There’s a difference between loneliness and solitude. In this time of social distancing it is easy to become lonely and there are many folks who no doubt are starved for human contact. Fortunately I am not alone in this time. I am walking four or five miles each day and frequently praying the rosary during those walks. I’ve long been a person drawn to contemplation and this is a time that can foster that. The rosary aids my contemplation and so does the silence that surrounds me on most of these walks. My life has become almost monastic. The following quote by Thomas Merton invited me to think about the gift of life and the gift of solitude and how during this time of social distancing and quarantine we are moving closer to contemplative life.
“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, then society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Maybe we’ll emerge from this pandemic a changed society. At least we can hope so.
In the past two weeks I’ve found myself wondering where will this end? How much suffering will we have to endure. Many have endured too much already. Pope Francis has led two worldwide prayer times and so have countless others. I find that as I walk I’m constantly praying for or thinking of others. I asked God to place the names and faces of people who needed a prayer today in my mind. One of those I prayed for was Amy Klobuchar’s husband. Later I learned that his condition is improving. I prayed for President Trump, Governor Cuomo and other local and national leaders. I prayed for healthcare professionals and members of our own family.
It seemed overwhelming but my spirits were buoyed by the presence of Brother Sun. The brightness and warmth were wonderful today. It reached nearly 65F here today. I took two walks and logged a bit over five miles. Though I was socially distant I was spiritually connected to the community I live in and the world that surrounds us. I found a quote by Thomas Merton that helped to put things in perspective.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton
I’m trying to embrace the present moment with all its possibilities and challenges with enough courage, faith and hope.
Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk in the woods. I was on an old trail that used to be the haunt of four wheelers and snowmobiles. I don’t think its used much anymore. It was just what I needed in the midst of this pandemic. Luckily for me I live in a small village a long way from any major metropolis. Yet, I feel the anguish and anxiety of people who I will never know in this life. The woods and its’ trees have always been a cathedral for me. I feel closer to God when I’m in the woods. Sometimes I want to hold hands with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh and retreat into the woods forever. That’s not realistic perhaps but it’s a yearning that I have. There is also a small pond near my home and I like to go there and just sit next to one of the large trees that are adjacent to the pond.
Today is Sunday. It’s the Fourth Sunday of Lent and other years I would be on my way to Mt Irenaeus for Mass and brunch but today that’s all a memory as churches and retreat centers are closed. Instead I found myself re-reading quotes from Thomas Merton who is one of my favorite authors. I’ve loved Merton most of my adult life and his writing resonates with me. Like him I am drawn to mystical prayer. In the midst of this chaos and suffering there is a spirit that some might call God. Some may call it a higher power and others may only long for peace and communion.
“Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.
Yet if this sublime fire of infused love burns in your soul, it will inevitably send forth throughout the Church and the world an influence more tremendous than could be estimated by the radius reached by words or by example.”
― Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Just yesterday, my friend Br. Kevin showed me a flyer detailing an event occurring soon on the campus of St. Bonaventure University. Fr. Daniel Horan, OFM will be speaking at 4:30 pm on November 7, 2013 at the University Chapel, Doyle Hall. His topic is “A Franciscan in Blue Jeans: How Thomas Merton Became and Remained a True Franciscan.” I look forward to attending the lecture because I’m a Thomas Merton fan and I’m sure that Fr. Dan’s talk will be good. Merton once applied to be a Franciscan Friar but was withdrew for personal reasons that are spelled out in his biography “Seven Storey Mountain.” Merton came to St. Bonaventure to teach English and along the way became a Secular Franciscan prior to entering the Trappist Order in December of 1941.
Lately I’ve been brimming with gratitude for a new beginning in my life. Grateful for the opportunity to begin another chapter in the book of life. “Sit finis Libris, non finis quaerendi.” That quote is found at the end of “Seven Storey Mountain,” which has been central to my life. August 31 was the end of one book and the beginning of another. I’m finding new life and purpose as a volunteer at a number of venues including Blount Library, The Warming House, Canticle Farm, Mt. Irenaeus and elsewhere. My days begin and end with yoga and meditation. Hot oatmeal, honey, flax seed and coconut milk are my companions too. Long walks, short naps and ample time to read highlight my days. Thank you for my life and retirement which is more like reinvent. Peace and all good.
For months and even years I’ve been praying for direction. Today as I meditated and now as I mindfully walk along the Allegany river near St. Bonaventure University the answers seem to flow. All of my life I have wanted to teach, to help and heal people. I recall making tests up for my brother Mark using my Dad’s typewriter. Mark was my first student. At 19 and in US Navy recruit training I was chosen education petty officer for our company. I’ve often wondered why I was chosen. Many of my shipmates were college graduates and I had only completed my freshman year of college at that point. Later I attended US Navy Corps School and served as a corpsman in labor and delivery, newborn nursery and later a surgical assistant and ambulance driver. After active duty I briefly pursued nursing education then leaving academic pursuits and eventually finding employment in education first as a school bus driver and custodian then returning to the classroom to finish the bachelors degree. For the past almost twenty-six years I’ve taught and worked as a technology director. But what am I really? Am I a geek, a technology purveyor, an entrepreneur who helps others solve technology problems? Is there more?
