At heart, we are non-linear beings. To live a life dictated by world logic and linearity is to invite limitation, suffering and imprisonment. Sooner, not later, the soul will seek relief, satisfying its natural desire to live in the consciousness of Love that is its divine birthright. ~ Akilah
I am writing to share what I am creating from knowing something of the Jesuits, two monks, growing hollyhocks and meeting Leenah, my next door neighbor. There’s no logical progression here in any of what I have to say. I can tell you that every relationship has come at its appointed hour, bringing with it all that I need to know to continue the creation of what The Course of Love calls the creation of the New.
These ideas were birthed this Spring. Specifically in April when over 50 seeds that I planted didn’t sprout, near freezing temperatures plagued newly planted berry bushes in May, and, in June, when the squirrels started eating all but one or two unripe strawberries from my Ozark bush. While I’m waiting for the cucumbers and tomatoes to appear, and with time on my hands, I’m returning to this theme that first attracted my attention seven years ago: How the lifestyle of the monk, how silence and contemplation (not the sole domain or the creation of contemplatives, but of beingness Itself) can address the need to transform urban life. How can the intent or purpose of the monastery, a place physically removed from the larger world as we know it, a place that provides a haven or refuge for the contemplation of the Divine, be made a physical observable, alternative reality?
How can we, or better “I,” do my part, living at a time of evitable urban decay, create something outrageously transformative and out-of-the-box? How can an integration occur between what we have marginalized and sequestered, referred to as the calling of the few (to the contemplative life), and the desire to create a planetary life derived from a practice of silence and contemplation?
Figure 1 Statue of St. Ignatius at the Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pennsylvania
Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh are not my first experiences with contemplatives. A guided silent retreat to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania was. At the suggestion of a colleague’s husband, a colleague who taught in the Language and Literature department at Bucks Community College, I signed up for a week of silence, donning an identification card around my neck that simply read: In Silence. I only experienced conversation twice during the week. First, upon arrival I had a brief, but adequate, introduction to the Jesuit Center with a Sister, the guide of my retreat, who would also introduce me to the Consciousness Examen1 of St. Ignatius. We met again on the penultimate day when she asked me about the fruits of my silence.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I remarked how I thought that maybe making silence a permanent practice in my life might just placate some yearning that I couldn’t, just as yet, identify. Just maybe.
Figure 2 Front garden at the Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pennsylvania
If any of you have attempted a few hours of silence, being consciously aware of thoughts and feelings, then you understand how the results of such an experience may vary. For someone like me who was unaccustomed to the process, the results may not manifest for months or years. Free flowing communication with Spirit is a “chore” for a novice.
According to my understanding of A Course in Miracles, life in physical form cannot be lived out of communication with the energetic Source of the experience. ~Akilah
The least effortful and most joyful aspect of the retreat was walking the grounds of the center. There were acres of manicured bushes and well pruned trees. I was in Spring and the lilies were just appearing above ground. I adored the placement of the statues of saints who I did not know, one underneath a tree here, and another there beside a fountain near a dwarf Japanese maple. The garden was what made seven days of silence bearable.
Getting in the car to leave on the afternoon of the seventh day, I turned on my cell phone that had been off for over a week, tuned to WDAS.FM, a station that I could hear faintly because of the weak reception, and escaped quickly to the expressway that would take me back to my familiar noisy Philly.
As I approached the city limits of Philadelphia, I became acutely aware of the music blasting from the radio, the noisy traffic, and the smell of the highway. I had experienced it all for years, but I was never aware of it. The singing of the birds that I had become so familiar with was gone. The sound of the breeze that cuddled the spring leaves had disappeared over 35 miles ago when I drove hurriedly past the tall ornate gate to exit the monastery. Back in Northeast Philadelphia, turning off the alarm to enter my living room, I felt an emptiness as I closed the door. At that time, there was no garden here, and I had not thought of creating one. I was too busy teaching full-time for a part-time position. I had essays to grade, and what little time I had to myself in the summer, I chose to spend in Mexico. Until the fall of 2011.
The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. ~ Thomas Merton, in No Man is an Island.
Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, in residence at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, at Bardstown, Kentucky. He published over 60 books, on topics ranging from religion and contemplation to nuclear arms and civil rights. The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s autobiography, sold over 3 million copies in its paperback edition in 1984, after the original publication in 1949.
Figure 3 Thomas Merton
Even then, in the late 40’s, the book was considered a New York Times bestseller, quite unusual given that the author was a monk from the most ascetic of the Roman Catholic monastic orders. He wrote in depth of the secluded and exclusive world of the monks and their quest for paradise by means of silence, solitude and a well-thought-out engagement with the world.
As the Universe would have it, Merton was acquainted with another monk who would, several years after the publication of the first edition of The Seven Story Mountain, introduce a mostly western audience to what has become a rather commonplace term, mindfulness.
The Miracle of Mindfulness was published in 1999 by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. The book is a practical guide to living in the present moment where joy and miracles abide. Hanh, in exile from Vietnam, wrote the book, along with Vo-Dihn Mai, in Plum Village, France. He has written over 100 books, several poems and is an advocate for nonviolent solutions to conflict.
Love in such a way that the person you love feels free. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness is the practice of the moment-to-moment awareness of thought and action. Mindfulness encourages us not to escape from reality, but to become aware of it in every moment. It asks us to be aware of our thoughts, without being controlled by them. Hanh is also the creator of Engaged Buddhism which encourages individual agency for change.
