Tinkering with Grief in the Woods

By Mark Liebenow

I sit in my shorts by an open window in Kentucky surrounded by a hundred sleeping monks. Beyond the monastery’s stone walls, beyond the dark scrabbled woods of hickory and oak, a dog barks at raccoons moving through the night, or at nothing at all, and the world settles back down into quiet. Stars stall overhead in the thick, humid air that rests upon the land.

We rolled in at 5:30 p.m., as Vespers was starting, and hurried into the tall, narrow sanctuary.  The plainsong beauty of Gregorian chant washed over us, calming the rush of nine hours on the road.  Four rows of Trappist monks, gaunt and dressed in black and white robes, faced each other and sang with one voice.  When worship ended, we went with the other retreatants to the evening meal, quietly picked up soup, made sandwiches, and ate in silence at single tables with a view over the grounds.  Most of us looked a little scared, wondering if we would find what we sought, and if we did, what this would require of us.

The Trappists, also known as Cistercians, are the most cloistered, the most austere order in the Catholic Church, and our contact with them would be minimal. Like all monasteries that follow the Rule of St. Benedict, space is made for people to come and stay as guests for a day or a week.  It is the tradition of hospitality, of openness to sojourners.  The entire retreat will be silent; yet not talking to anyone for a week won’t be difficult because it will feel like home.

At the top I turned left and found my room of stone walls and stone floor, a metal-frame bed, a desk, and not much else.

Yesterday I flew from California to Wisconsin, and this morning my friend Steve picked me up at my parents’ house.  As we drove through Illinois, Indiana, and into Kentucky, we caught up on each other’s lives.  At Bardstown we slowed down and began to wind our way through the hilly countryside.  As we came around a bend, a stone wall appeared and I quieted down, finding it hard to believe I was going to be where Thomas Merton wrote the words that guided my life at crucial times. Gethsemani Monastery rose up before us on the hill.  For some reason I was expecting a dark building hidden behind a stout wall, but the monastery was white and shining bright in the late afternoon sunlight.  I felt like a pilgrim coming out of the hot, dry wilderness surrounding Jerusalem, hiking up the steep path to the great, walled city where there was cool water and sanctuary from life’s harshness.  Nervously I joked to Steve that I expected a sign that said:  “Caution!  Premises protected by hairy monks.”

“All the rooms in the Guest House are taken,” the young monk checking us in said softly.  “Would you like to stay with the monks?”  We sputtered, “Yes” before he changed his mind, ignoring his caution that the rooms were spartan and did not have air conditioning.  Excited, we crossed over to the monks’ side of the grounds, whispered our last words to each other, and pushed open the heavy, black metal gate.  Ominously chiseled in stone overhead were the words, “GOD ALONE.”

Our steps echoed as we ascended the gray stone stairs to the second floor.  At the top I turned left and found my room of stone walls and stone floor, a metal-frame bed, a desk, and not much else. The only object on any wall was a simple cross.  The roof of the sanctuary was outside the window, the steeple with its bell tower, and a view down into the square cloister where monks walk in contemplation.

Steve said the monks understood grief, having lost their former lives, and realized how hard it was to start a journey without knowing where you will end up.  He said I needed to be here, so I have come.

At 7:00 p.m. we had orientation with Fr. James, the guest master, who was available if we had questions, were in need of confession, or wanted to give up the world and make cheese. “There are two thousand acres for you to walk in,” he said, “but do not go where it is posted “Monastic Area.”  Steve and I smiled at each other for our temporary dispensation.  “There are ticks in the woods, but no deer ticks that carry Lyme disease.  You can sing with the monks during services, but do so quietly so you don’t disturb the flow and meditation of their chanting.”  The meeting ended and we filed over to Compline, the last of seven liturgical services each day.  I fumbled with the prayer book trying to find my place, set it down in frustration, and listened to the melodies flow up into the rafters and fade.  Afterward, Fr. Matthew Kelty, chaplain for the Guest House, spoke to us for a few minutes in a side room, read poetry, commented on recent events in the world, and ended with prayer.  I went outside into the sticky evening to walk around the grounds and get my bearings.

On the grassy hill beside the monastery, I watched the orange sun descend beyond the green wooded knobs.  The stars rose and blinked in the undulating convections of humid air, and crickets chanted in the grass.  I let the darkness deepen until 9:15, then quietly made my way down the hill, into the monks’ dorm, and through the empty hallway to my room.  Opening the window as far as it would go to catch any stray breeze, I stripped to my shorts and tried to cool down, intending to read at the desk until I was sleepy, but my body was on West Coast time and insisted it was only 7 p.m.  In the dark silence, fireflies began their journey around the cloister.  At 10:30 p.m. a light came on in a room across the way, some monk unable to sleep or wanting to pray.