This morning an insight came and it crowded out everything else. At my core I love to help people. I love God and all that might be defined mystic and spiritual. I was the altar boy who fell asleep in front of the church door waiting for Fr. Pollard to open for 7 o’clock mass. I was the boy who wanted to go to the minor seminary at twelve years of age. I am the teacher who loves opening up opportunities for challenging students too.
Four years ago I returned to graduate school at St. Bonaventure University and graduated at the top of my class in Educational Leadership. For awhile I actively sought administrative positions at other school districts. I got some interviews but all proved to be dead ends or so I thought. Frustration set in and I began to question what I had accomplished. Eventually at the direction of a total stranger I began to meditate. Five minutes twice a day led to ten and eventually fifteen and twenty minutes. Changes in my outlook and healing invited me to consider the power of this ancient practice. An invitation from my daughter to take up yoga caused additional changes and now almost eighteen months later I sense a new direction for my life.
Not in the last thirty years have I seen so much stress and tension in education. Everywhere teachers, principals, students and parents too are stressed and frustrated with a system gone awry from high stakes testing. Then too a society in flux adapting to the second decade of the twenty-first century. Global markets, climate change, redefined roles have created chaos that is not easily solved. Old answers don’t work and so we look for new answers to the questions caused by this frenzy.
My practice of meditation and yoga have brought me peace. My prayer life has deepened and invited me to reach out. I’m pursuing my calling as a Secular Franciscan and a teacher and today I see that this earlier call could’ve been the direction I have been looking for. Francis responded to a call to rebuild the church of his day which had fallen in to ruin. The church or better yet the community of today has fallen into ruin. The call I’m discerning today is how and by what means can we rebuild the community or communities in which we find ourselves. I think the answer lies in stillness and contemplation. The world needs mystics and contemplatives from all cultures and faith communities. I hope you will join me in silence, stillness and prayer for our earth and its people.
Still water is attractive to me. There is quiet there. This small pond at Mt. Irenaeus is so inviting that I spent nearly an hour there last Sunday. Today I’m hiking further up the Mountain Road. The stillness of Mt. Irenaeus restores my soul each week. I love people and I love solitude. I am reminded again of Thomas Merton.
“Out here in the woods I can think of nothing except God. It is not so much that I think of Him as I am as aware of Him as I am of the sun and the clouds and the blue sky and the thin cedar trees…Engulfed in the simple and lucid actuality of the afternoon — I mean God’s afternoon — this sacramental moment of time when the shadows will get longer and longer, and one small bird sings quietly in the cedars, one car goes by in the remote distance, and the oak leaves move in the wind.
High up in the summer sky I watch the silent flight of a vulture, and the day goes by in prayer. This solitude confirms my call to solitude. The more I am in it, the more I love it. One day it will possess me entirely and no man will ever see me again.
~Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude
It’s raining and every time it rains like this I think of Thomas Merton. It’s so peaceful when it rains. I feel protected and close to my creator.
“I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!” — Thomas Merton
“Please help me. what am I going to do? I can’t go on like this. You can see that! Look at the state I am in. what ought I to do? Show me the way.” As if I needed more information or some kind of sign!
…suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani ringing in the night…
A Merton Reader, ed. by Thomas P. McDonnell, (New York: Image Books, 1989) 128
This quote is one of my favorite Merton quotes and it comes from “Seven Storey Mountain.” I have felt this emotion strongly in my life and especially lately and that’s why it resonates so profoundly. I’m listening for the bell with the ear of my heart.
After a lovely trip through Letchworth Park I made it to Abbey of the Genesee. I haven’t been here in awhile. I was afraid I tarried too long in the state park, but pleasantly I made it in time to get some gifts in the store. I purchased four Monks Brownies and two packages of Monks oatmeal raisin cookies. A fellow visitor asked if the cookies were good. I told her I had never had anything bad here. She chuckled at my answer. I am sitting in the chapel now before the sanctuary light. The Blessed Sacrament is nearby and Our Lady of the Genesee is central to the altar too. Earlier this week at a workshop I attended we were asked where would we go if money were not an object. I said I’d go to Jerusalem and spend a week on retreat in the Garden of Gethsemane. This chapel is Getsemane today. I’m grateful to be here in the silence. It is here in this silence that I feel close God. I cannot see him but I can hear with the ear of my heart. I love God and this place.