Academic journal article Cithara

Awakening in the Garden: Thomas Merton's Discovery of Paradise *

Academic journal article Cithara

Awakening in the Garden: Thomas Merton's Discovery of Paradise *

Article excerpt

Tell me the landscape in which you live And I will tell you who you are.

-Ortega y Gasset

In the Christian Bible, the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane are places of both sorrow and grace. Eden, according to Genesis, recedes into the background with the ejection of Adam and Eve, yet with a promise of future restoration; Gethsemane forms the landscape for the initial events of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ-ritually reenacted each Holy Week and symbolically recalled in each Catholic Mass.

In 1848, the monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance- Trappists, for short-came from Melleray, France to the center of America, a few miles southwest of Bardstown, Kentucky to establish a new daughter house, Our Lady of Gethsemani. This enclosed monastic garden, the oldest and largest in the western world, which traces its history to the early desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century, was a place of prayer, silence, mortification, and penance. The austerity of Trappist life was accepted as a valid way of giving one's entire life to God. The horarium of the monastery shaped men's lives for a spiritual purpose: the love and praise of God. Each monk was expected to bloom where he was planted and, through a daily regiment of prayer, silence, manual labor, and fasting, to win salvation for his soul and grace for the world. Into this monastic garden on December 10, 1941, came Thomas Merton.

Bom in Prades, France in 1915 and orphaned by the time he was sixteen, Thomas Merton struggled to discover his identity and find a permanent home. As a young boy schooled in France and England, he acquired the reputation of being "something of a rebel."1 Having indulged in loose living during an academic year at Clare College, Cambridge, Merton was recalled to his grandparents' home near New York City, where he attended Columbia University and continued his habit of keeping late hours, drinking beer, and listening to jazz. While earning a master's degree in English literature, Merton was an avid and eclectic reader: the poetry of William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aldous Huxley's Ways and Means, and Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. On impulse, he took instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, and was received into the church on November 16, 1938. Shortly thereafter, while teaching literature at Saint Bonaventure College (now University), he made a retreat at the Trappist Abbey in Kentucky-a week that changed his life. Attracted to the monks' austere life of prayer, silence, and labor, Thomas Merton, less than a year later at age 26, entered the Trappist community. There he remained for the next 27 years until his tragic and accidental death on December 10, 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand. Thomas Merton's life resembles the story of the garden-the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane. His life illustrates the paradox of death transformed into life, the paradox of the desert of rejection and alienation blooming into a garden of compassion.

As a young monk, Merton expected to learn how to pray, how to discipline his senses, how to develop interior silence, and how to bend his will in obedience to the Abbot, God's representative on earth. What Merton could not have anticipated were the surprising fruits cultivated in him by the Divine Gardener. His personal journals reveal the multiple ways in which God led him to greater depths of contemplation, and inspired him, through his published books and essays, to encourage millions of people to deepen their own spirituality. What is most striking to me in Merton's journals is the way in which gardens-both the cultivated gardens of the monastery and the wild, fecund, and often pristine vegetation of the surrounding wilderness-were a significant influence on his spiritual development, helping to make Thomas Merton the best-known spiritual writer of the twentieth century. This essay will examine several phases of Merton's understanding of "the garden," noting his initial attraction to nature, his delight in being part of God's cosmic garden, his awakening sense of dwelling in unspeakable Paradise, his contemplative discovery of the Paradise within, and his responsibility to tend God's garden. …

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