Fourteen months after my wife’s death, I’m sitting in my shorts in Kentucky. One hundred monks are asleep in the rooms around me, but what do austere, unshaven men know about women, marriage, or Evelyn? They have taken vows of silence, poverty, and chastity, and I’m not Catholic.  I don’t know when to bow, kneel, or cross myself.

I could go anywhere in the world.  Alaska beckons with the solitude of rugged mountains where I could slowly disappear.  Or travel to Hindu Benares in India where bodies of the dead are burned, tip Evelyn’s ashes into the Ganges, and watch her float away.  Then walk north to Tibet and sit with Buddhist monks in saffron robes until my emotions petrify to stone.  Instead I’m in Kentucky in June, sweltering with Trappist monks, and picking off tiny ticks.

The great storms of grief have subsided, but the long weeks of anger, depression, rage, and crying have left a desolate, devastated landscape and a numb wandering around town.  Now I drift through months that are emotionally flat.  Nothing interests me and I’m beginning to fear this is permanent. Knowing the terrible cost when a wife dies, I wonder if I will ever risk loving someone this much again.

One warm night in the mountains of 8th century China, Wei Ying-wu wrote to a friend who gave up an office job in the city to live as a hermit in the mountains:

Out walking and singing of cooler days
I think of you on an autumn night
pinecones falling on deserted slopes
the recluse I suspect not yet asleep.

On another warm night in June, in the woods on the next hill over, Thomas Merton, the monk and writer, sat at the desk in his hermitage, listened as insects flicked the screen, and wrote about the searching that every monk does, what people who grieve have to face when the answers don’t go far enough, when all our wisdom and knowledge only bring us to the end of the path, staring into the unknown.

I sit with sorrow knowing that it blocks me from letting go of what is gone.  Sorrow reminds me how quickly everyone I love can die, and how what I thought was solid can easily disappear.  I move the lamp to the right, stare at the surface of the desk trying to follow the labyrinth of its knotted grain and guide me through my maze of thoughts and dread, trying to trust and be patient, but knowing that people do lose their way in grief and do not recover.  I wait, listening for some hint to tell me to go this way or that.  I wait, feeling the emptiness of the future and the gauntness of the past.  I wait, and will continue to wait, reading the words of those who have traveled this way before me, until I sense some direction is good, a path I can walk tomorrow.

Tuesday

3 a.m.  The monastery’s “big ass bell,” as Steve calls it, bongs outside my wide-open window, shocking me awake and calling the monks to Vigils, the first worship service of the day. I throw on pants and shirt, aim my body through the door, into the stone hallway and toward the sanctuary, falling quietly in line behind the sandaled feet of monks moving quickly through the shadows.  Inside some monks are already deep in contemplation, kneeling at the altar or by their chairs with heads lowered in the semi-darkness.  Those with me bow before the altar lit by a single spotlight and take their seats in the dark. I join the scattering of lay people straggling in. The opening phrases of invocation are spoken and the monks begin chanting the Psalms antiphonally at the pace of breathing.

When the service ends at 4 a.m., I make my way back to my room contemplating sleep, but resolve to stay awake and use the time to read.  Overnight the air has cooled from the high eighties to the mid seventies but it has remained damp.  The monks are eating breakfast now, then have free time for study and private prayer.  Merton lived here for twenty-seven years and loved this period before the birds were awake because it was full of all the possibilities of a new day, of innocence and without boundaries.  He loved the darkness, the quiet of nature that exists outside of time, the clarity of thought, and the setting aside of what had fallen short.  He wrote, ‘The upsetting of our inner life is essential to spiritual growth.  Without it we remain comfortable in our illusions.’

At 5:40 a.m. I head back to the sanctuary for Lauds, which extends into a Mass, then into the monastery’s monthly Office for the Dead.  Grateful to be here for this observance, I add Evelyn’s name to the list being recited.  A dozen people who live in the area stop in before work. The Catholics among us go forward to receive communion while the Protestants stay back as instructed, praying that one day all Christians might share the same communion.

If the summer was hot, the monks sweated more.  Merton said this was when most novices gave up and went home.

Dawn finally rises.  Breakfast consists of oatmeal, wheat toast, and several cups of strong monk’s coffee to counteract my jetlag.  I attend Terce at 7:30 a.m., then walk outside to explore the land.  At the bottom of the hill, a gravel path leads up to Merton’s hermitage.  For me, this is Gethsemani’s Holy of Holies, but a sign on the gate says “Monks Only.”  I toy with the idea of sneaking through the woods for a look, but do not want to disturb the prayer of the monk who is staying there this month, meditating on the porch with the rising dawn like Merton used to do.

