I have had the occasion to be back at Gethsemani, the monastery where my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, lived until his untimely death in 1968. I like going to monasteries, which may be a bit strange for a guy who grew up a Quaker. As a kid, if you had asked me what a monastery was, I am sure there would only have been a blank stare. I am confident I did not meet a monk until I was in graduate school.
Of course, in school most of us read about monks. Many of them were involved in making history, especially during the medieval period. Meeting a monk or two helped me begin to develop an appreciation for not only them as people, but for their way of life. It really is foreign to the way I grew up and from the way of life of the people who taught me about religion. In my early formative days it was still pre-Vatican II, so the Catholic Church was off limits.
Then I began to develop a fascination with the monastic tradition. Monks were more than merely a curiosity factor. I came to appreciate their calling, their discipline and dedication. More than most people I knew, they lived their faith in impressive ways. Of course, it is easy to idealize something when you don’t know anything about it. But I did come to learn a great deal about the monastic life. Surely one of my good teachers was Thomas Merton. And I never met him.
Gethsemani is an impressive place. There is a relatively small community of about forty monks there now. In Merton’s heyday in the 50s and 60s, there would have been some two hundred fifty. And other monks left Gethsemani to form daughter houses. I wish I could have known Gethsemani in those heady days.
When you come around a corner of one of those Kentucky hills, Gethsemani suddenly looms in all its majesty. Every time I go there, I am struck by how big it is. Above the apse, where the altar is found, looms a tall tower. The nave, where the worshippers gather has rather high ceilings. But outside, it is the tower that dominates the majesty of the building. And that is precisely what the tower symbolizes for me: majesty.
Ironically, I like to think about the monks as majestic. I am sure there would be guffaws of laughter if they heard me claim this for them. The monks at Gethsemani take three vows: obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic life (mainly a commitment to stay in one place and develop spiritually). In other words, at Gethsemani the monks agree to abide under the tower until they die.
I would like to think the tower symbolizes the heights to which they grow spiritually. Why not aspire to great things, when you sign on for life! They sky is the limit. But this aspirational spiritual growth should never lead to pride or arrogance. In fact, the Rule of St. Benedict spends more time talking about humility than any other single thing---more irony!
I am challenged by the tower of Gethsemani---the literal and figurative tower. I have a tower on top of my building at the university. Other than signaling that this is my building, I don’t know that it symbolizes much else. It is interesting architecture, but that is about all.
I am going to adopt Gethsemani’s tower for my own personal, aspirational desire for spiritual growth and development. My spirit desires to be stretched and pulled upward. Too easily I settle for too little. Even a flat-lander like me can have an imposing tower to challenge.
The other feature of life at Gethsemani is power. Perhaps, it is simply because I am a visitor. But I experience monastic power every time I go there. Now I do not think being a monk is any more noble than being spiritual in any other context. However, they have made a commitment, a promise and intention to become empowered by the Spirit. Again, they do it humbly. Monastic power is not gaudy or off-putting. Some folks would simply say they are comfortable in their own skin.
Monastic power is unlike the kind of power we tend to see outside the monastery. Of course, they are not perfect. Monasteries can be political. Many people join a monastery, only to find out that way of life is not for them, and then they leave. But when the monastery has done its spiritual development, you will see a man or woman with incredible power.
Monastic power is power to make a difference. On the surface a monk seems utterly useless. Beneath the surface, monastic power can be a difference maker. But finally, it is not monastic power. It is the Spirit who is Power that has taken up abode in the monk.
You and I can have that same kind of Spirit-presence. We can become a tower of strength, people of power capable of making a huge difference in the world. Let’s go.