This blog took more time than I thought to say what it wanted, so the date is a week ago-
Today, January 31st, is the birthday of Thomas Merton, born in France in 1915. Having completed his doctoral dissertation on the poet William Blake, Merton taught literature in Boston. Although a partying and perhaps even philandering young man of his time and social network, something drew Merton into a Roman Catholic Church and he asked to be instructed to become a Catholic. By the winter of 1941, following a retreat there, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, a Trappist Monestery near Bardstown, Kentucky. He remained there, known to fellow monks as Fr. Louis, until his death on a monastic journey in Bankok, Thailand, where he stepped wet from a shower and was electrocuted by a faulty fan in 1968.
Although Trappists were popularly thought to take “vows of silence,” and they did, in fact, speak only when absolutely necessary, using their own sign language instead so as not to interrupt the silence, Merton wrote more than four dozen books and a couple of thousand poems. He, in all likelihood, “spoke” more than any enclosed monastic in centuries. His relentless badgering of his Abbot and his continual efforts at reform was a major force in shoving his order into post-Vatican II Catholicism. And he is probably the most widely read contemplative of the twentieth century.
Merton was especially interested in the commonalities found among the mystical traditions of Islam (Suffism), Buddhism, and Christianity. Although he remained a Roman Catholic and a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist), it is evident from what he wrote that his was no narrowly exclusive theism. Whatever ‘God’ is, Merton knew by experience and reason that no religion has the Right Answer. He was an adept “spelunker of the soul.” He explored, in the solitude of a hermit, the depths of his inmost self. It was in that encounter that he knew “God.” It was there that he also came to know that similar explorers from other traditions had encountered the same Mystery.
Interesting? Well, maybe, but what’s this to do with Big Bend?
When Merton first decided to become a novice Trappist, his journal reflects his anticipation: “Going to the Trappists is exciting. I return to the idea again and again: ‘Give up everything, give up everything!” When the earliest Spanish explorers sent back accounts of this Chihuahaun Plateau, they described it as “El Desplobado,” the Vacant Place. They were looking for mythical kingdoms and gold but found nothing, and they meant nothing. Here everything has been “given up.”
Here only the wind and an occasional coarse croak of the raven or the shrill cry of a raptor interrupts the day’s utter quiet. Here only a rare hoot of the barred owl or the yipping of coyotes breaks the night’s silence. Here clouds are so few during the day that the sun is relentless in insisting that you find whatever shade is near at hand. Here the night sky, without moon, is as dark as the moon’s other side, allowing you to view what appears to be every single star out there and the archaic people’s idea of walking the Milky Way to the next land seems like a real possibility. Here the night sky, with moon, is illuminated so that without any artificial light, you can see well enough to remove cactus spines from hands and legs.
The “Wolf Moon” of the night before last was the fullest and brightest I have ever experienced. Its brilliant white light and its enormous size invited awe if not lunar devotion. Had a drum’s hypnotic rhythm invited someone to begin a soulful chant in whatever language, few would be able to raise rational defense against the reality of the Moon Goddess.
Not long ago, a very good friend of mine asked “What draws you to the Big Bend?” I’ll have to use what might seem an odd metaphor to answer that question.
Because the ground water here is so full of dissolved solids, our drinking water is available at a spigot from a reverse osmosis system. The molecular mechanics of osmosis suggests a way for me to say what it is about this place that draws me. Molecules pass through a semipermeable membrane from an area of greater concentration to one less dense, in effect diluting the congestion. That is the definition of osmosis I learned in Mr. Chappelear’s chemistry class at Union Local High School in 1957.
For me, the desert, and Brewster County, Texas particularly, has that effect on me. The desert is a domain the density of which has been vacated of nearly everything. The desert is a liminal place, that is, a place where the ‘membrane,’ the ‘veil’ between everyday rational consciousness and something more, something larger, is very thin, permeable. There is so little “in solution” here that the congestion I bring with me moves out on its own and I am less dense. Here there seems less in me and less of me to distract and confuse me about what is most important.
I am, of course, not the first to find such openness to the Mystery in the desert. In the Third and Fourth Centuries, the “fathers” and “mothers” (‘abbas’ and ‘ammas’) of the Church left the clamor and depravity of Roman society to live reclusive lives in the waste places of the Italian Peninsula and in the desert of North Africa. To these women and men the emptiness of the desert offered them a fuller experience of God.
The Mystery of life is, for me, more apparent, more available, here in this Vacancy than it is in even so uncrowded a location as village life in rural central Ohio. If I were to use more traditional language, I could say that it is easier for me to recognize “God” here. But that kind of language tends to lead one to imagine “God” thumping around like the Giant in Jack and the Bean Stock. I do not conceive “God” as some kind of Super Being, so I leave that kind of language to those who can handle it.
No I do not understand that the moon is a goddess, nor do I, like the ancient people here, conceive that this barren rock and bolder strewn landscape is the place where the Creator dumped what was left over when the Creation was finished. But the awesome appearance of that moon and these rocks and the creatures that creep, crawl and pounce among and from under and from behind these boulders make it easier for me to recognize that we are not distinct; this landscape and I are one, these creatures and I are one. Here a unitive consciousness is more available to me than anywhere I’ve been. Even when I am not here, my imagination draws me here in the contemplation that is prayer for me.
On a hike, I see the sun-bleached exoskeleton of a desert centipede and see that as its life was brief, so is mine. On a walk through the mesquite and up an arroyo but a few yards from our campsite, discovering what is left of two adobe walls, a door frame and a log roof beam of what was the room that sheltered a couple or a family, we clasp each other’s hand in a wordless gesture that recognizes that our lives too will one day, maybe soon, maybe not, be little more than weather-beaten remnants, artifacts and memories.
We stop along-side a road to take a closer look at the remains of what was likely the stacked-stone shelter of a goatherd and his family. Knowing that family burials were often up an incline behind such houses, we climb the few dozen yards around agave, over cacti, ducking under ocotillo, to the top of a mesa that you cannot see from the road and there they are- nine graves, several obviously toddler sized, marked by heaped stones and relics of wooden crosses, in a row facing east. Scattered on these graves is broken glass from jelly jars that served as floral vases left perhaps sometime in the first quarter of the 20th century. Then we make out a burial date of 1939 on a 10th burial that has been fashioned into a kind of shrine honoring one Jose Grenado, age 23. A few small pebbles have been left on the shrine and three contemporary quarters, the oldest with a mint date of 1993 and the newest 2003. We realize that we stand where tribute was paid sometime with the last few years to a person buried the year before I was born. “Take off your shoes,” the Voice says, “the ground on which you stand is holy.”
On the topographical map, that stacked-stone house with its family cemetery is labeled simply “Ruins.” Topographers obviously know a great deal more about the contours of hills than they do the shape of human sorrow and devotion. After all, maps are drawn to let us know where we are. Graves are decorated and shrines erected to let us know who we are and where we have been.
None of what I have written can be said to be reasons I am drawn to Big Bend. Mostly because there is nothing reasonable about this place or coming here. Were the Mystery reasonable there would be no mystery. This landscape and this culture and the Mystery call me here and in responding to that call I know better where I have been, where and who I am and where I am going.