I head the other way, cross the road, and follow the meditation trail through the woods that has prayer icons among the trees, and stone faces and words hidden in bushes on the ground.  They are there, I suppose, to surprise us and encourage us to look for answers in unexpected places.  I stop at a small wooden hut and add a prayer for Molly and Francesco to the hundreds of prayers already written in the large journal.  I ask healing for Molly’s brain tumor that has slipped their sense of the world’s goodness and God’s grace for five years, that they might believe in miracles again.  Or if there is no healing, then strength to endure the experimental chemotherapy that may halt the damage, yet promises only a slower decline.  And if this is unsuccessful, then I pray that they will continue to love and care for each other as they struggle to hang on in their deepening despair, trying to undo the day’s sadness each night as they hold each other in the last hours together until something crucial is lost.  And then, somehow, let go.

Beyond the woods, the large monastic fields are edged by blue sprigs of cornflowers that surprise me with their simple beauty.  The heavy heart that has been my companion this last year has tagged along as usual, but today there’s a surprising lightness in my step.  Maybe the new desert of my life will not be the loneliness I expect, but compassion.  I may be entering a parched desert that will bloom only when it is watered with tears of compassion for others. If I do not help others, then I will stay in this desert and wither like an apricot, my heart desiccating into a hard knot of stone.  This is something I vaguely heard in worship this morning while trying not to fall asleep.

Feeling twitching on my leg, I look down and see a dozen red and brown ticks crawling up my pants, and brush them off.  On the way back, I enter the monastery’s walled enclosure by the side entrance and let my hands linger on its metal latch, touch the aging wood of the gate, and stroke the gritty surface of the boulders in the seven-foot-high wall, trying to feel the lingering resonance of Merton’s presence. I imagine him pushing this gate open after a walk in the woods, at times with joy for having a community of faith to return to, at times feeling constrained by the abbey’s institutional rules that had trouble nurturing individual talents.  Inside the gate is a sixty-foot-tall, white-barked sycamore, so wide and old that leaves grow only on the ends of its branches, leaving half the sky visible through its open, green canopy.

When Merton joined the monastery, each monk was given two sets of clothes, a wool robe for summer, and a heavier wool robe for winter.  If the summer was hot, the monks sweated more.  Merton said this was when most novices gave up and went home.  It was also when experienced monks watched anxiously for the green flag that finally gave them permission to take their cowls off.  In winter the monastery was unheated and the robe doubled as a blanket.  Monks slept on straw and woke to bowls of water frozen beside them.  Food was plain, cooked without spices or salt, and served in small portions.  During Lent, monks fasted from this meager fare, even though it was still cold and they were doing manual labor.  Gethsemani had a dairy herd then, as well as sheep and pigs.  Monks shaved once a week, and once a month their hair was cut into tonsures that left horseshoes of hair around their heads.  Outside of worship, monks did not speak, but used the sign language Trappists had developed over the centuries.

Some of that early strictness has been relaxed, and the monks no longer grow all their food or tan leather in smelly vats in the basement of my dorm, but living here is still no paradise for the body.  Beyond the physical discomforts, there are few distractions.  Only measured contemplation and the care of the community keep the monks balanced.  For some, this proves to be too thin a tether.   In the journey to love only God, think only of God, and be only with God, some monks lose their way.

On the western side of the monastery’s grounds, the “Monks Only” wall is only four feet high.  I lean on the stone and watch the monks in black and white robes at work in the barns and fields.  The draft horses of Merton’s day have been replaced by tractors.  Like these fields of hay, my landscape has been clear-cut of familiar and comforting sights by Evelyn’s unexpected death, and most of the noble ideals I believed in unraveled as illusions were pared away.  What do I trust now?

Beyond the monks’ retreat house on the right is the neighbor’s field with cows.  Holstein, of course.  Black and white.

Lunch consists of mashed potatoes, meatloaf, soup, hominy, salad with big chunks of raw onions, banana bread, and iced tea.   I won’t be talking to anyone for a couple of days, so I munch the onions while listening to a taped recording of someone reading an inspirational piece.  After the meal I walk upstairs to the scriptorium, discover The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther de Waal, and go outside to read in the humid, ninety-degree shade underneath the sycamore, the area where sheep used to gather on hot days to cool down.

De Waal says the Celtic people knew every kind of suffering.  In the 2nd century B.C., the Roman army pushed them off the mainland of Europe onto the rocky islands of Britain.  In the 5th century A.D., the Anglo-Saxons invaded the islands.  Then the Vikings came down from the north, ravaging communities along the coast.  The Normans invaded from France, and the English pushed up from southern Britain.  By the Middle Ages, the Celtic community had been reduced to scattered outposts in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as pockets in Brittany and Galicia.  In the 1800s the Clearances began in Scotland and the potato famine devastated Ireland, driving many of those who were left into exile across the sea.

