(Note: 9.29.15 – There’s a renewed interest in Thomas Merton following Pope Francis’ speech before congress last week. He was even trending on Facebook. My own relationship with Merton began several years ago during a silent retreat in Nashville. I wrote about the experience for a literary magazine that, unfortunately, folded before they could publish it. Since it never saw the light of day, I thought this might be a good time to post it and share it on my own. Hope you enjoy.)
As a Leonard Cohen fan, I took it as a sign when Sister Suzanne, from the Sisters of Mercy, returned my email.
I’d written earlier that week with an inquiry about the retreat she hosted at the Mercy Convent, a place for contemplation ironically positioned within earshot of Opryland and the Opry Mills mall in Nashville. I already had some idea, having grown up around nuns in Jersey City at my alma mater, St. Nicholas Grammar School.
“Mostly time and space for prayer,” she’d replied.
I needed that time and space. Divorced only a few months after a long, drawn out and contentious separation, I was starting my life over, and a weekend in silent contemplation seemed the perfect way to do it.
It was cold on that Friday morning in February — in the mid 30s — when I set out on my bike from my West Nashville apartment to the convent. I had retrofitted my Bianchi Eros road bike with a rear rack and stuffed everything I needed into a trunk bag with attached panniers. It wasn’t much. A pair of jeans, a couple of shirts, shoes, underwear, a notebook, rosary beads and a book of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina’s letters. Still, it weighed me down. Keeping the bike balanced at the red lights on Charlotte Pike heading east proved cumbersome, as did getting up off my saddle to climb hills. So I learned how to clip into my pedals while still seated. I took my time, watching out for the occasional patches of ice still on the ground from the recent and rare Nashville snowfall. I considered the mindfulness good preparation for the weekend.
I arrived before any of the other retreatants — how many were attending I didn’t know — and was greeted by Sister Suzanne. I felt a little awkward at first in my tight-fitting bike kit, but I quickly became comfortable, especially when Sister Suzanne told me there was another gentleman who sometimes rides to the convent.
I told Sister Suzanne I found it wonderful that her name was Suzanne, like the title of the Leonard Cohen song, and that she was a Sister of Mercy, like the title of another Cohen song. I figured it was like women named Allison with the Elvis Costello song, or Gloria and Van Morrison. Or better yet, Mary and the entire Springsteen canon. Surely she knew the songs. But she didn’t, and I realized that Cohen was still a bit obscure, regardless of how many people covered his song, “Hallelujah,” on American Idol. Or that maybe Sister Suzanne had dedicated her life to ambitions loftier than knowing the music of Canadian singer-songwriters from the late 60s. She’d been busy feeding the hungry and ministering to the poor.
My room was sparse. Just a bed, a dresser, a chair, a night table and small bathroom. I set out my belongings, sat down, took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to do with myself.
When I was younger, I independently studied Buddhism and practiced mindfulness meditation. I was out of practice, but could still manage to wrangle and dismiss the thoughts flying through my mind, thirty to forty-five minutes at a time. I was prepared to mix Eastern and Western practices, including walking mediation, during the weekend. To devote this time, a stone’s throw from the rampant consumerism of Opry Mills, where silence is in short supply, felt almost subversive.
A half dozen other retreatants eventually arrived. I kept my head up in the hallway, ready to acknowledge a fellow traveler. We were all here for a reason, I assumed: in search of something. When a cyclist passes another cyclist coming toward them on the road, it’s considered good form to wave or nod hello. Motorcyclists do the same thing, by flashing a two-finger, upside-down peace sign, to signal, “two wheels.” I figured people on a retreat did something similar. I quickly learned that looking down and appearing in anguish was the thing.
In between meditation and prayer, and walking around the grounds of the convent counting my steps to the hum of Briley Parkway in the distance, I found the library. There was a young women in there, and we ignored each other. I was learning.
What was I searching for? Mostly, I needed to know I was all right. That I was a good person. That I had tried my best. That I could get through what happened, and what was still happening, and come out on the other side.
I found Thomas Merton on the shelves. Merton was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky near Bardstown, about 150 miles north of Nashville. He was a Catholic writer and mystic, and while I knew of him, I had never read him. I chose Life and Holiness. With a blank journal to capture those passages that struck me, Merton became my confidante for the weekend.
“The way of perfection is not a way of escape,” he wrote and I copied. “We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their handicaps and limitation, and submitting ourselves to the transforming action of the savior.”
When the artist Salvador Dalí returned to Catholicism in the 1940s, late in his career, he referred to himself as a Catholic without faith. I understand a little of what Dalí was suggesting. I’m devout, but I’m not sure I believe in the “transforming action of the savior” that Merton is referring to, though I think I understand what the mystic means when he writes that “the Christian way of perfection is then, in every sense a way of life, of gratitude, of trust in God.” Maybe that’s where that elusive transformation hides.
On the final day, after a morning mass, we were given an opportunity to meet with a Sister to talk about our experience at the retreat. At some point, joy had broken through my pain, and I told her so. There was much that had happened in the last few years that I could not control, and still more that I could not beat myself up about anymore. The retreat had brought that to light. I was going to be all right. She asked me if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. I asked her what she meant. She told me to spend time with his words and listen. I told her I’d been spending time with Merton.
I suited up in my bike kit, and stuffed all my belongings back into my trunk bag. It remained cold outside, and there was still ice on the ground, but the bike felt lighter and easier to manage. The 30 mile ride back to West Nashville, down Pennington Bend and McGavock Pike, along the Stones River and Shelby Bottom Greenways, across the Cumberland River, through Downtown Nashville and west up Charlotte Pike, was one of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever taken. I was gone only three days, but it felt like my city had changed.
In his song, “Sisters of Mercy,” Cohen sings, “The Sisters of Mercy, they are not departed or gone. They were waiting for me when I felt that I could not go on. I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.”