In the Chapter Room

photo by wallyg

“The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things,” writes Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude.  “In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror nor for shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.”

When you are thinking of bicycles, you see bicycles everywhere.  Contemplating Parabola’s latest theme, “Alone and Together,” I find fresh evidence of the interplay between solitude and community everywhere.  I visited The Cloisters with my daughter Alex and her boyfriend Anthony.  Set on a hilltop with sweeping views of the Hudson River, The Cloisters is not just a museum of medieval art, it actually is a medieval cloister transported here from France.

Merton writes of it in The Seven Storey Mountain, the iconic memoir of his spiritual journey. Merton opens the book by saying that he was born in the shadow of some French mountains. “There were many ruined monasteries in those mountains,” he writes “My mind goes back with great reverence to the thought of those clean, ancient stone cloisters, those low and mighty rounded arches hewn and set in place by monks who have perhaps prayed me where I now am…”

And many momentous years later, after he lost his father and mother, after he went to private school and Cambridge University, and then on to Columbia University in New York, Merton encountered one of those ancient cloisters again…in the upper reaches of Manhattan.  Can you imagine?  He found himself at Columbia, in what I’ve heard called upstate Manhattan.  Under his friendliness and activity, he was lonely and searching.  And as he began to turn towards the contemplative path, as he began to turn towards the inner path—he found a monastery from the innermost layers of memory—literally relocated in time and place.  Can you imagine the proverbial mountain coming for you?

“One of [the cloisters], stone by stone, followed me across the Atlantic a score of years later, and got itself set up within convenient reach of me when I most needed to see what a cloister looked like, and what kind of place a man might live in, to live according to his rational nature, and not like a stray dog.  St. Michel-de-Cuxa is all fixed up in a special and considerably tidy little museum in an uptown park in New York, overlooking the Hudson River, in such a way that you don’t recall what kind of city you are in.  It is called The Cloisters.  Synthetic as it is, it still preserves enough of its own reality to be a reproach to everything else around it, except the trees and the Palisades (the lofty steep cliffs along the Hudson).”

I sat in the cool depths of the Chapter House. With Alex’s firm encouragement (understandably, she and Anthony wanted to drift through the garden and among the treasures without Mom on their heels), I sat for a long while in a twelfth-century enclosure where monks gathered for daily readings of the Rule of St. Bendict, the rules of their order—the most famous of which is about welcoming guests as if they were a manifesting divine.  I felt welcomed, and more.  The stones communicated something to me on a “preverbal”—possibly even a “post-verbal” level.

“True communication on the deepest level is more than a simple sharing of ideas, of conceptual knowledge, or formulated truth,” writes Merton in a talk he once planned.  “The kind of communication that is necessary on this level must also be ‘communion’ beyond the level of words….”

For a little while, sitting in the Chapter Room, I experienced The Cloisters not as a tourist but as a pilgrim.  I felt a presence or vibration in the stones around me.  It felt like I was being helped by the efforts of others in the past who tried to cultivate an awareness beyond ordinary words and knowledge—who tried to open to what is new, to welcome whomever and whatever arrives as a manifestation of the divine.

Eventually, Alex and Anthony arrived. I described my sense that the stones communicated something.  Alex is used to this sort statement from me.  But Anthony, who studies theoretical physics and math in graduate school at Princeton, looked doubtful.  No matter.  I know that he understands that nothing is solid and separate in his own way.  I know that we are made up of energies that too quick and subtle to perceive.

Except, I find that we can sense this great mystery with these very bodies, hearts, and minds. Sometimes when we are very still, there can be a subtle movement of availability and we can receive something extraordinary that is being offered, radiated.  Sitting at The Cloisters the other day, I glimpsed that reality—a finer level reality—is not something chilly and abstract.  It really does come “clothed in the friendly communion of silence.”


4 thoughts on “In the Chapter Room

  1. First and only book I have ever read by Thomas Merton “Thoughts in Solitude” was the title that caught my eye plus the fact that he was a monastic.., something I often thought about for the last 20+yrs..;.only not as a Christian but as a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition…until I recently found out that this particular tradition or lineage poo poo’s those over 50 from ordaining and from the monastic life.

    Anyway, I so enjoyed “Thoughts in Solitude”….and Merton’s contemplative journey. Looking forward to the most popular ” The Seven Storey Mountain”…

    Just discovered your musings Tracy…and also look forward to browsing them ! _/_

    Jude Worth

    1. Glad you discovered these musings, Jude. Thanks for writing. I’ve also had the thought of going a being a monastic in either a Buddhist or Christian tradition–it seemed like a really wonderful retirement plan, to literally retire from the world. And I also discovered they have age limits, possibly to stop people from using it as “Retirement Plan B.”

      1. Of course lay life and familial commitments have prevented me from exploring the monastic life…and it wasn’t until I entered into a serious and in depth research that depending on one’s Buddhist tradition (not sure about other spiritual or religious paths) and or lineages, that there apparently is a cap or age restriction in ordaining and becoming a monastic. In the Mahayana tradition, I have found the age restriction to be present with the Tibetan tradition. Also in the Theravada they seem to frown on the “older crowd”. Thus far, it seems there is no age restriction within the Zen tradition. Seems a shame to have to become a switch hitter when one has been playing for so long on the another team…but be that as it may, I may need decide to put on a different uniform. Meditation for thought…or non-thought ?

        Seems to me that a monastery or sect would welcome one who’s prior commitments have exhausted…who comes with no debt (a requirement), kids are all grown (I have none) and self sufficient, and one who has petty much lived a good life and is ready to commit to the Dharma (of whichever road one chooses) but no…. robes before age.
        Some of the reasoning presented to me was that since most all monasteries are self supported, your room, board, and health care are covered…so they don’t want to worry about caring for you so soon… Won’t the younger nuns eventually all need medical care or assistance on one level or another down the line ? Are they expecting them to leave prior to becoming a senior ? Seems to me, and this was my argument that apparently went out the window, that if one had already spent a lifetime outside of the monastery walls, working, then one would come with medicare & social security therefore not needing to lean on monastery funds… Anyway, I too thought once retirement came upon me, how divine to be able to dedicate the remainder of life in a serene setting, free from outside distractions…perhaps bringing some of my outside lay skills (gardening, cooking, administration, writing news letters, etc…) along with me. Living the undistracted contemplative life ! Delicious no ?

        When I relocated from NYC to California, I discovered that Mount Shasta Abbey, a Soto Zen based monastery in Northern California, had no age restrictions. One just needs to pass a physical. Once all my lay life commitments are exhausted, one neva knows….do one ? Outside of this, one is always free to sign up for UP to a 3yr retreat…or build your own secluded cabin. Ha !

        It was a truly interesting research…disappointing, but interesting nonetheless. Currently I am reading “Dignity & Discipline”…Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns… a Deep but fascinating read.

        Thanks for commenting !


      2. Hi Jude, What fascinating research! We may meet someday at Mt. Shasta. You make an interesting point, about older people having their own medical care and means of support. Actually, you inspire me to see that monasteries really could support this ancient tradition–of moving from householder to seeker of truth. Why not? The monasteries could be enriched by the wisdom and the means of world-seasoned elders?

        In the meantime, perhaps I’ll do a 3 year retreat someday…far from now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.