It was chilly in Rothrock Used Books yesterday—the checkout desk is just a few feet from the front doors, and the wind gusts were frigid. Traffic was unusually heavy—I suspect libraries are busier on cold days because it’s a place to get warm without having to spend money or being accused of loitering. The book shop had a steady drift of customers because this month, January, is bag sale month, a plastic grocery bag full of books for $5.
A tall, thin woman in jeans and a down jacket filled her bag with first readers, thin illustrated paperback books used primarily by first graders. I assumed she was a teacher supplementing her classroom library, but she said she was buying them for her brother who is a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. She said she hoped the readers might be useful in his work with a group of visiting Vietnamese monks who do not speak English.
“We were just there after Christmas,” she said. “Boy, was it cold…the Abbey sits on a rise, and the wind was fierce.”
Her comment made me think of the documentary Into Great Silence filmed at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps and the long harsh winters the Carthusian monks endure. Kentucky winters are surely mild in comparison…although Thomas Merton, the contemplative mystic and prolific spiritual writer who spent 27 years at Gethsemani, mentions in his journals many zero and below days.
I asked the woman what work her brother does at the monastery, and she said he works in the mailroom. “It’s what he does on the outside, too. He’s worked several years for the Postal Service in between.” She sensed my unspoken question. “Oh, he doesn’t know…,” she trailed off, her smile one of helpless affection. “He comes and goes.”
Tonight, I look out at the empty icy streets, at the frozen mist rising from the river and think about the monks at Gethsemani in their tiny spare cells with the wind whistling outside the walls, about the brother who can’t decide and the sister who tries to be a bridge between his two worlds. I think about my late husband who spent a weekend retreat at Gethsemani once in search of something: an answer, a sign. Most of us are probably looking for that in one way or another, all wondering who or where we’re supposed to be, never quite at home in the here and now.
Even Merton, after more than two decades at Gethsemani, still felt alien and exiled among people with whom he had little in common. The year before he died he spent two retreats at the Redwoods Monastery on the northern coast of California and felt, he said, unutterably happy, as if he had come a very long way to where he really belonged. He felt an immediate rapport with the European nuns and was enthralled by the giant redwoods. Upon seeing again the spindly pines and cedars of Kentucky, he said, “I must go back. It is not right that I should die under lesser trees.” He didn’t go back, nor did he die in Kentucky but in Bangkok that same year (1968, age 53) where he had gone to participate in an interfaith conference. He had just come from visits in India with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders and was looking forward to final stops in Japan to explore Zen. Merton had studied Eastern religions for several years, and there is speculation that he wished to remain in Asia as a hermit. Perhaps he got his wish and is still there on some other plane for which there are no maps.
Perhaps there are no answers, at least none that we are capable of discerning. Maybe we should try to become our own geography, supposing, as Merton said, geography to be necessary at all. Maybe the signs are so ordinary we discount them, the things we experience every day, the river and the mist, the library where the poor come for Internet service and the homeless to get warm. Where a woman comes to buy teaching books for her spiritually conflicted brother out of love. And maybe that is the answer: the heart the true sanctuary and love the one thing that all the mystics agree is the way to find God within ourselves.