engage, as Merton observed, in “activity for activity’s sake.” They run pantingly and frantically through crowded calendars. But there is another level on which we may live life, the level of communion, communication, conversation, and attentiveness to God. At first, as we become serious about the inner life, we may alternate between activities and the interior life, but as we grow and develop in our relationship with God, we may do them simultaneously. Not “now activities, now prayer,” but while we engage in activities, quietly, behind the scenes, we carry on our communion with God.
What a wonderful discovery were these words of Merton in an article on “The Contemplative Life: Its Meaning and Necessity”! Although the contemplative life is led in monasteries, he said, “in a broader sense every life can be dedicated to some extent to contemplation, and even the most active of lives can and should be balanced by a contemplative element—leavened by the peace and order and clarity that can be provided by meditation, interior prayer, and the deep penetration of the most fundamental truths of human existence.”1 No one need make the case more convincing that he did when he pointed out that action is purposeless if it does not proceed from authentic being. “He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his [or her] own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to live, will not have anything to give others. He [or she] will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his [or her] own obsessions, his [or her] aggressiveness, his [or her] ego-centered ambitions, his [or her] delusions about ends and means, his [or her] doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”2
As the years have passed since I first went to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I have come to recognize more and more coalescence of my Baptist tradition with the Benedictine in much the same way Douglas Steere saw its connection with the Friends’ tradition. Baptists originated out of Puritan Separatism in England almost 400 years ago. To effect their goal of a “further reformation” of the Church of England, the Puritans deliberately went back to the medieval contemplatives, especially the Benedictine and Cistercian contemplatives, in search of means for deepening and strengthening their religious life. This discovery has helped me to understand why Baptist spirituality would manifest “surprising similarities” to that of medieval contemplatives such as Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, and other representatives of the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions. Baptist hymnals echo central themes of contemplative piety—that love is “where it’s at,” that it is all right to use romantic imagery to express our intimacy with God, that we especially relate to God through Jesus, that we must be “born again,” and that we must keep our eyes on the life beyond this life, where lies our eternal resting place.3
My own struggle to develop and sustain the relationship I’ve entered into with God, however, has caused me to appreciate another bit of wisdom at the heart of the contemplative tradition. We will not sustain our attention to God in a beehive world if we do not have times of retreat, drawing back from the press and struggle and distractions of every day to spend time in solitude and silence. Jesus himself set the example for us as he went apart and spent hours in prayer before all of the critical moments in his ministry—after his baptism a forty-day retreat (Mark 1:12), all night before his selection of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19), before asking them to identify him at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-30), before the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), and in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-38). The contemplative tradition challenges all of us to follow the example of Jesus in drawing back to engage God and to let God engage us about what is going on in our lives.
I must confess that I didn’t understand the logic of Thomas Merton’s decision to become a hermit when it happened. I didn’t realize that he had badgered Dom James Fox for years to have a hermitage, and the abbot finally conceded just as Merton’s social concerns—the carnage in Vietnam, the burgeoning stockpile of nuclear weaponry in the United States and the Soviet Union, racism, technology not subjected to a higher purpose, individualism, autonomism, and selfish privatism—reached a fervent peak. Now that I have had the opportunity to read all of Merton’s journals, letters, and other writings, the light has dawned. The further he extended his pipeline into the world, the deeper he had to drill his well. “Action is the stream,” he said in No Man Is an Island, “and contemplation is the spring.” Reflecting on that, he went on to remark, “When action and contemplation dwell together, filling our whole life because we are moved in all things by the Spirit of God, then we are spiritually mature.”4 Do you need any more to understand why I will always think my decision to take my first class in church history to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in 1960 was a most “happy chance”?