After making simple vows, one was to go on to the “other side of the house”, the professed side, where the permanent members of the choir resided. Fr. Louis delayed my going for as long as he could since he feared seeing the true Gethsemani would be a shock to me. The “permanent” community was an amalgam of a few truly saintly men, some very nutty men, and the rest of us in between– Much like those living on the outside the walls. When I did “go over” I was faced with being pretty much on my own though I could, if needed, commune with Fr. Louis in written notes and could ask to see the abbot or prior if necessary. My relationship with the abbot was always strained. His attitude toward monastic life was that it should not be too easy(!) and his famous New Year’s wish each year was to wish us all the crosses we could bear. He was overbearing, humorless and tedious. His favorite saying was “All for Jesus through Mary, with a smile!” Dom James steadily worked hard on affording us these crosses. The one which galled me the most was not turning the heat on in the abbey church for Matins on very cold winter mornings. The novices supplied the fuel, spending many hours splitting logs in the woodshed. We needed to be toughened up, especially after having slept our designated seven hours in an unheated dormitory on straw mattresses. By morning in winter the holy water in this huge room was frequently frozen .
Having arrived on the professed side, I was surrounded by this mix of saints, nuts and the everyday guys but since Louis was almost entirely concerned with the novitiate and his writing and reading, the absence of someone as personable as he was seriously debilitating for me. But when I was depressed I wrote to Louie, and he would write back. (His handwriting was inscrutable and I sympathize with the fellow who had to read and type up his journals for publication.) One such note was the following:
Dear Fr. Sebastian:
What, do you mean to say you don’t like it around here? I have no intention of trying to “solve your problem” because that is your problem: you go around looking for solutions. Life is very nice as it is, without solutions. If you want to be a living question mark, by all means go ahead and be one. But if you expect answers you defeat yourself. What will happen to the question mark if the question is answered? You don’t want an answer. But you haven’t the courage to face that situation, because you still depend so much on everybody else and everybody else says you have to have an answer. I won’t tell you either to leave or to stay: that is for you to decide. But it will be useless to stay here asking yourself day after day “why why why” unless you are content to ask why without expecting an answer. I’d forget the question. Incidentally, have you ever heard about God? Maybe He can run your life better than you can. You have never let Him.
Keep smiling dearie. Yrs in Xto F m Louis
Having gone through a grueling period of internal suffering, an experience something like St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” where everything bottoms out and you’re as alone and godless as if you were completely abandoned by all things physical and spiritual, I wrote him again telling him of my plight. His response:
March 13, 1959 Dear Fr. Sebastian,
Thanks for your note. I hope it won’t be too rough on you but it is possible that you are just starting to climb back up out of a deep hole. I am certainly with you but it is not going to be easy–you have made it tough on yourself by systematically destroying the normal ladders on the theory that you could get out of the hole through a secret tunnel without having to climb.
You have to have a very large amount of courage, patience and humility and you are weak especially in the first two of these. However it is basic humility to accept the fact of being in the same boat as everybody else and trying to make the best of it.
You are going to feel tragic about it once in a while. OK but not too much now. It is the ordinary lot of all men. And of Christ on earth and above all, what we go through here is very trifling. It is a sin to exaggerate it as much as we all do. However, you are right to face it. And for heaven’s sake if you do find a little joy in the ordinary things of life again don’t go and reject it. Be humble enough to take anything good from anybody even if it is far short of perfect– anyway–lots of love and prayers.
