Monday, July 14, 2008

Thomas Merton's Hermitage

Although there were moments of leisure, it was another busy and mostly full weekend. I woke up early on Saturday morning and after having some coffee and reading the morning paper, I immediately started cooking. I made some broccoli casserole for Chloe's birthday party and my famous mystery pasta salad for a picnic at the monastery on Sunday. Although Chloe's official birthday was last weekend, we didn't celebrate it until this weekend. The party was a cookout at my son's home with family members from both sides of his family. Everything was nice. The food was great and Chloe had lots of presents. My son and daughter in law are good parents and Chloe is not lacking in love. There is one new challenge to visiting my son's home. Chloe and her parents now have two dogs. One is a cute, well mannered, calm dog that is small. The other is a puppy that is already twice the size of the smaller dog and will probably double in size again before its all over. When the larger dog is brought out of the basement, it runs around like it is on crack cocaine or PCP. Remember the scene in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation where Cousin Eddie's dog is chasing the squirrel through the house? It is kind of like that. Someday this dog will make Chloe very sad when it eats her Pa Paw (me).

Yesterday I also made a trip to the monastery for a picnic. I didn't have to be there as early as usual so I was able to sleep a little later. Once I got on the road, however, it began to pour down rain. As I drove through the rain it occurred to me that people in Southern California would consider such a day as beautiful. They would love to see it pour down rain. I really didn't mind either even though part of my reason for going to the monastery was to have a picnic with some of the monks and other friends. Often when I first get to the monastery I am restless and feeling a little anxious. Arriving at the monastery can sometimes feel like slamming on your inner brakes. When you leave a life and a world where everything is rush, rush, rush, and you often have many tasks, the silence, solitude and slower pace requires a mental adjustment. I have realized over the years that when all else fails, it is best to slip into the dark and quiet Abbey church and simply sit in silence. The best way to achieve an inner quiet is to be still and silent. I sat this way for about 20 minutes until the Abbey bells pulled me from my inner still point and I realized others were sitting around me. After mass we headed up a rocky road that took us to Thomas Merton's Hermitage. It's not too far from the monastery but hidden enough have a solitary feel. For readers of Merton's many books and students of his life, this small house is a sacred space. Some of my favorite Merton books were written while Merton lived here. I have been blessed to spend two long and wonderful weekends there totally alone. Each time I am there the memories of those weekends come back to me. Yesterday was a hot and humid day. During my stays in the hermitage is was autumn and cool enough for blazing fires in the fireplace. I was as happy as anyone could be. I did some reading and meditating while I was there but much of the time I simply sat in wonder with a big smile on my face as I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery around me. I watched as the fireplace consumed many logs and I listened to the pouring rain as it fell through the trees surrounding the hermitage. If such Zen moments are not full of God, I don't know what is.

Last week someone asked me how to control unwanted thoughts. Here's a few suggestions.

It is impossible to prevent thoughts. I, too, have thoughts I don't want. They aren't invited and often they do not want to leave. Meditation doesn't prevent thoughts but it helps you to let them go. Meditation is like sitting on a riverbank and watching boats go up and down the river. The boats represent our thoughts. We can't stop the thoughts but we can let them go. In most meditation one uses a mantra. It helps us keep our focus. Continuing with the analogy of the river, the river is our mind. The surface is busy and there's lots of activity. A mantra is like an anchor. It pulls us down to the bottom of our "river" where there is stillness and calmness. Eventually we find ourselves in thought and being pulled back to the surface of the river which represents the busyness of our minds. When we become aware of thinking, we go back to the mantra so we can return to our still point. Most people recommend doing this for about 20 minutes, twice a day, usually in the morning before work and again at the end of your day, preferably before eating.

I shut my eyes in order to see.
-Paul Gauguin

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