The intense heat becomes too much and I move to the second floor porch to increase my chances of a breeze.  De Waal writes that by living on the edges of civilization and remembering their grief, the Celtic people learned what was important.  Their wisdom seems to boil down to this: work hard, celebrate often, and be aware of God in everything you do.  I watch the silent monks working in the fields, tending gardens, praying, and making their lives a communion with whom, and what, they love.

I wonder about my place in the world now that Evelyn is gone.  How do I fit in?  I wonder about the place of monks, too, people who are hidden away and pray all day.  Is there value to what they, or any of us, do?  I don’t know.  Yet Merton’s words came out of this environment, and these monks are providing a place where I can come and sort out my life.

A hundred miles away across a wide valley in the Himalayas, this mountain was one place that Merton thought of moving to in order to continue his journey…

At one time Evelyn was worried that I’d run off to Gethsemani and not come back, and there was foundation for her fear. Merton has been a writer I’ve valued since picking up the slim volume of his Life and Holiness in a convenience store on a bike trip across Wisconsin.  I was seventeen, wanted something to read, and the book was small enough to fit into my bicycle pack. Although I didn’t understand the depths of faith he wrote about, I sensed that what he wrote was true.  Ev and I were married on the date that Merton made his vows and entered Gethsemani.  I made my vows to Evelyn, instead.  Now she’d be happy I’m here, although she would worry that I’d choose to stay and give up the part of me that comes alive when hiking in Yosemite.  I have no plans this week other than open myself to all possibilities.

I slip inside the darkness of the dorm to use the bathroom, savoring it being twenty degrees cooler, and Steve comes down the steps.  We do not speak but smile, nod, and pass by.  The only words we hear these days are in worship services that occur roughly every three hours from 3 a.m. until 8 p.m.  I’ve known Steve for twenty years, since being roommates in grad school. His sandy hair is balding into a natural tonsure, he’s put on weight like all of us, and he teaches fifth grade in Wisconsin.  In school he liked to party and would crash into my room with our other roommate to wake me up to join their fun.  But he had a loving heart and I put up with his late night antics.  He taught me about celebrating life and once persuaded me to dance like Zorba the Greek on the roof of the apartment building.  Then, filled with exuberance, we threw all the chairs off and watched them fly like white, metal cranes before landing with a bounce.  Something of my interest in Merton found a home in Steve because he made it to Gethesmani first, which surprised both of us. He was my best man when I married Ev, so when he mentioned that he was going to Gethsemani again and thought it would do me some good, I trusted his wisdom and said, “Yes.”

After the service of None at 2:15 p.m., I wander through the monks’ cemetery outside the sanctuary and find Merton’s name on a cross.  Sitting on the ground, I’m moved that Tom’s bones are a few feet away.  I’m living with Merton, touching the walls his hands touched, breathing the air that filled his lungs, and watching with him as the sun moves over the abbey.  I am with monks whose former lives have also been pared away, who renounced everything to come here.  I will let this spiritual mountain infuse me with its light, and listen to the sounds of this green, knobby land.  I will wear a monk’s life for a week to see how it feels, and may decide, for reasons I cannot fathom, that this is the direction I need to go.  I will rule nothing out.

What attracts me most about Gethsemani is what Merton did.  He moved from the monks’ dorm to a small cabin on the next hill where he lived in solitude, studied, and meditated as he walked through Kentucky’s woods.  He was near enough to the monastery that they could keep tabs on each other.

The thought of living in a cabin like Merton, or in a forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains like Gary Snyder, a Buddhist poet and nature writer, excites my heart — looking for spirituality in the wilderness, moving at the pace of the seasons, celebrating their beauty, and traveling deeper into the mysteries of existence.  Although Merton’s hermitage hides just beyond the trees, across this valley with a cornfield below, what I see is the photo of Kanchenjunga that he took shortly before he died.  A hundred miles away across a wide valley in the Himalayas, this mountain was one place that Merton thought of moving to in order to continue his journey growing into solitude and deepening his dialogue with Asian religions.  The success of his writings was drawing more and more people like me to Gethsemani who wanted to sneak through the woods and talk to him on his porch.

At 5:15 p.m., I enter the sanctuary and revive like a wilted flower in the coolness held in by the thick stone walls.  Vespers won’t start for fifteen minutes, but I’ve come early to close my eyes and sit in the quietness of this unadorned sanctuary, letting the echoes and lingering wisps of prayers and incense fill me.  My breath slows and deepens.  The late afternoon sunlight flows through the west windows and illuminates the oak wood floor and white walls.  At the far end, the altar sits in the shadows, like a mother waiting for her children to come home.

