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A Catholic Christian Article

American Pilgrimage

…As has been said, the point of travelling is not to arrive, but to return home laden with the pollen you shall work up into the honey the mind feeds on… R. S. Thomas
To begin at the beginning and as it happens, in the rain. I have always regarded anonymity as a great spiritual luxury, the ultimate in ‘stepping aside’ from who we have become, or from the identities others tenaciously hold us to. For this reason the airport security check is a gateway, an aperture through which I will pass, a doorway that opens onto a monastic paradise and a foreign land, an admixture of anonymity, silence and rest.

The morning flight to London is followed by onward flights to Chicago and then South to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky. Lent will give way to Easter, the intimacy of woodlands to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and St Benedict’s Monastery. Eventually, the pilgrimage will reach the edge of the Pacific, in Berkeley, California, a blissful number of weeks later.

I suppose “why?” is not an unreasonable question. Apart from academic requirements to justify the award of a travel bursary this is pure unrepeatable pilgrimage to the heart of all that I think I know. Who would disagree with Bernard Lonergan that humans are characterised by an unlimited desire to know? Exactly what is there in our world that can be known? This is the ultimate pilgrimage to which, in one sense, a geography of the sacred is incidental.

Thomas Merton arrived at the gates of Gethsemani in 1942 and later wrote in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, that the monastery is a school—a place in which monks learn from God how to be happy. Merton was not a little enigmatic in his person and writings, commenting in New Seeds of Contemplation that:
There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “who”. God is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am”.
In one sense the easier part of this equation is that God ‘is’. As Cardinal Hume once said, ‘the choice is between the mystery and the absurd’, so that God ‘Is’ is evident in history, or else history is absurd, and that is not how the world seems. The absolutely awesome part is that we also ‘are’. The next dramatic element is that our ‘I’ is in no sense given with the fact of being alive! A coherent self is the ultimate achievement in life, we are pilgrims between venues but more than that we are pilgrims ever setting off in search of who we are. We ‘find ourselves’ amidst a vast array of potential and actual materials, including body chemistry, genome, psychology, personality type, emotions, race, class, upbringing, education, and temperament, to name but a few.

This, then, is a pilgrimage not necessarily to somewhere but to someone, that is, myself.

“Strict Observance”: The Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Hauling up through fractured, jet-lagged sleep in the dead of night to stand and drink the language of the Psalms is a pilgrimage in itself. Voices gathering in the cold night air wait in expectancy, but the great problem of pilgrimage is that no amount of willing or travel or intention can bring our ‘I am’ into spiritual alignment with ultimate reality. There is the frustration of gift and poverty, and no intensity of ritual or appeal can bring about the relation that changes everything.

“Do you suppose I have a spiritual life?” asked Merton, “I have none, I am indigence, I am silence, I am poverty”.

Nevertheless we continue to sing the Psalms of Compline as the affirmation of a joy within and beyond the conventional paradigm of the daily routine we have escaped. This joy is the aim and indestructible essence of prayer, it is that which is sought in all of our setting off to new places or to none. Martin Buber puts it perfectly:
The man who steps out of the essential act of pure relation has something More in his being, something new has grown there of which he did not know before and for whose origin he lacks any suitable words. Wherever the scientific world orientation in its legitimate desire for a causal chain without gaps may place the origin of what is new here: for us, being concerned with the actual contemplation of the actual, no subconscious and no other psychic apparatus will do. Actually, we receive all we did not have before, in such a manner that we know: it has been given to us. In the language of the Bible: "Those who wait for God will receive strength in exchange". In the language of Nietzsche who is still faithful to actuality in his report: "One accepts, one does not ask who gives."
This is the alarming, unknown and unrealised fact of our existence. I know now that to sin is to refuse a freedom, that the absence of malice implies liberation. I also know that I cannot err for I cannot repeat this depth of self-offering. Merton himself was on circuitous pilgrimage through Prades, Bermuda, Oakham, London, Cambridge, Rome, New York, to the poor men of Gethsemani that he might become “the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men”.

“Out West”: Snowmass, Colorado, 8,000ft

“Out west”, said one of Merton’s former novices, “the scale is different”. From my monastic hermitage I am overlooking the Colorado Rockies a forgiven Christian. Snowmass is the home of Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. who had agreed to meet me for what would turn out to be high altitude training in the Christian contemplative tradition.

