Thomas Merton tells us that “The living God, the God Who is God and not a philosopher’s abstraction, lies infinitely beyond the reach of anything our eyes can see or our minds can understand. No matter what perfection you predicate of Him you have to add that your concept is only a pale analogy of the perfection that is God and that He is not literally what you perceive him to be.” For many, myself included, a very close approximation or predication of God, is the natural world.
At the moment of writing, I am standing outside my hermitage at Vision of Peace. A Catholic hermitage set among the wooded hills and built into the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. The great river flows directly in front of my hermitage. Whenever I emerge from my abode in the bluff to wander in the woods, or just to sit under the eaves, I am confronted with river, trees, and sky.
Rivers serve as a constant reminder that no matter what, everything is moving, changing, living, dying. At the moment, the Mississippi is will fed with spring rains. It is sweeping and turbulent in the southward bid to relieve itself. It is very much a living thing. For the all the time I stand transfixed before it, I remind myself that, I too, am that much closer to death. I wonder though if dying while meditating upon the movement of a river, might be the closest thing to achieving authentic harmony with the universe.
Beyond the borders of the hermitage, through a long rank of cedars and across a field of fine grass, is the site of an abandoned Benedictine monastery. It was, and is, a great building of cut stone, punctuated with an enormous sloping roof that tapers off low at the corners. It is streaked with decay and crumbling back into the arms of nature.
Inside, all I find is the expected evidence of teenage debauchery, vandalism, beer cans, graffiti. Not a single unbroken pane of glass. As I survey what was once a beautiful building flowing with the spirit of God’s work, I feel a sudden sadness for whatever brought it to an end.
On the way back across the field of fine grass and through the rank of cedars, toward my hermitage, I begin to contemplate the state of the river and the state of the monastery. The river pulses with life. It replenishes and renews. It is its purpose. The Benedictine monastery is no longer life-giving. It is no longer providing an opportunity for renewal. The purposeful servants of God who once occupied it, are gone. It is death and decay. Persistent. Inevitable.
These two seemingly opposite states, the vitality and purpose of the Mississippi, and the rot and decay of the Benedictine monastery represent the human condition of faith and the struggle to remain vital, to remain purposeful in our practice, whatever it may be. The reason we run away to hermitages dug into hillsides and other wild places that ironically, are so well suited for contemplation is because it puts us in our place. The natural world reminds us that like a river, we must strive to purify ourselves. We must enter into solitude in order to chase away the decay that pervades our spirit and brings about so much confusion and suffering in the world. We must be relentless with our purpose, like a river that defines its banks.