To the Monastery

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By Thomas Merton

When I finally got off in Bardstown, I was standing across the road from a gas station. The street appeared to be empty, as if the town were asleep. But presently I saw a man in the gas station. I went over and asked where I could get someone to drive me to Gethsemani. So he put on his hat and started his car and we left town on a straight road through level country, full of empty fields. It was not the kind of landscape that belonged to Gethsemani, and I could not get my bearings until some low, jagged, wooded hills appeared ahead of us, to the left of the road, and we made a turn that took us into rolling, wooded land.

Then I saw that high familiar spire.

I rang the bell at the gate. It let fall a dull, unresonant note inside the empty court. My man got in his car and went away. Nobody came. I could hear somebody moving around inside the Gatehouse. I did not ring again. Presently, the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars, with his clear eyes and graying beard.

“Hullo, Brother,” I said.

He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase, and said: “This time have yon come to stay?”

“Yes, Brother, if you’ll pray for me,” I said.

Brother nodded, and raised his hand to close the window.

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he said, “praying for you.”

So brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.

And it was appropriate that the beginning of freedom should be as it was. For I entered a garden that was dead and stripped and bare. The flowers that had been there last April were all gone. The sun was hidden behind low clouds and an icy wind was blowing over the gray grass and the concrete walks.

In a sense my freedom had already begun, for I minded none of these things. I did not come to Gethsemani for the flowers, or for the climate—although I admit that the Kentucky winters were a disappointment. Still, I had not had time to plan on any kind of a climate. I had been too busy with the crucially important problem of finding out God’s will. And that problem was still not entirely settled.

There still remained the final answer: would I be accepted into this monastery? Would they take me in to the novitiate, to become a Cistercian?

Father Joachim, the guest master, came out the door of the monastery and crossed the garden with his hands under his scapular and his eyes fixed on the cement walk. He only raised them when he was near me, and then he grinned, “Oh, it’s you,” he said.

I suppose he had been doing some praying for me too.

I did not give him a chance to ask if I had come to stay. I said: “Yes, Father, this time I want to be a novice—if I can.” He just smiled. We went into the house. The place seemed very empty. I put the suitcase down in the room that had been assigned to me, and hastened to the church.

As soon as he started to talk I found that Father Master was full of a most impressive simplicity and gentleness and kindness and we began to get along together very well from that hour. He was not a man that stood on ceremony and he would have nothing to do with the notorious technique of elaborately staged humiliations which have given La Trappe a bad name in the past. By those standards he should have walked into the room and slammed the door with an insult and then asked me if I were entering the monastery in order to get away from the police.

But he just sat down and said: “Does the silence scare you?”

I almost fell over myself in my eagerness to assure him that the silence not only did not scare me but that I was entranced with it and already felt myself to be in heaven.

“Aren’t you cold in here?” he asked. “Why don’t you shut the window? Is that sweater warm enough?”

I assured him with consummate bravery that I was as warm as toast but he made me shut the window anyway.

Of course, what had happened was that Brother Fabian, who worked in the Guest House that year, had been feeding me with horror stories about how cold it was when you got up in the morning and went creeping down to choir with your knees knocking together and your teeth chattering so loud that you could hardly hear the prayers. So I was trying to get myself in trim for the ordeal by sitting with the windows open, without a coat on.

“Have you ever learned any Latin?” asked Father Master. I told him all about Plautus and Tacitus. He seemed satisfied.

After that we talked about many other things. Could I sing? Did I speak French? What made me want to become a Cistercian? Had I ever read anything about the Order? Had I ever read the Life of St Bernard by Dom Ailbe Luddy?—and a lot of other things like that.

It was such a pleasant conversation that I was getting to be more and more unwilling to unload the big shadowy burden that still rested on my conscience, and tell this good Trappist all the things about my life before my conversion that had once made me think I could not possibly have a vocation to the priesthood. However, I finally did so in a few sentences.

“How long is it since you were baptized?” said Father Master.

“Three years, Father.”

He did not seem to be disturbed. He just said that he liked the way I had told him all that there was to be told, and that he would consult Father Abbot about it. And that was all.

Dom Frederic was deep in a pile of letters which covered the desk before him, along with a mountain of other papers  and documents. Yet you could see that this tremendous volume of work did not succeed in submerging him. He had it all under control. Since I have been in the monastery I have often had occasion to wonder by what miracle he manages to keep all that under control. But he does.

In any case, that day Father Abbot turned to us with just as much ease and facility as if he had nothing else whatever to do but to give the first words of advice to two postulants leaving the world to become Trappists.

“Each one of you,” he said, “will make the community either better or worse. Everything you do will have an influence upon others. It can be a good influence or a bad one. It all depends on you. Our Lord will never refuse you grace…”

I forget whether he quoted Father Faber. Reverend Father likes to quote Father Faber, and after all it would be extraordinary if he failed to do so on that day. But I have forgotten.

We kissed his ring as he blessed us both, and went out again. His parting shaft had been that we should be joyful but not dissipated, and that the Names of Jesus and Mary should always be on our lips.

At the other end of the long dark hall we went into a room where three monks were sitting at typewriters, and we handed over our fountain pens and wrist watches and our loose cash to the Treasurer, and signed documents promising that if we left the monastery we would not sue the monks for back wages for our hours of manual labor.

Photo by Chizen Brown

Photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

And then we passed through the door into the cloister.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) chose a life of contemplation and prayer as a monastic in the Cistercian Order and through his life of service wrote books and articles.

From The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, copyright © 1976 by the Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust, used by permission of Houton Mifflin Harcourt.

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