Advent formed Thomas Merton’s life of prayer. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Advent, December 10, 1941. He died on the same date in 1968. Advent was his life’s most poignant liturgical season; he waited for the gradual gestation of Christ in his life. Advent marked his beginning and his end.
“December 9, 1962. It is beautiful Advent weather, grayish and cold, with clouds of light snow howling across the valley. I put some bread out for the birds. Twenty-one years tomorrow since I landed here. The Advent hymns sound as they first did, as if they were the nearest things to me that ever were, as if they had been decisive in shaping my life, as if I had received their form, as if there could never be any other melodies so deeply connatural to me. The Rorate Coeli brought me here to pray for peace. These hymns are me, the words, melodies, everything (Thomas Merton The Intimate Merton: 198).”
“How far I have been from the Truth every day, wasting my time seeking something in vain. What I seek is simply being, and here it is. Here is the straw, here is the rain, here is the silence. I am oppressed with words, with the falsity and needlessness of most of the things I say to others. What do I expect to find in my words to them? What do I resent not finding? I have nothing to say. How happy to be able to admit it in practice. But everybody always expects one to say something. What a fool I have made of myself by believing myself wise. And now I dare not be silent, though I have nothing to say” (IM, 119).
Encapsulating his days in a hermitage at Gethsemani in one of his most clarifying essays, “Day of a Stranger,” Merton demystified his constant verbalizing on “solitude” and “contemplation”. He more simply wrote: “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe” (IM, 244).
“What I wear is pants.” Taking off his robes implying a clerical specialness, his prayers in the end wore blue jeans. He closed his mind’s running mouth; he sweeps his porch and tends his fire.
“What I do is live.” He seeks God’s will in the next simple task in front of his nose. He cuts wood; he carries water. He does not envision himself involved in “great projects”.
“How I pray is breathe.” Being alive is prayer. Awake to birdsongs at daybreak is his unscripted office of Lauds. He sings his Vespers content in the dark, listening to the speech non-human nature makes.
In our uniquely disordered times, enjoying feasts of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays as foreshadowing our happiest of holidays, we drown in glitter that suffocates our desires to adore God as we can and serve our neighbors’ needs, tending small fires of prayer in hopes of attracting the hidden presence of Jesus Christ in our muddled lives.
“I who sit here and pray and think and live — I am nothing — and do not need to know what is going on. I need only to hope in Christ to hear the big deep bell that now begins to ring and sends its only sound to me through the little cedars. This being in silence is the continuation of my Mass. This is my Eucharist, my day-long thanksgiving, work, and worship, my hoping for the perfect revelation of Christ” (IM, 111).
A proposal for more simple Advent liturgies: sitting together, exchanging nothing but glances, each of us bent down on our heart’s knees of clay, our mouths shut as we practice humming together “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
By Jonathan Montaldo