The bell rings.  Monks enter the sanctuary with a variety of expressions on their faces, called like Pavlov’s dog seeking the food of heaven.   Some look tired from their manual labor, others are stoic, and some walk stiff in perfect accord with official rubrics.  As they enter, they dip their fingers into holy water at the door and make the sign of the cross.  Some are deliberate and make the four arms of the cross equal.  Others are moving more quickly and make a flying cross.  Some execute a rolling genuflection.  Because they don’t all sing exactly in tune, some a shade low, some high, the subtle differences create richness, like the violin section of an orchestra.  A number of the area people who were here this morning have returned for this service.

The retreatants are a varied bunch, too, although it’s hard to tell how varied without being able to talk to them.  A few look over-eager as if they have rushed into paradise but can’t slow down enough to match heaven’s slower pace.   One teenage boy is sullen; I think his father has dragged him here. One woman is beaming away, apparently happy with everything.  From living in Berkeley, I’m wary of people who smile too broadly like this.  They tend to be unbalanced.  A lanky youth bows down to his waist when saying the doxology, rather than bend at his shoulders like the rest of us.  Perhaps he’s testing the waters to be a novice.  He sings quietly along with the monks, but way off key.

Dinner is simple — hearty soup, thick bread, cheese, and fruitcake. The monks support themselves by making varieties of a soft, pungent French-style cheese called “Port Salut” that smells like sandaled feet, but tastes quite good when eaten in small bites between big hunks of bread.  They also make fruitcake, one kind that is infused with enough Kentucky bourbon to knock me on my keister, entice me back for seconds, and convince me to stay.  No sign of their fudge yet.

8:45 p.m.  The sun begins to set, but the abbot has already tucked his flock into bed.  Some monks slip out to wander the back fields, praying with the birds as they sing evensong.

Wednesday

The bong of the big bell wakes me up at 3:00 a.m. for Vigils.  I slide back to sleep for a moment, only to be bonged at 5:45, time for Lauds.  Sleep pulls me back again, still weary from the early start yesterday.  Bong!  6:15, time for Mass.  I get up but walk outside until breakfast at 7:00, not caring to be excluded from communion.  As birds congregate on the lawn, they chirp their morning praises, eat the worms offered by the earth and drink the dew of the sky collected on blades of grass.  The Celts believed that birds were intermediaries between this world and the next.  The day starts comfortably in the middle seventies.  I sit on the hill with the statue of St. Joseph, look down on the fields behind the monastery, watch the sun rise over the oaks and elms, and slip into contemplation without words.

After breakfast, waiting for Terce to begin, I offer up a simple prayer:  “O God, help me find the right place in the worship book!”  It doesn’t help that today two books have been set out.  This morning the chanting sounds different, haunting in an unsettling way, as if the pain being named in scripture is living again as the monks’ voices give them breath, putting flesh on Ezekiel’s dry bones, and living the struggles the psalmists felt when writing these words.  Every gesture the monks make seems imbued with meaning, every bow, every glance, every tic of the face as if they were signs from God speaking directly to me, and I can’t decipher them.

On the walk out to the fields on the gravel path, a Cistercian dragonfly hovers by Kendron Brook—white body with black wings.  Today I’m going to explore the woods beyond the fields and listen to nature’s voices. I head for the opening I saw yesterday, pausing at a water puddle to examine its collection of tracks—coyote and deer, possibly possum, a dog or fox, and a big print with curved toes large enough to be the offspring of one of Daniel Boone’s bears. Some dark-furred animal, a raccoon or woodchuck, scurries under the bushes as I approach.

Pushing through the opening, I duck under tree branches and walk in the cooler quiet of the Kentucky woods.  The trail connects to a dirt road that is wide enough for the monastery’s jeep that Merton liked to drive, which he drove poorly because he would focus on his thoughts instead of the road and run into trees along the edge.  A woodpecker nearby is busy drilling a hole; its sound echoes through the valley.  Crows caw across the distance, a few songbirds sing sporadically, but not long enough for me to identify them, and the unmistakable squawk of jays.  The smells are general, hints of things but no strong odors.  The morning is humid and warm, but not yet hot.  The dirt road climbs to the top of the ridge where I peek through the thick pines only to see more wooded hills, imagining Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace twenty miles from here.  I saunter down to a stream whose black shale bedrock shimmers with rainbows in the tree-filtered sunlight.

The flowing water has worn the earth in the riverbed down to stone.  I toss a handful of dirt onto the river, watch it dissolve and flow away.  I wonder if this land is holier because of the monks, or if the monks are holier because they have worked with the land through the seasons?  I pick a stone up from the riverbed and roll it in my fingers trying to discern its spirituality, to use it like a key and unlock the puzzle of death’s place in life.

