As regular readers of this inspirational reflection know, I find the writings of the twentieth century monk, Thomas Merton, very insightful and helpful as I think about my own life. On the surface, it would not seem like a Trappist monk (that is a very serious and strict order of Benedictine monks) and a Quaker would have too much in common. He took a vow of poverty and I have money in the bank, a wife and kids and grandkids.
However, there is much about Merton’s spiritual experience that resonates with my own. In fact, I find him so helpful because he was in quest of similar things to me: a life with purpose, a life with deep meaning and a first-hand experience of the Living God. He felt called to join the monastic community in Kentucky. He knew he needed a community of fellow spiritual travelers to help him on his way. I also know I need a community of fellow pilgrims to help me. I find my spiritual helpers in my college community and in my local church communities.
Although Merton died in 1968, his legacy continues in some amazing ways. Merton died in his late 50s, but left multiple writings, painting, photos, audiotapes and countless friends. His books continue to make impact on people. Some of his legacy is encountered in a visit---literally or virtually---to the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. I have been there multiple times and am touched by the spirit of Merton every time I visit.
Publications continue to pour forth in words by and about Merton. A regular journal that appears in my mailbox is called The Merton Seasonal. It contains articles, pictures, etc. My latest version just appeared. Immediately I noticed the lovely drawing on the front of the Seasonal, as I call it. It is a winter scene. The scene pictures nothing but trees---clearly the woods. There is a kind of pathway down through the woods with a solitary figure walking away from the person looking at the picture.
My mind has no doubt that the artist means to portray Thomas Merton in the woods on the monastic property. He is perhaps on a meditative walk. You can see the trail of footprints his meditative journey has left as he plodded through the snow. I know Merton’s writings well enough to be confident that man could very well be Merton. He loved nature, wrote poems about nature and took countless photos of nature. Nature was a source of God’s revelation for him.
Then it hit me. It might not be Merton. Perhaps, the solitary figure walking through the opening in the trees, trudging through the snow, represents every one of us who is making a journey in search of the Author of the beauty of the world. Although we may be part of big families or part of church communities, nevertheless each one of us makes our pilgrimage through life in a solitary fashion. No one can live my life, but me. Finally, it is me and the world and, hopefully, the God who created the world and me.
For me (and for Merton), life is my quest to find and to be found by the Holy One. There are plenty of places to look for the Spirit. God can be found in nature or discovered deep inside at the center of my being. I have looked both places and, I know, Merton did, too.
The footprints in the snow are significant for a couple reasons. The footprints are evidence that I still am alive. I am moving. The footprints trace my journey. If they could, they would tell a story. The footprints are literally the history of my journey---describing where I was and indicative of the direction I am heading.
The picture is not defined by the footprints. The person is still central to the picture. The footprints serve to draw the eye of the beholder to the person making his or her way through the opening in the forest. One gets the dynamic sense in this picture. The figure is still moving---still making more footprints. Life continues and the journey will go further. The figure was Merton. It is I. And it is you, too.
There is one more wonderful aspect to the picture. Beneath it we are told the drawing is by Donna Kristoff---Sister Donna, as I know her. She is a friend and an Ursuline nun and a gifted artist. She has a monastic heart and an artist’s eye. Because she is a woman with a monastic heart and an artist’s eye, I am confident she knows the Spirit in ways I don’t. She, too, is that solitary figure walking through the opening of the forest.
Instead of a narrative, she draws pictures. Because she is good, she draws me into the picture. So far I see forest and snow and a solitary figure walking. Maybe she has also drawn into the picture the Holy One. I have not yet seen that Spirit, but I want to stay on my journey long enough to find the burning bush. Even though it is snowy, when I come to that bush, I will take off my shoes. At that point, it will have become more than just a walk in the woods.