Loretto Community Visit, Day 4 – Spirit, transformation, and Gethsemani

My day started and ended with prayer. At 6:30am, Mary Swain and I walked out to the chapel in the woods for thirty minutes of silence. Later this morning, at 10am I went to mass at the Loretto Church. This evening, we were at the Abbey of Gethsemani and attended 5pm vespers followed by 7pm compline. Four times for prayer today alone! Who have I become?

Anyways – today started with the same 6:30am walk as yesterday, but today as we walked out, due to the “spring forward” time change, instead of walking in dusk light we walked in the darkness. The night sky was clear, and Mary pointed out to me the planets and constellations. She said the stars feel like friends because they’ve spent so many mornings together. As for this morning ritual of a walk and silence, it seems that Mary has been doing this since Cedars of Peace opened in 1978. But when asked about what it’s about for her, she says it’s not about any deep or profound prayer – it’s simply about showing up. Maybe orienting ourselves and our time toward God is all we need to do in our spiritual lives.

After we got back from our morning walk and silence, the sun started to rise, and I watched it through my window as I sipped coffee and read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. It was an idyllic morning.

From there, I went to Sunday mass, where Mary was giving the homily (and playing the organ, for that matter). And – by the way – today was her 79th. birthday. I’m mostly including these details because Mary seems to be a woman who does it all and remains grounded the entire time. It’s exactly why I love to hang out around these women. They all seem to have this spirit.

Speaking of this spirit, after mass I talked with a Sister who casually mentioned that she founded a Women’s Spirituality Center in Santa Fe, NM. It was open for 8 years, and really had a profound impact on her and the women who came through its doors. This is why I’m particularly drawn to the narrative thread of Foundresses in women religious orders. One foundress seems to inspire the next; there is a spirit of founding that is very much alive in religious life. And it’s a founding that recognizes both life and birth, as well as new life and resurrection.  The Sister who founded the Women’s Spirituality Center said that after 8 years they decided to close it, and hosted a grieving ceremony. Her attitude wasn’t one of sadness but acceptance; the organization ran its course, and served its need. It was time to find the next need and ministry. This spirit of founding and re-founding has shaped not only religious life as a whole, but the many ministries that have come out of religious communities as well.

Back to the day. The sun was finally out, so Susan and I went on a walk before lunch, around Mary’s Lake and then through the cabin she built that she and JoAnn now live in. We reflected on this shared work we seem to be a part of – the questions that are guiding us, but are so much bigger than us. The questions that seem to hold us as we move around inside of them and figure out what its asking of us.  The same threads have been pulling on both of us – the signs in religious life and in spiritual life that there is a new form of community life aching to be born. Neither of us – nor the projects we’re a part of – know what that is, but we’re going to keep experimenting, and talking, and dreaming into that future. Like we see modeled in Susan and JoAnn’s cabin, which was built out of the trees and clay and stones from the very land it stands on, transformation is possible. Something found in nature can be used for building walls of a house; old kneelers can be used as interior siding; a wheel from a wheelbarrow can be repurposed into a dish hanger. Just like nature, and just like this cabin, we are capable of transforming and being transformed.

Over lunch, I met Jessie and Andy – a married couple with a foster child – who moved from Colorado onto the motherhouse grounds two years ago in order to live in community with the Loretto’s and in order to live more sustainably. They’re now dreaming up even deeper and bigger possibilities of community life in Loretto. Again, transformation is possible.

After lunch, Eleanor, the archivist, and I went to the Merton room with Cecily Jones’ poetry – from her collections “Mostly for Promise” and “The Porch of Possibility.” From these books, Eleanor read poems Cecily’s poems about the history of the community. The poems are sometimes told from the perspectives of these founding women, and sometimes told by current-day Sisters. Each poem embodies the spirit of this place as one of founding and re-founding, always open to seekers and searchers, as we all accompany each other along the journey.

Late afternoon, a few of us went to the Abbey of Gethsemani – only 15 minutes down the road – to visit with monks and explore this home monastery of Thomas Merton. When we arrived, Brother Michael greeted us, and brought us to see Merton’s gravestone. Since he is the celebrity of Gethsemani, and the Abbey is a pilgrimage site largely due to the fame that Merton brought to it, I thought that he might have a special location or at least a special marker. But I was glad to find that he fit in just like any other brother. And from the stories we heard, he really did have a humble presence, so much that novices wouldn’t realize that “Fr. Louis” was actually Thomas Merton.

From there, we went up to Merton’s hermitage, where he spent his last couple years before he died. Brother Paul met us up there, and showed us into the hermitage, which functions today as a retreat spot for the brothers. Before we walked in the door though, Paul asked us to turn around, so we could see the most important part of the hermitage: the view from the porch. Inside, there’s a small chapel, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. As we were sitting down, Paul’s next request was that we play “Merton Roulette” – as the guest, I would pick one of his personal journals and we would open to today’s date in that journal. We read the entry from March 10, 1962. And of course, it spoke to me even in today’s context.

Then the six of us, three from Loretto, two brothers, and myself, just sat down in a circle in the hermitage to talk. We talked about the role and relevance of monasticism today; we talked about “new monasticism” and Nuns & Nones; we talked about silence, pilgrimage, and work; we talked about the monastery’s Fudge Department while enjoying some of it ourselves. Though mostly lofty topics, the brothers always brought it back to moving, personal experience, and most importantly, they brought in a light-hearted sense of humor. I could feel the presence of Merton in the space, through these two individuals that he had spent time with before his death in 1968.

After Vespers back at the monastery chapel, the six of us shared dinner in the visiting room – wine, bread, cheese, and fruit. We heard stories from Michael and Paul about Merton and their conversations. We also talked about his close friendship with Mary Luke Tobin, the pivotal leader of Loretto in the 1960s. I brought up the Merton Center for Creative Exchange that Mary Luke created as an event and discussion space in her basement to honor her friend, and that it eventually ended up at the Loretto Motherhouse. I asked if he spoke about this vision for creative exchange, but Paul mentioned instead his vision for the hermitage, which he intended to name Mt. Olivet. He wanted the hermitage to be a space for writers, artists, intellectuals and activist to come together and engage with one another. While Merton died only a couple years after the hermitage opening, it has certainly still lived into that vision ever since. It feels like we just got a small taste of that vision in the hermitage today.

I’ll close with this story. Michael, reflecting back what he read in the Nuns & Nones article from Global Sisters Report, said that it seems like there’s something special happening there. There’s some sort of seeing between the communities of Sisters and millennials, a deep recognition in the other of their inner light. He said it reminded him of Merton’s epiphany on Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. I looked up the piece tonight, and feel immensely grateful for him to see Nuns & Nones alive in this excerpt. I will end with Merton’s words from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

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