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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

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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)


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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