In Christ Our Lord FmLouis
Even when this dark cloud passed, I began to more deeply question remaining at Gethsemani as a lifetime vocation. Being on the “other side”, I was thrown deeply into a life with little real communication. The warmth of the Mertonian novitiate transformed into a cold desert of a very long humorless future. Trappists often live very long lives. Not being able to truly mix with the other monks and speak of issues important to one’s life was forcing me to understand that this life lacked the human touch. Making signs for communication was practical for everyday communications but you couldn’t really relay anything important. How does one sight nuances of spiritual meaning? I saw that remaining in the monastery would me unending years of regimen of conformity and silence which simply didn’t dovetail with my outgoing personality. Many in the community seemed like automatons without any feelings at all. I knew this was not true of everyone, but the future seemed pretty grim to me. I finally fully realized I could not spend my whole life so secluded from the world in a place, which to me at that point seemed without the slightest warmth of human affection. I certainly believed that the contemplative life was of great value to some and they needed the wall to stay sane and directed. It was just not for me. Much later in my life I came to realize that my monastic years were analogous to the Buddhist tradition of spending part of one’s youth closely seeking spiritual truth before plunging into the everyday world. I decided to leave. I was blessed to say goodbye to Fr. Louis though the abbot would not have approved. Unfortunately we had just a couple of minutes. His only caveat was, “Don’t take drugs. They’re bad for you”. I left Gethsemani and there is a note in his journal: “June 9, 1959. Frs. Sebastian and Vincent left this morning. These two were professed. . . . very disoriented with the community which they think, and perhaps rightly, is crazy”. In the Trappist obscurantist tradition of the time, I never knew this other guy was leaving the same day I left. When you got up the courage to really leave a Trappist monastery at that time, you were surreptitiously taken to the station and put on a train for home. None of the community was told publicly about your leaving and everyone was forbidden from any communication with you. It was as though you were a pariah and had never made any friends in the community; you had never existed and were a terrible example for those remaining behind the walls.
Happily, my family was mostly understanding especially since they were never happy with my decision to go to Gethsemani. I don’t think they ever really understood why I ever left home or, for that matter, returned home. After working a year in a bank (ugh), I made my way to a college education, first at Catholic University in Washington for a year and a half studying piano, and then spending my last two years at Columbia in Liberal Arts on full scholarship. After graduating from Columbia I then taught for a few years on the Upper East Side in a ritzy private Catholic school, St. David’s, which catered to the wealthy folks like the Kennedys and Buckleys. During these first years I was quite happy having the freedom to live pretty much as I pleased, or should I say as much as my meager income would allow. Living “in the world” was good but it didn’t tackling for me to realize that for so many, life was a shallow, meaningless experience. While the abbey was too far away from everyman’s experience, the constant pursuit of money and good times stretched too far into mindlessness. I slowly became disenchanted with constant glitter,noise and rush. Periodically I would write to Fr. Louis just hoping one would get through Dom James’ clutches. Here’s one that did. The date is somewhere around 1963.I continued to have problems with life in the modern world, everything too shallow, consumerist and empty. I still felt the pull of monastic life and thought that this might still be had in a monastery or friary where peace and silence would nurture the spirit. I truly enjoyed the pleasures of everyday life but thought depth was sorely missing. These pleasures were quite simple and boiled down to listening to music, eating great bagels, having a drink with friends after work while discussing the complete collapse of humanity and living alone in Manhattan safely away from our Brooklyn brownstone.
I applied to the Dominicans. I chose this order because it was old and in spite of the order’s having just about run the entire Inquisition, I thought of them as somehow carrying on the spirit of Thomas Aquinas (who toward the end of his life had a deep spiritual experience and determined that in comparison to this wondrous revelation, all he had written was virtually worthless). This sounded to me like a man who had arrived at spiritual depth I had always hoped for. Maybe the Dominicans were the answer.
I was vetted by them through several visits to a psychologist who marched me through a series of tests, including Rorschachs and one having me draw pictures of a naked man and woman! (I will say that my artistic skills, other than those involved in playing the piano, are less than minimal, I was able to do better than stick figures.) For some reason I passed them all and was accepted by the Dominicans.
From Fr. Louis:
Aug 21, 1967,
…Things aren’t as bad as they sound here. Well, they can talk. But they always talked anyhow so….? Now they don’t bother to make signs with their words. But it is no worse than it was. The machines are now silent for a while since work renovating the church is finished. I suppose it will all start up again in a couple of weeks on something else. Church simple, light, peaceful except for two (2) organs.
TWO ORGANS!!!! And air conditioning. I won’t be around except for an occasional concelebration. I say Mass in the hermitage now. Sunday the bishop will consecrate the new altar which looks like something dragged out of Mexico, from an Aztec pyramid or perhaps from a druid circle in Wales. Strictly adapted for human sacrifice first and foremost. Maybe that’s the next thing on the list of changes [stemming from the Vatican Council]. In which case I’ll stay away altogether.
Maybe you’re right: when they have thrown out everything good they’ll try to get it back again, realizing that it was really worth while. [I had bemoaned the loss of Gregorian Chant replaced by intolerable poorly written contemporary music.] I think a great deal of trouble with the progressives is that they lack imagination, and some of them don’t know the difference between having ants in the pants and having an idea. But on the whole I think as you do that the renewal is ok, and in any case the old was no longer viable.
