Winter Retreat 2015 (Day 3 PM) – Through Stone Walls

Thomas Merton says things, in the collection of personal prayers culled from his journals and writings, in ways no one else really could.

Here are a few that have sustained and marveled me these days:

“What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”
[Day of a Stranger]

“In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived. We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light. But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!”

“My God . . . You have contradicted everything. You have left me in no-man’s land. You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: ‘Solitude, solitude.’ And You have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, ‘Leave all things and follow me,’ and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?”

“I will travel to You, Lord, through a thousand blind alleys. You want to bring me to You through stone walls.”

“O my God, I don’t care about anything; all I know is that I want to love You. I want my will to disappear in Your will. I want to be one spirit with You. I want to become all Your desires and thoughts. I want to live in the middle of Your Trinity and praise You with the flames of Your own praise. O my God, knowing all this, why do You leave me alone in my selfishness and in my vanity and pride, instead of drawing me into the midst of Your love? My God, do not delay any longer to make me a saint and to make me one with You, and do not delay to live in me. And if it requires sacrifice, You will give me the courage to make all sacrifices. You will consume me in Your own immense love. So do not be afraid of my weakness, O God, because You can do everything. I believe in Your love above all things. I have forgotten everything else (that is, I want to). I live for Your love, if You will only make me live so.”

“I am content that these journal pages show me to be what I am: noisy, full of the racket of imperfections and passions and the wide open wounds left by sin, full of faults and envies and miseries, full of my own intolerable emptiness. ‘Domine Deus Meus in te confido; non confundar in aeternum.’ Lord, My God, in You I trust. Let me not be put to shame forever.”

“You know my soul. You know all that needs to be done there. Do it in Your own way. Draw me to You, O my God. Fill me with Pure Love of You alone. Make me never go aside from the way of Your Love. Show me clearly that way and never let me depart from it: that will be enough. I leave everything in Your hands. You will guide me without error and without danger and I will love You all the way. I will belong to You. I will not be afraid of anything for I shall remain in Your hands and never leave You.”

“If You allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If You let them blame me, I shall worry even less. If You send me work, I shall embrace it with joy. It will be rest to me because it is Your will. If You send me rest, I will rest in You. Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything that You have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen.”

“My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than by talking.”

“O God, teach me to be satisfied with my own helplessness in the spiritual life. Teach me to be content with Your grace that comes to me in darkness and that works things I cannot see. Teach me to be happy that I can depend on You. To depend on You should be enough for an eternity of joy. To depend on You by itself ought to be infinitely greater than any joy which my own intellectual appetite could desire.”

“The things I thought were so important—because of the effort I put into them—have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what it was that mattered. That, perhaps, is part of Your unanswerable question!”

“‘Deus meus clamabo per diem, et non exaudies; et nocte, et non ad insipientiam mihi.’ My God, I cry out by day but You do not hear me; at night, but You give me no relief! Do You remember the place by the stream? Do You remember the top of the Vineyard Knob that time in autumn when the train was in the valley? Do You remember McGinty’s hollow? Do You remember the thinly wooded hillside behind Hanekamp’s place? Do You remember the time of the forest fire? Do You know what has become of the little poplars we planted in the spring? Do You observe the valley where I marked the trees?”

“There is no leaf that is not in Your care. There is no cry that was not heard by You before it was uttered. There is no water in the shales that was not hidden there by Your wisdom. There is no concealed spring that was not concealed by You. There is no glen for a lone house that was not planned by You for a lone house. There is no man for that acre of woods that was not made by You for that acre of woods. But there is a greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question. Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.”

There are more as well. They are collected in “Dialogues With Silence.” Every one of these speaks to me powerfully with a truth that is deeper than anything that appears from day to day on our screens, in our papers, and certainly in most of my conversations (thanks to me!).

The last I quoted contains the line that I – odd teen that I was ! – chose for my quote (we each had to provide a favorite quote) senior year of high school for the yearbook: “. . . there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” It is thought-provoking, these years later, to see those words again in their original context.

Everything is in its place, Now. As God desires it. Eternity is already here. Silence is already more than all the noise the world creates from nano-second to nano-second. Many practical-minded folk would dispute these things. They are looking with other eyes I suspect. What Merton saw looks like truth to me; looks like the only truth that could possibly set each passing moment in its own place, Whether it brings joy or sorrow, victory or disaster, it is the moment God designed and gleams like a diamond in the perfect setting.


(Photo from


Down to the Shore, in good company

“I Go Down To The Shore”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.”

― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

My two invisible but very real companions overt these few days of quiet prayer are Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton. Both of them, I must begin by saying, are still very much alive in the only ways that ultimately count. I love this poem from Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings. It so much helps me to set in context my own inner unease, unrest, ongoing imbroglio. I can think – perhaps we all can? – that the world is circling anxiously at a given moment around the truth that I am tired, or dissatisfied, or confused, or worn out, or under extreme duress. Any or all of these might at a given time be quite true of me. But Oliver’s shared insight, looking at the tide coming in and going out, is perfect. What is significant to me, in me, today, is at its most significant one absolutely invisible slice of the stress of the human and created world. And the things that go on, like the tide, will go on with or without me. They may not need even my cooperation. And finally whether or not I get out of the way will hardly matter. Be I there or not, the waters will roll in and roll out again.

This is a saving truth for me to see and feel this week. Whenever I arrange to take a few days retreat, I do so almost always not in a proactive manner, but because there is somewhere in me a sense of needing it. But that inchoate sense only reveals itself more fully after arrival into the quiet. I never know, until I arrive at the place that gives me permission to know, that I am as tightly wound as the silage in the west of Ireland sealed airtight in plastic and awaiting its further usefulness dotted around the fields at the end of the growing season, or as the big boats at the marinas wrapped up the same way to survive the winter weather and wait for the spring and calmer waters. I am often, by the time I head for a place like this, as wound tightly as they are.

Further, I am usually also more tired than I knew, more deeply weary and worn.

These things reveal themselves after my arrival at the kind of place that is built to really ask, “how are you?” in a way that almost nothing in daily life does. This is grace and potential release, certainly. But Mary Oliver’s words above remind me also, in a deeper fashion, that however I am, I feel, i tire, I hope or despair – all this is only one infinitesimal slice of all that is.

So . . . relax, Just let it go. Just let it melt away (unlike the snows outside these walls). Because it will melt away. It will go. Here is the Heart and the Hands (to be entirely anthropo-centered) that can and will absorb it all, place it in loving context, and issue the invitation to a renewed day.

(Winter Retreat, day 3, morning)


From Thomas Merton, “Dialogues With Silence”

O little forests, meekly
Touch the snow with low branches!!
O covered stones
Hide the house of growth!

Vegetal words,
Unlettered water, Daily zero.

Pray undistracted
Curled tree
Carved in steel!—
Buried zenith!

Fire, turn inward
To your weak fort,
To a burly infant spot
A house of nothing.

O peace, bless this mad place:
Silence, love this growth.

O silence, golden zero
Unsetting sun

Love winter when the plant says nothing.

~ Thomas Merton, “Dialogues With Silence,”
p. 183

Winter Retreat (Day 2)

Saving Fragments

On the monastery refrigerator, a magnet with a message:
“Falling down is part of life. Getting up is living.”

As always, a book is being read during meals here. I was heartened and happified (my newly invented word for the day) last evening at supper when the current reading turns out to be of the new book by Brother Eldridge Pendleton of this community. Brother Eldridge is the first of the SSJE community I met, many years ago now, through our common friend Marybeth. His wisdom and kindness have sustained me more than once, and invited me gently to new insight, over the years, Eldridge has been for some time too frail to live at the Monastery, but he continues to carry the best of the spirit of this community with him always. The book is so new that I cannot find it listed, but I will continue to look. It is, at least in part, the story of the coming of SSJE to the Boston area and is filled with fascinating detail on past days and ways.

Outside my room, beyond the #4 and the stencil “Saint Clement” there sits on the windowsill a little statue of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. As I came up the stair with my bag yesterday afternoon my attention was drawn to it immediately. It is the exact replica, as best my memory can recall, of a likeness of Mary that lived in our house in Lynn all the years we were growing up together. I cannot recall where it is or isn’t now. But its twin was waiting for me here.

But here is where it gets weird. Dreamland weird. Sleeping last night I had a dream. I do not know whether I opened the door into the corridor to go where the little statue is, or whether somehow it came to me (remember, this is a dream!). Either way, suddenly it was there before me, kind of looking at me and me at it. I said, “Do you want to pray?” The statue nodded. I blessed myself with the sign of the cross and the statue moved and did the same. I prayed the Hail Mary, inspired by the words of Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth at the Annunciation. The statue lowered her head as I did so. Then I blessed myself again, as did she, and that was that. Lke I said, weird. Or at the least, a very unusual dream in my experience.

This is true especially as I am here precisely to do that . . . pray. Just to be and to pray. More on that later.

