Joy and Sadness: A Lesson from Merton's Hermitage — Center for Action and Contemplation
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Joy and Sadness: A Lesson from Merton’s Hermitage

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and Action

Joy and Sadness: A Lesson from Merton’s Hermitage
Sunday, November 22, 2020

In 1985 my Franciscan “guardians” (as Francis called our superiors) gave me a year’s leave to spend in contemplation. It was a major turning point in my life, and ultimately led to the formation of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

The first thirty days of my “sabbatical” were spent in the hills of Kentucky, in Thomas Merton’s (1915–1968) hermitage about a mile away from the main monastery. I was absolutely alone with myself, with the springtime woods, and with God, hoping to somehow absorb some of Merton’s wisdom. That first morning, it took me a while to slow down. I must have looked at my watch at least ten times before 7:00 AM! I had spent so many years standing in front of crowds as a priest and a teacher. I had to find out who I was without those trappings—the naked me alone before God.

In the mornings I would put my chair in front of the door and watch the sun come up. In the late afternoons, I would move my chair to the other side of the hermitage and watch the sun go down. The little squirrels and birds came closer and closer. They’re not afraid when we’re absolutely still.

Walter Burghardt’s definition of contemplation as “a long loving look at the real” became transformative for me. The world, my own issues and hurts, all my goals and desires gradually dissolved and fell into proper perspective. God became obvious and ever present. I understood what Merton meant when he said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.” [1]

I tried to keep a journal of what was happening to me. Back then, I found it particularly hard to cry. But one evening I laid my finger on my cheek and found to my surprise that it was wet. I wondered what those tears meant. What was I crying for? I wasn’t consciously sad or consciously happy. I noticed at that moment that behind it all there was a joy, deeper than any private joy. It was a joy in the face of the beauty of being, a joy at all the wonderful and lovable people I had already met in my life. Cosmic or spiritual joy is something we participate in; it comes from elsewhere and flows through us. It has little or nothing to do with things going well in our own life at that moment. I remember thinking that this must be why the saints could rejoice in the midst of suffering.

At the same moment, I experienced exactly the opposite emotion. The tears were at the same time tears of an immense sadness—a sadness at what we’re doing to the earth, sadness about the people whom I had hurt in my life, and a sadness too at my own mixed motives and selfishness. I hadn’t known that two such contrary feelings could coexist. I was truly experiencing the nondual mind of contemplation.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1966), 142.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deepest Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015), 61–63.

Image credit: Solitude in the Woods. Moon Night (detail), Ladislav Mednyánszky, 1870, Slovak National Gallery, Slovakia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love, and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I cultivate this plant silently in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most beautiful of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. —Thomas Merton
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