I wander away through the thin air from my first meeting with Fr Keating more convinced than ever that judgement, both now and later, will be a wordless affair not open to negotiation. It is clear that irrespective of whether we manage to centre the disparate materials of selfhood they are evident in their present condition, to others, in an instant. Wittgenstein spoke of an unreflective reaction between two people, grounding the idea that being present to another involves more than simply bodily presence. There is always a surplus of meaning to a person, an excess of depth, as when Jesus judged Nicodemus at a distance to have no sin ‘in him’.

The mountains and I are in a standoff. I am waiting for something to happen but they know that it is I that will move before they do. There is no convenient change of scenery in which to defer or lose the hard questions, as to who exactly I think I am, stripped of the easy and conventional garb and patter of routine existence. Fr Keating referred to the wonderful apparatus of human rationality whilst commenting that “it has a long way to go to exhaust the possibilities of experience.” And so it seems that at our deepest point we are not ourselves, rather, we are space where God dwells, and on this conviction rests the contemplative prayer movement to which I am tying to respond.

The gentle descent to the monastery is lined by Chipmunks, over which an Eagle yesterday flew. It is an apocalyptic scene. Down a barren valley people pass, evenly spaced, receding into the monastery where they will become brothers and sisters. These all are on a ten day intensive retreat in which the objective is to go nowhere and everywhere, to depths untouched by the routine consciousness of daily living. What more important pilgrimage than the unloading of years of experience warehoused in the body, often at the price of light and life? Grace has quite some human dynamic to contend with!

I am sure Fr Keating is amused by my bungled attempt to rationalise mystery into cognitive objects of thought, to work out how my ‘I am’ can possibly relate to that which simply ‘Is’. “Well, just sit still, ‘be’ still, and you will know that he is God”. At the very deepest level we only ‘are’ because He also ‘Is’, and we approach ultimate reality naked of our aggression, our preoccupations, our pettiness and our home-made idea of who we are, and frankly, to use a worn word that still holds true for what keeps us apart from others and ourselves, the mystery of ‘sin’.

“Land of the Liberal Arts”: Berkeley, California.

A day before I was watching Elk wander in and out of snow showers from my monastic silence. This is the land of record temperatures, orange trees, boutiques, 'smoothies' and literally a hundred types of massage administered by some well looking person whose gleaming countenance will change your life forever.

My home is St Albert’s College, where Dominicans train for the Western Province. In front of the altar lies the body of Fr Salvatore Maria Di Nardo O.P. (the first dead ‘person’ that I have seen) and the Dominicans are treating him in death in a manner many do not enjoy in life. This tranquil scene represents the near end of a sojourn that is impossible to describe. The sun has risen upon every kind of day, it has flared and set on every kind of evening. I have been alone and lost and happy, in Psalms, Mass and the widest air. With, and not with, others. I have been nothing and to be nothing is to be everything.

Fr Di Nardo looks peaceful, even smiling. His pictures are displayed in a side isle and I do not recognise the man in the photos to be the man in the coffin. Too much has gone. Within days I will be arriving at an airport to return to people who have gone without telephone calls, heaven forbid! To people unaware that I am not what I was. After one final passage of anonymity through the buoyant atmosphere of arrival and departure lounges, I will be where I set out from. But before that I will mix with the people milling across the face of the earth, to and from God knows where, and be lost a short while longer.

Tomorrow Fr Di Nardo will go to his place of rest and be lowered into the dark in the hope of rising into the light. Tomorrow the sun will rise and heat the San Francisco bay area into the nineties, it will wheel across the sky marking out the space I have to live for one day, and it will set upon who I am. I am not a day older than when I left because time has stood still. Day to day poured forth its speech and I have learnt to listen to some of it, but time has swept over the earth and has spared me.

Journeys end

Quite early one morning at Gethsemani I read a magazine review of a new book by Richard Rohr O.F.M. I copied down his entry for John the Baptist:
Men such as John are most rare. They are witness to the truth, pointing beyond themselves and getting out of the way so that the true light can shine through, John is the necessary freedom that gets everything started: freedom from himself and therefore freedom for a bigger message.
It seems that we set out only so that we are able to make way.

by Andrew Hunt
7th June 2004.

[Biographical Note:   Andrew Hunt is Resident Scholar at St. Deiniol's Library in North Wales, where he is writing a doctoral thesis on religious anthropology in response to contemporary scientific approaches to personhood.]

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