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Merton Revisited

By       Message Chris Welzenbach     Permalink
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Residents who cannot sleep orbit the back yard, smoking cigarettes and craning up at the sky. This night two of them wander between the bike rack and a newly planted apple tree.

Dozens of men reside at the homeless shelter. When all the bunks are taken, additional room can be found on the chapel floor. There is a waiting list to get in. Many of those who find sanctuary here have drug- or alcohol-dependency issues. Forty-three percent are military veterans (compared to eleven percent of the US adult population), many of whom suffer PTSD. A handful are elderly but most are middle-aged. All have hit a wall.

Residents at the shelter are required to pay a nominal fee to cover food and other expenses. About eighty percent are employed. Others receive SSI or military-disability payments. Those who cannot afford to pay perform chores.

An all-male enclave, the shelter bears more than a passing resemblance to a monastery. This among other reasons has led me after an interregnum of many years back to the writings of Thomas Merton.

As the sixties recede into the past, that crucial decade is increasingly memorialized hieroglyphically through peace signs and doofy lettering, rock posters and frantic images caught on celluloid. Icons such as Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson dominate discussions of substance, with race riots and the moon landing serving as backdrop. Andy Warhol and the Beatles may have captured the spirit of that incandescent age but mention is rarely made anymore of a Cistercian monk called Brother Louis who, writing under his birth name of Thomas Merton, provided spiritual ballast for a fabulous and rebellious generation.

Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky in 1941. He had formerly been a graduate student in English at Columbia University, where he became inspired by the life of Gerald Manley Hopkins and considered becoming a priest before entering the Cistercian Order.

Cistercians--also called Trappists--are known for their strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. At the homeless shelter things are not quite so rigid. Rather than matins, vespers, compline et al., there's breakfast at 6:15 a.m., lunch at a quarter after twelve, and dinner at 6:00 p.m. When it comes to cleanliness, however, both communities share an abhorrence of dirt and disorder. Brother Louis as a novitiate was given the task of scrubbing floors. Our homeless shelter gleams. Contemplation is the guiding principle of the Cistercian Order. At the shelter finding one's own crib is the principal motivation, though a room has been set aside for meditation.

Merton wasn't merely a monk but the author of seventy books who supported civil rights and opposed nuclear weapons and emerged as the conscience of the counter culture. Sequestered in a hermitage at Gethesemani, Merton received visitors such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (this at the height of the War in Vietnam).

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Our shelter isn't merely sanctuary for those discarded by society, but a microcosm of that very society. That so many at our shelter hold down jobs is no condemnation of our residents or of the place they temporarily call home.

In each enclave spirituality has magnified importance. Those who have run through their emotional, physical, and financial currency are in need not only of a confessor but of a purpose larger than themselves. Merton's withdrawal from the secular world was a voluntary act. Residents at the shelter have been driven there by cold impersonal forces that govern a heartless and immoral society. Merton sought the structure of monastically regimented contemplation. Many of our residents are products of violently unstructured environments, failed by family and school and the larger community.

Walking the corridors of the shelter late at night calls to mind Thomas Merton's seminal essay, Fire Watch July 4, 1952, wherein Brother Louis patrols the Abbey of Gethsemani while the other monks sleep. Each night a different monk is assigned this task, ready raise the alarm in case of a fire or some other emergency. At each stop over the course of his rounds, Brother Louis is required to punch a clock. Each such occasion mirrors a station of the cross.

Eight thirty. I begin my round, in the cellar of the south wing. The place is full of naked wires, stinks of the hides of slaughtered calves. My feet are walking on a floor of earth, down a long catacomb, at the end of which there is a brand-new locked door into the guest wing that was only finished the other day. So I punch the clock for the first time in the catacomb, I turn my back on the new wing, and the fire watch is on.

[Cunningham, Lawrence S., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, The Essential Writings, Edited with an Introduction by Lawrence S. Cunningham, Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1992, page 109]

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Residents at the shelter sleep on steel bunks, twelve to a room. The rooms are not very big. Some of the residents screen off their bunks with clothes or towels to create an illusion of privacy. Those suffering depression spend long hours in bed. Others find sleep difficult and spend much of the night reading in the meditation room. Some work the third shift and sleep during the day. For those troubled by snoring, we dispense ear plugs.

Perhaps the dormitory of the choir monks is the longest room in Kentucky. Long lines of cubicles with thin partitions a little over six feet high, shirts and robes and scapulars hang over the partitions trying to dry in the night air. Extra cells have been jammed along the walls between the windows. In each one lies a monk on a straw mattress. One pale bulb burns in the middle of the room. The ends are shrouded in shadows. I make my way softly past cell after cell. I know which cells have snorers in them. [Ibid. at page 116]

A modern structure, the shelter has heat sensors and smoke detectors and a sprinkler system. Fire is less of a concern, but some of the residents have chronic health issues and must be monitored constantly and so I regularly patrol the corridors. Night here is not a time of rest but an anxious troubling pause, when residents sometimes raid the kitchen for a peanut-butter sandwich or a scoop of cottage cheese. Night is when the world is briefly on hold.

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I'm a playwright formerly with Walkabout Theater in Chicago who presently works at a homeless shelter in Rock Island, Illinois.

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Merton Revisited