Emerging out of the forest, I linger on the edge of the green field and watch a hawk circle overhead on a thermal updraft of air, hear the single tone of the monastery’s bell bing in the distance, but do not rush back for prayers, content to share the liturgy of the woods.  Nature’s sounds fill the breeze. Spicebush swallowtails, large butterflies with blue spots on black wings, land on purple bull thistles.  The blue cornflowers growing along the sides of the fields surprise me again, as if the entire universe was contained within their spare, colorful petals.  They remind me that there are still wonders in the world that I haven’t seen, and they move my heart more than what I thought such simple objects could.  In this time after the death of my wife, I am thankful that something is still able to reach through the shrubbery around my heart.  Walking along the fields, I bake in the increasingly hot sun.  When I spot a dark, overgrown path in the woods, I plunge in to cool down.  But dozens of ticks immediately jump on and I quickly back out, tussling my hair and clothes to get them off.

Back in my room I peel my sweaty clothes off and find two ticks on my skin that I remove before they settle in.

Each hour the humidity intensifies with the growing heat.  By early afternoon it’s already in the nineties.  After fifteen minutes even a fresh change of clothing sticks to the skin.  Languid breezes swirl, bringing tantalizingly brief moments of relief as they catch the top of the ridge and flow down the channels between knobs, slurring the stalled air of the monastery.  The wind bends to the shape of the land and stirs up the moistness clinging to the hollows that nurtures mosquitoes, lilies, butterflies, and ticks.  Then all is still.  And the heat and chirr of cicadas build again.

Four retreatants walk past heading for the Trail of the Statues that goes through the woods, each wisely carrying a water bottle.  The rest, I bet, are reading about desert monks in their air-conditioned rooms.  The heat is getting to me and I’m starting to feel cynical.

Tonight at Vespers the monks pause after each line of chant.  Singing as one, their voices echo down the length of the sanctuary and return.  They chant the next line, and wait for God to sing back.

When is something going to happen?  I’ve been here for three days without hearing any answers.  All my frustrations are stewing in Kentucky’s summer heat.  Two days are left.  How do I make something happen?  Reach up and tickle God’s toes, maybe, and make God laugh.  Tickle myself, more likely, and become another retreatant laughing hysterically in the woods.  We’re all insane, anyway, believing what can’t be seen.

Finally for dessert at dinner, the kitchen monks bring out the fudge.  Two kinds.  With and without bourbon.  I go back for seconds.

At Compline, the lanky youth returns, the one who invariably ends up next to me and sings off key, today in serious need of deodorant.  He may be deciding whether or not to pledge—wanting to say “Yes” to something with his whole heart, wanting to respond to the big mystery of faith by embracing this life of quiet and being locked up with it for the rest of his days, joining a simple, yet demanding journey of prayer without knowing that it will require him to struggle with sorrow, despair, and loss of hope like everyone else.  There is no refuge from life in a monastery.  He looks scared, as if it’s too simple a way to enter heaven, fearful of saying yes and being swallowed up, of being pushed beyond the boundaries of his abilities to cope.  Yet being here brings him joy and encourages him to say “yes” in ways that are deeper and expresses his heart.

Then it comes to me, in the midst of figuring out someone else’s problem, that what I am missing is the sense of mystery, of something solid and unchanging at the core, not illusions or grand ideals of how I think life should be, but something greater than my life that remains firm beneath the turbulent struggles, even if it’s unexplainable.

Tonight the air refuses to cool and stays at one hundred degrees.  Even the rays of the setting sun burn my skin. I retreat to the darkness of my stone room.  Under the light at my desk, I go over what happened today and the events seem unremarkable.  But as I write them down, the coincidences take on weight, like birds gathering on a tree branch.  As the dots connect, I see that the day has flowed as a stream and silently guided me here, here, and here.

Thursday

3 :00 a.m.  Bong.  Rising from the damp bed after not sleeping again, I grumble my way to worship.  Can’t take much more of this.  Wobbling back and forth on my feet, I brace my legs against the chairs in front of me to stop swaying, try to keep my mind from collapsing back into sleep, try to grab answers from the air for how to let go of grief.

The sun rises red over the abbey.  There are no clouds on the horizon, just a wet haze clinging to the air.  At 6:30 a.m. it’s already a humid eighty-two degrees.  Throughout the day I attend services, some which last only fifteen minutes, to keep my thoughts focused on my search.  I wander the woods like Merton when he was Gethsemani’s forester, decipher raccoon tracks along the creeks, noticing how they wandered down to the water, then away, then back again; and pick up bits of colored stones, as well as ticks that I carefully remove, feeling the preciousness of this moment and wanting to find in the woods and fields, inside the monastery halls and sanctuary, what I sense, but which I am no longer sure exists.  I’m thinking about Wendell Berry, who lives nearby, wishing that I could have eavesdropped when he and Merton talked about the spirituality of nature, when the words come, “God sits in the ruins of my heart.”  What the hell do they mean?

