A Storyby Austin Smith
Merton woke to the sound of rain, lay listening to it falling in torrents on the tin roof of the hermitage, but he knew that it was quieter in the woods, on the tender April leaves, and that it was only the resistance it was meeting in something manmade that made the sound seem violent. He had had a strange dream that he struggled to recall, and finally he gave up trying, knowing that it might come to him later, obliquely, like a stray.
He was supposed to go to Pleasant Hill today with his friend Donald Allchin, who should have arrived at the monastery sometime in the night from New York, traveling with a young seminarian whose name Merton didn’t know. But the rain would make their planned visit to the Shaker village difficult. He felt a sudden desire to see no one, to spend the day in solitude, reading and listening to the rain. He’d been asked to write a review on Joyce, and since the books’ arrival, wrapped up neatly by a secretary in New York, he’d been enthralled, lost in Joyce’s magical lexicon. He recalled reading “The Dead” as an undergrad at Columbia and cherished the thought of rereading the ending passage about the snow falling all over Ireland.
But he’d promised to take Donald to the Shaker village and looked forward to showing his friend the Shakers’ beautiful (all the more so for being futile) attempt to realize their vision of Paradise on earth. Afterward he and Don would go to a restaurant, have a few beers, and enjoy the world Merton had left behind for the monastery. He’d watch the young waitresses, eavesdrop on conversations, and by the end of the night he’d be sick of it all, regretting having left the hermitage. But if he stayed and the rain cleared later in the morning, he’d regret not going.
He started water boiling for coffee and went into the little room where he kept his shrine. For all his desire to leave the monastery and find deeper solitude in the mountains of California or Alaska, or travel deep into Asia to experience Buddhism firsthand rather than just studying it, he always felt when he knelt before this altar that there was nothing he needed beyond this hermitage, and regretted his tendency to desire more than what God had already given him.
Slowly, casually, with the practiced motions of a ballerina warming up, he made the solemn gestures, whispered the solemn words. Oftentimes he would say Mass and be struck by no extraordinary feelings. But other times he would be struck anew by the beauty and strangeness of some phrase he’d uttered countless times. This morning, it was this:
“Behold, the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
It was always strange to hear his own voice out here in the hermitage, so accustomed was he to the silence he had vowed to keep when he became a Trappist almost twenty years earlier. He took the Eucharist, closing his eyes as he ate and drank. The kettle wailed, and he hurried to turn the burner off so as not to corrupt the morning silence, soft with rain. Seated in the open doorway, he drank strong coffee and reached to catch the drops falling from the eaves. He whispered some lines of Yeats: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning. . . .”
I should read Yeats again, he thought. Somehow so little time.
He roused himself and put on his town clothes: jeans, a flannel shirt, a denim jacket, a baseball cap, and an old green parka he’d found in a falling-down hunting shack on the monastery property. No one in town would take him for a Trappist monk with vows of chastity and sobriety, just as, out here, no one took him for a lapsed bohemian who played jazz records and danced naked. Merton was adept at moving through the world in disguise.