Last evening at Eucharist we sang hymn 693 in the 1982 Hymnal, “Just As I Am,” Do you know it? The words and music are powerful. In part:

“Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come,

“Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt; fightings and fears withinm without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”


Winter Retreat (Day 1)

Monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist
Cambridge, Massachusetts

February 10, 2015

Travel. Arrival. Settling In.
Part One
Of Scholastica, Clement, John, and Genesis

Gracie the Dog and I set out this morning from Garden City NY just after 5:30 am. A blessedly uneventful drive through Connecticut brought us by 10 am or so into the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Just west of Boston, in Newton, snow was still falling as we passed through. The side streets of Cambridge and Somerville are jammed with snow, considerably narrowed. As one drives through to either side are huge irregular piles of snow, sometimes with a snatch of red or blue or green peeking out, sometimes with a side-view mirror protruding. They, of course, are all not mere snowbanks, but car and truck snowbanks. I suspect someone who knows well the shape of various makes and models might have fun guessing what’s underneath!

We stopped at Little Sisters of the Poor in Somerville to visit Mom. While there, I went with her to Eucharist in their quite lovely chapel on the second floor. We had good conversation and I promised a return visit this Friday. Off then to Arlington to visit my friends the amazing Bell family, and there to leave Gracie to visit these days her buddy Lily.

I was telling Brother Luke here after Eucharist this evening (yes, I have been to Eucharist twice today once in the Roman Catholic church and once in the Episcopalian – more on that later!), that the most onerous part of the journey was struggling through between huge snowbanks on partially cleared and narrow paths to move from the University parking garage to the Monastery. I made it, received a good welcome from Guestmaster Tom, unpacked and slept an hour before heading to the chapel for some prayer time and then the evening Eucharist.

I am in room 4. Each room is dedicated to a saint. Number four’s patron is Saint Clement. I take this as a beautiful reminder of the four years I spent in the (now no more) Saint John’s Seminary College across the Charles River in Brighton. The College was housed in Saint Clement’s Hall, a building composed of sections built, I believe, circa 1940 and 1956. Though only those few years separated their construction, one was definitely known as the ‘old building’ and the other as ‘the new.’ That structure for years now is owned and maintained by Boston College. Back in the time I lived and studied there many amazing people taught and learned there. In the time B.C. has had Saint Clement’s, there are still wonderful people there, some of whom I was privileged to come to know decades later when I worked for Boston College.

“. . . under the protection of Saint Clement . . .”

Perhaps this little retreat should all be under the protection of Saint Clement. I am told the name can refer to four or five different meritorious fellows throughout Christian history. I am going to take the name on the door of room 4 here on Memorial Drive, and on the building across in Brighton, both to refer to Pope Clement I who died as a martyr around 98 AD.

There is a letter from late first or early second century long attributed to Clement. It is addressed to the church at Corinth, after disunity had erupted among them, leading to several elders of the community being removed from office. In the midst of trouble all around, and is our day not certainly the same, Clement in chapter 20 speaks of the beauty and the order of creation as to be highly valued and as an example to humanity of the harmony that likewise could exist among us. This is what he wrote:

The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded. For He said, “Thus far shalt thou come, and thy waves shall be broken within thee.” The ocean, impassable to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The winds in their several quarters fulfill, at the proper time, their service without hindrance. The ever-flowing fountains, formed both for enjoyment and health, furnish without fail their breasts for the life of men. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony; while He does good to all, but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever. Amen.

Words still beautiful and true and quite applicable the better part of twenty centuries later. These words ring out to me especially tonight because, at both Eucharists at which I was present the first reading was from the account in Genesis of the seven days of creation, to be precise the fifth and sixth days, including the creation of man and woman and their relationship to one another and to all other creatures gifted with ‘the breath of life.’

At Little Sisters of the Poor the priest-celebrant, whom I had not seen for twenty years or more methinks, noted today as the celebration of the sister of Saint Benedict, Scholastica. He told the story of her fervent prayer overcoming her brother’s reluctance to remain overnight at her convent and to continue the rich conversation they had been sharing. Benedict said he had to go. His sister prayed and such a storm erupted that he could not possibly leave the place. “You see,” Scholastica said (on what turned out to be one of the final nights of her earthly life, “what you would deny me, God has given me.” You go girl! Tell that wise man where to stay, and why!

It happens that I am staying this week at a Benedictine house. Their hospitality, as has been true at every Benedictine foundation I have ever visited, is exemplary. One does indeed feel as if they could not be kinder if you were indeed the Christ. And here is a place of valued respite, quiet (even silence) and peace.

Continue reading “Winter Retreat (Day 1)”