We all would like to think we have a purpose. Put more truthfully, we all would like to have a clear purpose that we do not have to question or worry over. I think that the reason I am thinking this thought is because I’m reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a spiritual autobiography, written long ago in a different time, but compelling in its confessional seriousness. Thomas Merton’s vocation was to leave the world and become a monk in a monastery. “Leaving the world” is his terminology. To have a religious vocation as a monk is to leave the world. This idea is foreign to me, a Jew, who does not think the world is a place to leave in order to be religious, but a place in which to celebrate life, truly a different perspective.* At the same time, though, I envy him his certainty, which brings me to what I want to say about my experience today.
I began with a walk towards public transit in order to go to a daylong retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I took the scenic route to BART (rapid transit) through City College. Midway through the campus, a man in a car pulled up to ask me a question;
“Do you know where the gym is? I’m trying to get to the gym.” I told him where the gym was and kept walking, including walking through the building where the gym was. I could hear the crowd gathered for a basketball game and was reassured that I had given him good directions. I made it to Redwood City, though I almost missed my stop because I was so immersed in Merton’s book. I sat in the meditation hall for 40 minutes and began to swell up as I always seem to do when I sit to meditate. My fingers get painfully swollen and I think that I’m doing an activity that is not healthy for me. I went to lunch and began to go back for the rest of the day’s activities – sitting meditation alternating with walking meditation – and it occurred to me that I would rather read and spend time with my husband than sit and swell in a meditation hall. I called Al, my husband, and made plans, walked to the train, got off at the BART station closest to my house, and, again, walked through City College. I was listening to a beautiful rendition of Salve Regina, sung by Benedictine monks, thinking that it would be great to use the beautiful melody and write alternative words, since the meaning of the Latin words doesn’t resonate for me in the way they are intended. We humanistic Jews do this with Jewish prayers as well. Why not this song? As I listened someone was trying to get my attention. She was driving a truck and was asking me where the gym was. I told her; this time I was quite sure about where it was.
So, what am I meant to do? Apparently, today I was meant to tell people where the gym is in City College. Tomorrow, who knows?
*Note: Paradoxically, if you read about Merton’s experiences working in the fields at Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, it is hard to believe he has left the world: “How sweet it is, out in the fields, at the end of the long summer afternoons! The sun is no longer raging at you, and the woods are beginning to throw long blue shadows over the stubble fields where the golden shocks are standing. The sky is cool, and you can see the pale half-moon smiling over the monastery in the distance. Perhaps a clean smell of pine comes down to you, out of the woods, on the breeze, and mingles with the richness of the fields and of the harvest. And when the undermaster claps his hands for the end of work, and you drop your arms and take off your hat to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, in the stillness you realize how the whole valley is alive with the singing of crickets, a constant universal treble going up to God out of the fields, rising like the incense of an evening prayer to the pure sky: laus perennis!”
Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 432). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.