Some schoolboy memories stand out vividly; others lie in the background of the mind, vague, and at times entirely forgotten. One memory I have not forgotten stems from working after school hours to earn a bit of pocket money. These jobs included paper runs, washing medicine bottles and delivering orders for a city chemist.
One I particularly enjoyed involved working as message boy for a well-known florist. In my capacity as the florist’s message boy, I trundled around the city on my florist’s bike, replete with front frame and wicker basket, taking flowers, wreaths, and bouquets to a wide variety of locations.
Among the many places I visited was a well-known Catholic convent. At the time it was home to an order of contemplative nuns. I never really entered the convent. The flowers were delivered to a grille near the front door, attached to which was a bell that I duly pressed. A voice met me and on request I passed whatever I was delivering through the space provided. I never gave it a great deal of thought. What teenage boy does? But over the years I have often wondered what lay beyond that impenetrable shutter.
Now, thanks to the writings of members of such contemplative orders, I find myself being ushered into those previously inaccessible communities and introduced to the life and insights of the monks and nuns who inhabit them.
Thomas Merton’s invitation to enter his Trappist Monastery happened when I received his The Sign of Jonas for a birthday present. It occurred again when I read The Intimate Merton, a condensed edition of his now famous journals edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathon Montaldo. Patrick Hart was Merton’s secretary and general editor of Merton’s Journals; Jonathon Montaldo is Director of the Thomas Merton Centre at Bellarmine College, United States.
The editors tell us: “When Merton was born in on January 31, 1915 in Prades, France, only the small-cloistered joy of his parents greeted his first sound. When he disappeared from view, accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968, his death was noted by millions and merited a front-page obituary in the New York Times. In fifty-three years he had written himself in large letters and with indelible ink on his century’s Book of Life.”
Their selection is part of the extensive literature Merton wrote during his lifetime. It was this writing that both bound him to God and revealed his world to us. In these journals of “confession and witness” we comprehend as much about our world and ourselves as we do about Merton and his.
What did I learn as I walked into Merton’s contemplative world?
I immediately realised I was not an inquisitive stranger, walking through a formerly inaccessible space, but a pilgrim sharing a journey with someone who, more often than not, saw the journey more clearly than I do. I also discovered the primacy of mercy and grace.
Merton had a genius for honesty. He acknowledged his contradictions, his poverty of spirit, his wrestling with human love, his need for affection and intimacy. He never claimed to have or be the answer to the spiritual life. He freely acknowledged walking up innumerable side roads in his spiritual journey.
Not, for him, the “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining everyday,” sort of spirituality that often manifests itself in the evangelical environment we inhabit. Rather, he lamented losing his way and expressed sadness at his constant evasions of the Divine will.
This honesty led him to seek the mercy of God. When he entered, as a novice, the new monastic community at Gethsami, his first abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, asked him, “What is it you seek?” to which he answered, “The mercy of God.”
His whole life was lived relying on that mercy. Whether Merton knew or read our own monkish poet, James K. Baxter, he would certainly have affirmed Baxter’s portrayal of Jesus in his 1969 poem, Song:
“My love was only a working man
And now he is God on high;
I have left my books and my bed and
To follow him till I die.
‘Truth’ – he said, and ‘Love’ – he said
But his purest word was – ‘Mercy’”
It is more than 60 years now since I first took those flowers to the shuttered convent and left, mildly wondering what was behind that forbidding grille. A large part of those years I have spent in the monastery of ministry.
I realise now how, inadvertently, much of my ministerial life was built round pleasing God and others by incessant activity, moralistic evasions of the realities of my humanity and an unconscious reliance on good works to please the Almighty. Yet, all the time, “his purest word was Mercy.”
It took an open door into the contemplative world of a Trappist monk to remind me of what, deep down, I’ve always known yet not always acknowledged: At the heart of any truly satisfying spirituality lies honesty, mercy and grace.
– Tom Cadman