Pray for me too. I’ll keep you, the OP’s [Dominicans] in all in my Masses.
Best always, in Xt
Unfortunately the ultimate reality of being with the Dominicans was far less satisfying that what I expected. While I found the friary a very friendly place and the novices mostly wonderful kids, the dinner table was more than I could accept. I remember having lobster tails there and was really shocked. When I taught at St. David’s School in Manhattan, I could hardly afford a hamburger and here I was in a mendicant organization where such foods were being eaten when most of the people in the US would never enjoy such opulence. In addition the Dominican liturgy was heavily geared to popular devotions like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when one spent long periods viewing the monstrance with the host in it as well as the stations of the cross and interminable recitations of the rosary. None of these devotions interested me after the simplicity and comparative fullness of the monastic liturgy swathed in Gregorian chant. (Also I must not omit that the guy who ran the friary looked much like my father, a man with whom I could never see eye to eye,)
Upon return from the Dominican novitiate I found that my parents were getting ready to leave the nut house which ws their Brooklyn home. While the only remaining denizen of 265 – 86 St. Brooklyn, our old homestead, was my well-meaning but impossible Aunt Maymie. Mom, Dad and Aunt Flossie were moving to Florida. Aunt Mame’s hurtful mouth was enough to make you believe that life in San Quentin (or perhaps a monastery) would be an improvement. Since I had no particular ties in NYC I thought I would go with them and help them get settled. We went to St. Petersburg, not much to my mom’s liking since she hated the heat.
My last stab at the monastic life was to enter the Christ of the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico, a Benedictine monastery which is situated in the desert and maintains a contemplative lifestyle. Benedictines are known for their interest in knowledge as well as prayer, whereas the Trappists in the days I was with them looked down on acquiring knowledge other than theology. Also the Vatican Council had opened things up a lot and I thought this would make a great difference in daily monastic life. Not the least was the fact that this place was located near where Georgia O’Kieffe lived–not that that meant very much except that surely the place must be a topographical wonder to somehow satisfy the soul of such a wonderful artist.
I asked Fr. Louis for a recommendation. He responded:
April 9 1968
Sorry to delay answering your letters. First of all, I’ll get busy and send a letter of recommendation to Christ of the Desert. I still think it would be a valid solution though you seem so restless that you may not settle down in any such milieu. I think you are in an impossible hang-up, seeking something that will support you from the outside when you have to produce that support from within yourself. When you do that, you will probably be better able to accept some more or less unsatisfactory situation and live with it.
But the whole place is one grand mess right now, and it is going to get immeasurably worse. If you can stand a monastery, I’d say you ought to get in one and stay there.
As to me going into the guru business: I obviously can’t do it by mail as I have far too many letters already. And there isn’t much I can do here. Nor do I intend to move in on some budding small community and play guru there. if I do, my first choice will be Ernesto Cardinal’s place in Nicaragua, he asked me years ago. I hope all will work out ok with you. Blessings, peace, in the Lord,
But in the meanwhile, I met Bonnie, and my monastic plans fell apart for good. Finding a job was not easy in St. Petersburg at that time, especially for an ex-monk with little experience. I would up teaching at St. Jude’s Elementary School and there found Bonnie, who was Sr. Peter Ellen, a Dominican nun at the school. We met in the company of others after school at meeting between the laity and the clergy, an offshoot of the Second Vatican Council, when the Church seemed to want to grow and develop into something more than a fiat-run organization. We soon learned that we enjoyed this much more than we expected. We’ve been married now for 42 years. Our union created quite a stir in St. Pete since at the time we were interviewed for the religion section of the local paper. Many readers wrote in that we would never be happy and that our marriage wouldn’t last two years. We’re glad to have proved them wrong. Bonnie and I go on, mostly joyfully, though this world is certainly a difficult place to make any sense of. Bonnie has taught in elementary schools most of her life. We have two children, one adopted at age ten and one of our own. I’ve been much more eclectic in my pursuits. I found I really hated teaching. Being on stage six or more hours a day was just too grinding for me. I started working for the Dept. of Health and Rehabilitation in Miami back in the mid ’70s. Later we met our adopted son, John, in Imokalee, a migrant community in south central Florida, where I was working in welfare. In the mid 1970s we moved to Brevard, NC to try to live in a really rural place, grow our own food, etc.–all of the back-to-the-land hippie kind of stuff. I started a nursery growing ornamentals, vegetables etc. In 1976 we learned that Bon was pregnant and in 1977 Joel was born. Some years later we moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in a very rural area where I’ve run an old rose nursery for 17 years. We have been happy with our lives for the most part and have always been active in supporting progressive ideas.
