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Not Knowing What To Say

  • February 14, 2021
  • 10:30

Sermon for 14 February 2021 (Transfiguration Sunday B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; Mark 9.2-9

Title:               Not Knowing What To Say

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say” (Mark 9.5-6).

Have you ever been in Peter’s situation? Ever been caught flat-footed and had no idea what to say?

I have! Let me tell you about it. Let’s have a little fun on this Sunday before Lent begins, in these Mardi Gras days. So let me tell you what happened when I broke into the hermitage of Thomas Merton, and was caught in the act!

It was April of 1998. We were on Easter break from the final semester of seminary and we traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to visit with my mother-in-law, Cheri Boden. This group included myself, Erin, Angus and Se’ – Fiona was not yet on the scene.

The children were 30 months and only eight months in age, respectively. If you don’t know, traveling with infants and toddlers is remarkably challenging, but I was able to slip away for one day of personal retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane. Knowing that each day with babies is uncertain, I had not made any firm plans or reservations. But I had one clear goal: I had this deep need to visit the hermitage of Thomas Merton and to pray at the desk where he sat and wrote and prayed for the last few years of his life.

I drove early one morning to the Abbey of Gethsemane, about a one hour drive due south of Louisville. It was a warm, sunny spring day and I was feeling super excited to make this minor pilgrimage. I had not had free time in years, so this day felt like a luxury!

I arrived at the monastery visitors center and approached the desk to ask for directions to Merton’s hermitage. The brother monk on duty explained to me that this was not possible. You see, the eastern half of the Abbey grounds are off-limits to visitors, while the western half is fully available for guests and visitors. Merton’s hermitage is on the eastern side of the road that divides the grounds in two, so it is not available to visitors. Well, THAT was not the answer I was looking for, so I explained to the monk my situation. I did not want to see anything else, nor was I here for a retreat. I had come all the way from Virginia to spend a few hours in Merton’s hermitage. That was all. And can you please tell me where it is?!

The brother remained firm about the fact that this side of the grounds were not open to visitors. I cannot remember what else I might have said, or what look I might have made with my face, but a remarkable thing happened after a few minutes of this back-and-forth. After looking around to make certain that no one else could hear, the brother finally said to me, “As I said, that side of the Abbey is off-limits to visitors, but IF one was to walk to the hermitage, this is how one would find it.” And he proceeded to explain the route that one could walk to the hermitage.

It was not explicit permission, but it was all I needed! I am not certain why, but I was driven by a deep need to experience this space where such an amazing mind and soul had operated a few years earlier.

Of course, I had another problem. On this lovely spring day, the monks were out for their farming and grounds-keeping errands. I had to figure out how to walk onto the private side of the Abbey without being detected! I walked around the visitors side for a bit and decided to wait until I had a clear shot to the road I needed to take.

My chance came at 11:30 AM. The Abbey bell tolled, calling the brothers in from the fields to get ready for noonday prayer, and the two monks in my way abruptly left their work and headed for the Abbey church. It was time to make my move!

I crossed the road and followed the directions offered by the brother in the visitors center. Walking briskly, but without running or acting oddly in any way, I made it to the hermitage within 10 minutes. It was not far, it was easy to find, and it was exactly as I had seen it in photos: a small, non-descript cinderblock building facing south over a small meadow.

Merton’s hermitage

The next problem? The door into the hermitage was locked. I walked around the building to look for another option. Something was driving me to keep on going, to not give up. I felt as stubborn as Elisha in today’s reading: “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I am not leaving  – until I see this place!”

I checked a window leading into the small living room. Ah – it was unlocked! It had no screen! I could open it easily. What to do now? To me, there was no choice. I had to do it. I broke into Thomas Merton’s hermitage. I climbed in through the window.

Inside the hermitage was very simple, clean and sparse. It was still used by monks to retreat for a while from the Cistercian community in which they lived, and I understand that it is still used by the monks in this way. I entered the small oratory and prayed for a while, giving thanks to God for this wonderful opportunity. It felt so good and right to be there praying exactly where this amazing man had prayed so many times before his untimely death. Then I settled into the chair in the living room and began reading a few of the books from the bookshelf in the room. What a lovely time: quiet, with warm sunshine filling the room through the large window facing south over the open meadow, reading and praying and reflecting on the life of this man who had become so important to me throughout my time at seminary.

All of this reflection and gratitude was filling my heart as I sat in that chair and gazed out the window. That is, until I noticed the golf cart coming up the dirt driveway straight toward the hermitage. NOW I had another decision to make, and it had to be done quick. Clearly, I was not authorized to be there, but it’s not like I was doing anything wrong. I could not leave out the front door, because the people on the golfcart would see me easily. I could quickly jump out the window and run away. But why? Why run and hide? The hermitage was not being used that day by anyone else, and I was using it in the same way that every other person does. So I decided to stay exactly where I was, to not move at all, and to see what happened.

When it stopped in front of the hermitage, it was clear that one of the monks was driving the golfcart. There was a passenger, a woman who appeared to be a hired worker, perhaps a cleaner. The cart carried some random supplies like paper towels and toilet paper. The monk approached the front door that was about eight feet to my right, unlocked it and entered. He immediately saw me and froze. I felt like Peter with the Lord on that mountaintop, not knowing what to say, so I spoke first and said “Good afternoon!”, in a cheerful voice. After all, I WAS having a beautiful spiritual time in that place!

“Who are you? What are you doing?” he asked.

“My name is Nathan. I am just spending a few hours here, reading and praying. I will leave soon.”

He asked me, “How did you get in? Was the door open?” After all, he had just unlocked the door!

This was the one time that I was not entirely honest. I’ll admit that climbing in through the window sounds a bit like breaking in, which tends to be a criminal activity. I did not want him to think of me as a criminal, and my conscience was clear that I was doing no harm. I did not want to lie, but I also did not want to volunteer too much information.

SO I replied vaguely and said, “No, I found a way,” still sitting and smiling.

Standing there just inside the door, the brother looked around the room. In that moment, he evidently decided that I was not a danger nor a threat. But he did notice the open window to his left through which I had entered that space. So he said to me, “OK, just make sure to close the windows when you leave.”

“Absolutely, I will do that,” I said.

He proceeded to carry some supplies into the kitchen, while the woman stayed out in the golfcart. And he paused at the door before leaving and said to me, “Good bye.”

And I replied, “Thank you. Good bye!” He closed the door and they drove off back down the dirt road by which they had come.

What a relief! And I must say I feel certain that this is precisely what Merton would have done had he been in my shoes that day.

I spent another hour or two hanging out in the hermitage, giving thanks to God and praying for wisdom and insight. Flowers were blooming throughout the meadows of the Abbey grounds and birds were singing – it was glorious.

When it felt like time to go, I closed the windows and pulled the door shut behind me. But I did not follow the same dirt driveway back toward the monastery by which I had arrived. Let’s just say that I was not looking for any more potential confrontations. So I walked through the woods and meadows straight west to the county road, avoiding places where I might run into the brothers. It was an easy walk from there back to the parking lot in the spring sunshine.

Sometimes it is okay to be stubborn like Elisha.

Sometimes you just have to follow your gut, and stand your ground. When you are convinced it is the right thing to do, when you know it is the Voice of God speaking to you, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else, stick to it! See it through.

And the God of peace will be with you. Amen.

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