Nine years ago I walked away from my life for a few weeks in search of my next life. I was sure something new was coming, but didn’t know what. Soon after that I actually walked away.
Hurricane Katrina was over, but the effects were in us and all around us. I was beginning to feel led to gather people together to be in God’s presence. I was tired, overwhelmed, and needing to let go of the mission of being a listener to people’s problems all day every day.
I was sensing a new mission. I was needing a new mission, one that was life-giving. One that involved groups of people gathering to be in God.
On a cold November morning I drove from Nashville to Gethsemane Abbey with my dad. I wanted to see the place where Thomas Merton had lived and called the world to a contemplative life. I wanted to be near the first author who had called me to this life.
We parked the car and wandered over to the sanctuary to watch the monks chanting the psalms in a sparse space with a high vaulted ceiling and little heat. We found a cement gate that led to a garden with the words “God alone” over the entrance.
We walked over to the dormitories where people stayed for retreats. We found the gift shop and book store and I bought two pieces of pottery with the phrases “God alone” and “Be still and know” on them. Up to that point I guess we were a couple of tourists, onlookers doing what watchers do.
But I wasn’t there to be a tourist looking at monks, or gardens, or pottery. Only after those moments did I know what I was there for.
I was there to walk where Thomas Merton had walked. And I was there to make a vow with God.
I left my dad and walked across an empty field and up a small hill. The chilly wind blew through my jacket, which was invigorating, but I knew I couldn’t stay out there for long.
I felt a bit silly at first, wondering why I had really come. What was I looking for? Then something prompted me to speak to Thomas Merton, or God, or both. Inside my head, or heart, I made a vow that went something like this: “I will do whatever you say to live a life in Your presence, and to share this life with others.”
That was the gist of what was spoken within me. The words were not clear, but I knew in that moment that I was called to a life of prayer for the world. I was saying yes to my new life and mission. I hoped that more would be revealed in time.
Nine years later we have an actual School for Contemplative Living, a monastery without walls supporting this contemplative life with groups of people all over New Orleans. And it seems like I am just getting started as a contemplative missionary.
There are other places where people need support and guidance for living this life. I am sure of this. There can be no doubt of my mission to create contemplative communities. And I feel willing and ready to honor that mumbling of a vow on a cold and lonely hill at Gethsemane Abbey in November of 2006.
May this mission bear more fruit as a vow from nine years ago becomes a reality again today.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. The picture above is of our friend Father Ephrem Arcement, PhD, a monk at St. Joseph Abbey.