The last letter I received from Fr. Louis was to his many correspondents dated Fall 1968 telling us that he was leaving on a trip to Asia for a meeting with the Abbots of Catholic monastic orders in that area. He ends the mimeographed letter this way:
Once again, let me say I appreciate the loyalty of so many old friends and the interest of the new ones. I shall continue to feel bound to all of you in the silence of prayer. Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action. I pray that we may all do so generously. God bless you. With all affection in Christ,
His trip was not only to attend conferences but to broaden his already open view of the Eastern religions, most especially Buddhism about which he had written widely. While there he met with the Dalai Lama, the same fellow who is in that position today. (This Dalai Lama visited Merton’s grave at Gethsemani many years later and said that this proximity to his home brought him to a closer tie with his spirit.) When Merton visited the great Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka while viewing the huge statues of Amanda and the reclining Buddha he experienced a great enlightenment:
Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…. Surely…my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.
In his last official talk he touched upon a point that I think is very telling. He used a quote from a Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who, when having to leave Tibet due to the Chinese take over asked an abbot friend what should we do now. He answered “From now on Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” Merton says of this tale: “To my mind, that is an extremely important monastic statement. If you forget everything else that has been said, I would suggest you remember this for the future: ‘From now on everybody stands on his own feet’”. Later in the talk he goes on to say that Christianity and Buddhism overcome their differences when “in their original purity point”. I gleaned from this that pure spirituality transcends ‘isms’ and salvation may be had for all beyond the established churches. He died shortly after this talk in a bizarre accident near Bangkok on December 10, 1968 at age 53.
After reading The Asian Journal several times I had an epiphany sparked by this meditation of Merton’s composed while contemplating the mountain Kanchenjunga near Darjeeling: “Testament of Kanchenjunga. Testament of fatherless old Melchizedek. Testament from before the time of oxen and sacrifice. Testament without Law. NEW Testament. Full circle! The sun sets in the East!”. From this I found myself questioning all of the Catholicism I had been following my whole life. I began to feel that it was just one religion in the world, not the only true one, that God was above and beyond any organized religion and that Catholic exclusivity was a delusion. I still believe this and have grown, into a more understanding person, embracing diversity in beliefs, shunning all organized religion as dead ends on the way to understanding, to enlightenment. My faith in God has not faltered, though I find trying to understand this world far beyond me, belief being something, as has been said, irrational and unexplainable.
Nowadays, atheism is increasing in cultured societies and it speaks volumes about our divorce from nature and any spiritual underpinnings due partially to lack of time, materialism and greed no less than to the shabby and often criminal behavior of so many in organized religion. It seems belief in something outside of the purely empirical is an absurdity. Understandable to some degree, but when one considers that we billions are living on a revolving speck of dust, hurtling through an inconceivably gigantic universe of billions upon billions of suns, planets, etc., at unheard of speeds, belief in something Other seems no more absurd. (Personally, I prefer an honest atheist to a phony priest.)
I often wonder what Merton would think of the current state of the world: the sexual abuse of children hidden by the hierarchy, the condemnation of gay people, the never-ending disputes between religions, the utter depravity of governments, Iraq, etc., etc. He surely would not have been happy or silent. He grew out of the monastic narrow-mindedness of his early years into a completely open attitude to all the world offers in spiritual growth. He was able to continue at Gethsemani because he was allowed finally, after many years, to live on his own as a hermit (who loved visitors), releasing him from the daily regimen. I suspect the abbot was getting nervous that Merton might one day move on and then the royalties from Merton’s writings would be forfeited. Thus, after many pleas from Merton, he had to grant him his deep desire for solitude and separation from the community which had so grated on him.
As far as I know, not too many avatars roam the earth, but this amazing man was surely a sign of the abundance and wonder of the Other. I am astounded that I was given the great gift to have met him and listened to him. He pointed ever toward the truth and the need for understanding, compassion and love in the quest for meaning in our short lives. We have all been made richer having had him with us in this insane and wonderful universe. Thanks to what, to whom and especially to Uncle Louie.