Figure 4 Thich Nhat Hanh
In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize.
I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
These two monks from different spiritual traditions met only once at Gethsemani in 1966; but according to Robert H. King, author of Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization,
“Individually they are important, but considered together, they may be even more significant.” ~ Robert H. King
What Merton and Hanh created and demonstrated was a new paradigm of living that would weave together a life of action and spiritual contemplation. The contemplation is anchored in union and relationship with God, in the case of Merton, and in peace and inter-beingness, in the case of Hanh. The action is the fruit of contemplation (regardless of its derivative, i.e. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism), an engagement with the world to correct and heal it of conflict, violence and discord, thereby establishing a new world order based on love and peace.
My whole purpose in reading Merton’s The Silent Life (besides the fact that I’ve had it on my Kindle for over a year) was to familiarize myself with the monastic life and to glean some coordinates from the day-to-day order of the Cistercians. I wanted to discover how the strictest monastic order could serve as a guide for expressing the foundations of my own contemplation. A Course in Miracles, A Course of Love and The Way of Mastery (a course that reviews and summarizes aspects of both courses) is for me what the New Testament was for Merton, and what the teachings of Buddha are for Hanh.
From Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Spirit (Hanh), I sought a way to make the most common practices of my life, like gardening and growing hollyhocks for the first time, into extraordinary, joyful practices, fulfilling my soul’s agreement with the Divine to bring about heaven on earth. I wanted to know how do we make the disappointments and the heartbreaks, like the deaths of our parents and sometimes our children, divorces from partners who we thought we would be with forever, or a gardener’s outrage at rust disease on hollyhock leaves, a cause for joy and celebration.
Figure 5 Hollyhocks from my front garden
Hollyhocks are infamous for being plagued by a fungal disease called rust…Some gardeners won’t grow hollyhocks because of rust, but I say never give up on your favorite flower. Especially when you can take a few easy steps to prevent the disease from recurring and spreading. ~ Willi Evans Galloway, in Rodale’s Organic Life, January, 2010 edition
I was explaining my plans to come up with a new way, one that I call New Earth Contemplationism, to a friend as we talked about hollyhocks and how mine had been impacted by a rust disease that eats away at the leaves. I didn’t know if I wanted to take the chance of transplanting them to another area of the yard, as one gardening expert suggested. It seemed too risky. My friend says, “So is believing that you can be a monk who has sex!”
Thomas Merton had a love affair when he was in his 40’s. He was then already a writer and spiritual celebrity of sorts. He was a cloistered monk at Gethsemani in Kentucky and he had written his bestselling Seven Story Mountain and other books. He was married to the Catholic Church.
Then hospitalized for back problems he fell in love with a nurse. And she with him. They resisted, connected, pulled back, cried, committed, talked, broke up, tried again and loved each other. The relationship was consummated in a garden near the hospital and Merton’s cloister near the Abbey. Some other monks knew and some sort of knew and others didn’t know at all. ~ Diane, from the blog Love in the Time of Cancer. November 26, 2012.
I find that there is something so shockingly human about it all that my shock has become reserved for why we’re so unwilling to accept and work with the complexities of love, sexuality, and intimacy. ~ Nathan Thompson, from Thomas Merton-Sexuality and Spiritual Denial
Sitting in my neighbor’s back garden waiting for the bride and groom to appear, I thought of Merton’s forbidden affair and the embarrassing desire to spray my hollyhock leaves with some hardcore, triple-X rated Monsanto pesticide. Heaven forbid if any of the toxins would land on my neighbors’ tomato plants which were three times the size of mine. I believe that the father of the bride has magical hands, or maybe it is the peace that he brings to his relationship with the garden that produces all the brightly red colored Thai peppers, and profuse vines of long, slim hunter green cucumbers.
He and his wife, who always sends the most amazing Cambodian cuisine across the driveway to my back door, can often be observed sitting on the porch in the evenings (when it’s warm of course), talking and laughing with each other. They remind me of Rumi and Shams e Tabrizi. They radiate a soulful joy and warmth that I have yet to experience in intimate relationship.
Finally the bride and the groom stand beneath an altar of flowers, reciting their vows to each other. She, the bride, wearing a gold sequined gown, is asked to share the vows she has written for her husband to be, in front of a community of family, a few neighbors and friends, who have gathered to witness the union:
“You are the most complicated man I have ever met,” she says, “I never know from day to day what’s going on with you.”
After he recites his vows, and they kiss in consummation, the party begins. While the family begins the photo session, beer and ice cold Moscato are passed around, and of course plates of duck and fried rice, tempura plantains and yams. There are introductions, meeting family members who have journeyed from outside Philadelphia city limits. After twenty minutes or so, the mother beckons me to come over to take a picture with her. I stand beside her, she kisses me, and says, “I love you,” and I tell her that I love her back; then we take this photo.
1 http://jesuits.org/spirituality?PAGE=DTN-201305201259101. Here you will find a description of St. Ignatius’ Consciousness Examen, practiced by the Jesuits.
Thich Nhat Hanh and Vo-Dihn Mai. The Miracle of Mindfulness, Beacon Press, 1st edition, 1999.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Silence, The Power of Quiet in a World of Noise. Audiobook, HarperOne, 2016.
Thomas Merton. No Man is an Island. Copyright by The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsamani; published by Harcourt, Inc, 1955.
Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Thomas Merton. The Silent Life. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
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