Petty matters increasingly bother me.  Last night the apples left out for snacks were mealy…

Every hour the air gets thicker and heavier with moisture.  I seek refuge again in de Waal’s book, reading that grief taught the Celtic people how to relieve the suffering of others.  Even reading without moving in the shade under the big sycamore makes sweat roll down my back, which makes clothes stick, which attracts creeping and flying insects, which make me itch and changes my thoughtful retreat into a penance.  I watch as birds seek refuge from the heat in the shade under the trees.

At Sext one monk smiles broadly entering the choir stall, as if a joke is being played on a monk who hasn’t arrived.  Perhaps a sign saying Gregory of Nyssa was a Carpathian not a Carthusian.  Some monks grimace like they’re fighting with the devil on some matter, and they may well be, whether it’s pride, avarice, or anger at another monk’s practical jokes.

After lunch I return outside and sit under the sycamore, trying to endure the stink of trees down in the corner every time the breeze shifts.  I’m reading Merton’s The Sign of Jonas, written during the second five-year period of his time here. Steve left the book outside my door last night, marked for the chapter called “Firewatch” which describes Merton walking around the monastery buildings after everyone was asleep to make sure there were no fires from the many candles they used, including walking the hallway by my door.  He eventually made his way to the bell tower outside my window, crawling out to sit on the roof and watch the moon and stars on their journey over Kentucky’s landscape, and trying to discern what he should do next.

As the day heats up, bees hop from one white clover blossom to the next.  A tiny, fuzzy green caterpillar crawls through the grass, feeling its way, bending the flat blades over as it tries to move forward.  The ambling nature of its direction indicates that it can’t see very far ahead, yet it doesn’t seem troubled by this, trusting that it will know what to do when each step comes.

After an hour under the sycamore, I go to None, then move to the screened porch on the second floor and continue reading Merton’s book, glancing up now and then to gaze at his grave on the right.  An older monk goes into the cemetery, kneels down and patiently cleans each simple white cross in an act of devotion.  He seems to be talking to old friends.  Slipping inside the sanctuary for a moment to cool down, I hear young monks practicing chants in the side chapel.  It doesn’t sound as if they have it right, but they will learn with practice over the years to sing from their hearts, not their heads.

Late in the afternoon, white cumulus clouds billow up dramatically for thousands of feet in the west.  The long-anticipated storm is coming near.

Petty matters increasingly bother me.  Last night the apples left out for snacks were mealy, and they are the only food available between meals.  This noon several retreatants took three pieces of meat, five pieces of cheese, four slices of bread, and two desserts before everyone else had a chance.  Tonight it’s the guy who never finishes anything, then slowly cleans each of his bowls and plates as if it were some great act of devotion, making me wait with a tray of heavy, earthenware dishes.

I stomp out to the fields to vent my frustrations, feeling goopy and bone-tired from the weeklong battle with the mounting pressure of the heat and humidity.  What the fuck am I doing here?  I am accomplishing nothing!  I understand nothing!

Heavy storm clouds black with rain begin flowing over the hills. I turn around and walk quickly for the safety of the monastery.  Pellets of hard rain punch the dry earth, sending up sharp puffs of dust.   A bolt of lightning streaks over my head, pulling the ripcord that unleashes a torrent of water that soaks the land and my clothes.  I start to swear but stop, realizing that this is my answer.  I run back across the muddy fields laughing at the absurdity of thinking that I could figure out life’s illogic, laughing with excitement as I hurry through the woods back to Gethsemani’s enclosure, up the stone steps to my room, change into dry clothes, and head for worship.

The storm continues to shake the sanctuary during Compline.  Lightning flares through the windows while trees are shoved side to side by the swirling wind.  The monks’ chanting tries to stabilize the world.  By the end of the service, the sounds of the tempest have quieted. Hurrying outside to see what has happened, we watch the dark, juggernaut storm rumble on wooden-cog wheels over the hills to the east with flashes of lightning flaring off in all directions.  Thick sheets of gray rain flow down in the next valley while the rich yellow and orange colors of the sunset spread out above us.  The air has cooled thirty degrees to the low seventies and feels delightfully chilly and light, as if a great weight has been lifted off.

I look at Steve and mime a Trappist face of relief.  The air tastes fresh on my tongue, like bits of orange peel.  Smells are crisp and taut like freshly washed skin. The heaviness of water has been squeegeed from the air and people frolic like kids on the cool, wet grass.  Birds come out from under the trees and dart through the air after insects also revived by the rain.  Dusk lingers as a yellow glow along the edges of the sky, shifts to pink when the last of the dark storm thunders over the horizon, and then turns red as the sun sets on the hills.

