Recently I spoke to a group of people who are interested in Thomas Merton, the late 20th century Trappist monk. I have referenced Merton a number of times, so it is obvious that I like to read his writings. As noted before, Merton lived in a monastery, Gethsemani, in the rolling hills of Kentucky. When I teach an upper level seminar, it is usually on Merton’s spirituality. Although Merton died tragically in 1968, interest in him and his spirituality continues in remarkable ways.
It is always easy to speak to a group that is inherently interested in the topic you address. They give you the benefit of the doubt. Typically, they assume you were much better than you probably were! But that’s ok; I would rather be told good things than bad things! Most people would, I assume.
So when the evening was finished, the Catholic nun who had invited me and had served as the host for the event handed me a little bag. I certainly appreciated the gesture and headed to my car. I expected there was a little something in the bag, which expressed the group’s gratitude that I would prepare some remarks and spend an evening sharing those. I was happy to do it. I appreciate small gestures. In ministry one should never expect to be paid money and I am ok with that.
I did not even open the bag until the next day. I found three things inside. The first thing I pulled out was an envelope. Clearly it was carefully crafted. I know the nun is an artist, so it was apparent that I was holding her handiwork. It makes Hallmark cards look store-boughten!
I opened the handcrafted card inside only to find some money! So the joke was on me. I had been paid by a nun to come and speak about a monk! The irony is too funny; sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
The second thing I pulled out of the bag was a lovely, small rosary. Now that is a great gift for a Quaker! Never in my life have I received a rosary. Most Quakers would have no clue what to do with one, if he or she were given one. No doubt, most of us would think it were a necklace or bracelet! So again, the joke is on me. I love it.
The third gift was a small stack of thank you cards. Again, my nun-artist-friend’s handiwork was evident. Each card has a drawing and some words from Thomas Merton. These cards will be a gracious way for me to extend the generosity of the group that allowed me to come and speak.
I began to thumb through the little stack and stopped to pull out one card. The drawing is a bushy tree with some birds in the top. The background is a yellowy orange and looks like a morning sky to me. And then I noticed the expected words of Merton. But I was pleasantly startled to see also some words from Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian, and one of Merton’s heroes. Let me share those words. These words from the two powerfully spiritual men of the Christian tradition were a wonderful thank you for what I thought would be simply an “ok” evening.
Merton’s words say, “No writing on the solitary meditative dimension of life can say anything that has not already been said better by wind in the pine.” Clearly, this is both a call and a reminder that nature is a source of revelation about spiritual things. With ears to hear, we indeed can discern nature “speaking.” This reminds me again to pay attention. Every day as I leave my condo, I step out into nature. Unless it is lousy weather, I normally just take it for granted. If the weather is lousy, I become grumpy. I want to learn to pay attention. I desire to hear the Voice of God in the sounds of silence.
The words of Bernard of Clairvaux strike the same nature theme. Bernard tells us that “More things are learnt in the woods than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere.” What a powerful message…what a beautiful thank you. The money I received pales in comparison to the beauty of the gift. Because what the nun had done was to give me the gift again of nature.
She reminded me again that we are always right in the middle of it. Nature is both the womb and the crucible of our spiritual birth and creativity. We are always in it; we simply need to pay attention.
It sounds so easy…and maybe it is, if we pay attention. But the world I create for myself is more often tomb, than womb. It is deadly. I needed a wake-up call. I thought I was going to do something for a group. And I did. But I got more in return. I got a beautiful thank you!