Reader and Writer on a Contemplative Retreat

This month I went on a short retreat at a Catholic monastery. For just a few days I slept in the rooms where monks had slept, walked the forested paths surrounding the monastery, ate meals prepared by the monks, and attended their prayers. The monastery is where Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal had lived. I felt a writerly connection to the experience, as well as a spiritual connection.

In 2011, I met Ernesto Cardenal when he was reading in Denver. I was moved by the presence of his poetry, the ability his words have to attend to the moment. His poems were playful and tender, a mimetic balance between the essential qualities of life. Questions from the audience at the Museo de las Americas reflected Cardenal’s aesthetic, religious, and political activities. He fielded the questions as a poet, a priest, and as a respected political figure.

Thomas Merton also had some notoriety as a political figure due to his public denunciation of US involvement in Vietnam. But primarily Merton was spiritual. I first heard of him while learning about the Dalai Lama. Merton and the Dalai Lama met in 1968, shortly before Merton’s death. For both monks, their time together was significant. Seven Story Mountain is an account of Merton’s early life and the transition from debauchery to asceticism. Merton also wrote spiritual and contemplative texts. And later in life, he studied and valued Buddhist teachings, although he remained a Catholic monk.

The retreats I’ve been on in the past have all been Buddhist. Some were silent and fully structured with every hour accounted for with meditation, chores, meals, and sleep. Other retreats were only partially structured, about eight hours of meditation, discussion groups, and instruction. The retreat I went on this summer was a mix of both.

The monks at the monastery live a prescribed life. They begin their day at 3am with prayer, and they come together again several times during the day for prayers and church services. Throughout the day they work various jobs and eat meals at scheduled times. Retreatants, on the other hand, did not have much of a schedule apart from meals. Prayer and church services were optional. I attended vespers and the evening service but spent most of my time walking the grounds, reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and writing in my room.

The monastic life, whether Buddhist or Catholic, can be very attractive when it’s only for a short period of time. Temporarily giving up worldly attachments can enhance one’s appreciation of those worldly attachments, making the return to those attachments a delicious experience.

Meditation is the cornerstone of Buddhist practice in the west. Not all Buddhist traditions emphasize meditation is the starting point of the Buddhist path. In some traditions, mediation comes very late in one’s spiritual path. This difference surprised me at first. I had assumed mediation was the Buddhist corollary to Christian prayer. I could hardly imagine a Christian who didn’t pray; it’s kind of the first step. Buddhism also has prayer, which in form are similar to Christian prayer with chants, ritual, and incense. But from what I have learned from Buddhism, mediation is a contemplative practice distinct from prayer.

Merton’s essays in New Seeds of Contemplation describe contemplative practices within a Catholic context. There are many similarities with Buddhist contemplative practices. Human beings engaged in contemplation share many of the same experiences as they would with any shared activity. For example, people running on a soccer field, on a basketball court, or around a track will all experience increased heart rate and breathing. But there are also differences. The object of contemplation that Merton writes about is not the breath but grace through Jesus Christ. For a religious person, these differences are of grave concern.

I am a private person, not a religious one. And being in total silence for a few days was not unusual for me. In my daily life, when I’m not teaching, I’m occupied with my books and my writing. While on this retreat I did much the same as I would at home; I read and I wrote. I went for walks. I also attended some of the prayer services, vespers and the evening prayer. The only way I can describe these services is beautiful and holy. Monks practice these simple and elegant rituals daily. Symbolism pervades their every action, every nuance bringing internal and private thoughts out into the world as a shared communal experience.

I thought about this transformation of private to public as I read Merton’s essays, but reading and writing is a more intimate experience than public ritual. Writing is an inherently personal communion with the reader. The reader communes with the writer but not like two people coming together.

As I write, I read and rewrite and read again. As I read, I also write. I write the meaning and read and rewrite again, making sense of the words, a personal sense that only I could write. Hopefully, I have to rewrite and reread several times. First I go for the gist and then reread again for a clearer understanding. And if I’m fortunate, I go on rewriting for hours and days or longer still.

When I left the monastery, I rode my motorcycle to my brother’s house, only an hour away. I stayed with him for a couple of days, eating meals with his family, sitting on the back porch talking, enjoying the company of a loving family. I missed the monks, even though I had not spoken or directly interacted with them. But their presence and devotion had enveloped me, held me during those few days. I don’t mean this in a mystical sense, except that the mystical is very ordinary. The monks had fed me, gave me shelter, and welcomed me in peace and love.

As expected, my appreciation of worldly attachments has been enhanced. I feel more spacious and able to fully enjoy life. But I am also keenly aware of the paradox that it is from the absence of these experiences that appreciation develops. Constraint fosters creativity. Poverty engenders generosity. Solitude leads to compassion. And these paradoxes are what I contemplate now.

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