9:40 p.m. I turn the lamp off, move it slightly left, and watch the sky turn black outside the window, feeling the holiness and struggle of the monks who lived in this room before me. Darkness sets the division of time aside and brings us together.  I wait for Merton to finish his firewatch rounds and appear on the roof. I wait for sleep to come and my body to cool after four long days.  I wait as the cadence of breath slows to the rhythm of sleep.

Friday

3 :15 a.m.  I sit by myself in the balcony of the sanctuary listening to the peacefulness of Vigils down by the altar at the other end, and notice that the lanky youth is now sitting with the monks.

4:30 a.m. Cool, thick fog covers the land.  Buildings, stone walls, the entire world has disappeared, except for what appears fifty feet in front of me and disappears as I go by.  I make my way up the hill on the other side of the road and look back.  The monastery is hovering above the low fog in the early, rose glimmer of dawn.  Then the orange sun rises through the white gauze off the front porch of Merton’s hermitage with the colors of a French Impressionist painting.  To the west, the white, diaphanous moon is setting. Rivers of thick mist flow slowly between the green knobs and hide the cornfields below where geese are honking.  Off to the left two dogs bark to each other with excitement for a new day.

After breakfast and Terce, we pack the truck to return home.  Steve gives me a ceramic coffee mug from the monastery.  I give him cheese.

Evelyn and Merton are dead, yet their lives, words, and memories continue to guide me.  The monks continue to work out their salvation in small steps, and the step taken here this week begins mine.  What I have learned quietly chanting in Gethsemani’s austere sanctuary alongside these humble monks, what I have felt in the cool shade under the ginkgo tree where the Dalai Lama once sat to honor Merton, what I have heard sitting by Tom’s grave, and what I have come to understand by looking over the roof at night, seeing the stars that Merton saw during the fire watch, is that joy exists alongside grief.  Joy does not do away with grief as if it never existed, and joy does not replace grief.  But by existing along side, joy helps me bear the grief I feel.  This is God sitting with me in my ruins.  And this is where my new journey starts, rising from here and seeing how I can help others.

There are no guarantees in life that there will be bourbon fudge for dinner, or that our loved ones will live long and happy lives beside us.  Sometimes there will be fudge.  Sometimes death will hit us so hard between the eyes that it will scramble our faith and undo the last of our grand illusions, leaving us mired in small, stone rooms walled with suffering and pain.  Then we stand up in our suffering and restart our journey, traveling through the wilderness of grief to a new land, trusting the mystery, and taking with us the good things we have left.

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About Mark Liebenow

Mark Liebenow’s essays, poems, and reviews have been published by such journals as Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Swink, and Disquieting Muses Quarterly. His work has won the Chautauqua and the River Teeth nonfiction prizes and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In March 2012 the University of Nebraska Press published his book on Yosemite and John Muir (Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite). He lives in Peoria, IL, and works on an organic farm that preserves heirloom corn. He also writes about grief recovery.

5 Comments

  1. Robert Grossman
    Posted September 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    What an incredibly beautiful work this is — plainspoken, but lyric, and imbued throughout with a powerful sense of the writer’s struggle with his attempt to assuage his grief with faith and contemplation. This is the kind of thing that I come to read: an honest account of what it means to be human — to suffer terrible loss, and yet to find that life goes on, like it or not, and we must find our place in it. Thank you for this fine essay — I know it will stay with me.

  2. Stephanie Kornexl
    Posted October 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    This is beautiful. I saw a comment you made on http://thisisantler.com/ and was intrigued. Throughout this essay I was hanging on your every word, soaking in the wisdom. I especially liked Wednesday’s entry with it’s exasperation at not having found the answers you came to find. I loved the raw honesty. I wrote a piece for antler called “messy as hell” which you might enjoy–it also explores the intermingling of joy and grief. Many blessings to you on your journey.

  3. Donna Larkin
    Posted December 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Mark. Having embarked on the path of the Spirit Warrior, most of my life has been spent trying to figure out the answers… born into the Catholic tradition, winding my way through life in a tent at an Ashram while training to be a yoga teacher at 60 and silent retreats at Gampo Abbey, the older i get, some 65 plus years, i have fewer answers and more questions…the joy and grief is definitely in the journey…Thank you again for sharing part of your story.

  4. Marylin Schultz
    Posted December 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Your essay is one of the most beautiful “creative non-fiction” pieces of writing that I have seen…ever! I agree totally with the others who commented. I felt like I was right there with you on your quest, as far as details in all aspects, physical, mental, and especially the spiritual. I printed it in order to share it with friends who do not have access to a computer.
    Thank you so much for your inspiring essay and God bless you for sharing your gift of superb writing!

  5. Mark Liebenow
    Posted December 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I thank you each for taking the time to share your thoughts. With a story this personally devastating, I didn’t know if it would make sense to others. But I think that what is the most personal is also the most universal, and sharing experiences like this draws us into community.

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