Alone in Community
Journeys Into Monastic Life
Around the World


My first glimpse into monastic life was through Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which was first published in the late 1940s. After boyhood years spent commuting with his father between Western Europe and the United States, Merton embarked upon a challenging academic career in New York. For Merton, academia was satisfying yet it lacked something. I read with keen interest about his intense search for a spiritual and religious home and his eventual commitment to the contemplative life. He joined the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, more commonly called the Trappists, and some years later took permanent vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.

I was intrigued by the story of Merton’s spiritual journey, particularly his resolute commitment to life in a monastery. Who or what called him into religious community? Why would he choose such a life? How were his days structured? Were they filled with dramatic rituals? Who were the other men living behind the walls? Did his example have some bearing on my life?

These were but a few of the questions that dogged me over the years while I continued to read his voluminous output of religious tracts, commentaries on contemporary political issues and explorations into other religious traditions. These works sparked within me an intense desire to set out on my own monastic retreat. It would be the first of many.

In late December 1973, I arrived in Louisville, Kentucky. Inside a crowded, noisy bus depot, I waited anxiously for my ride. An hour later, I sat between two Trappist monks in the cab of an old Ford pickup headed for the Abbey of Gethsemani. Months earlier, I had applied for, and had been granted, permission by the monastery guestmaster to make a retreat at the community over the Christmas holiday. My new acquaintances soon made me feel at ease. There was good conversation and laughter shared during that bumpy truck ride. The heater didn’t work properly as we drove slowly over the country roads.

When I recall that first retreat, I can still visualize scenes that were an integral part of the experience. There was Christmas Eve Mass where mysterious events unfolded amid the haze of incense and candlelight; my introduction to the antiphonal sounds of Gregorian Chant emanating from the hooded, faceless figures who seemed to float through the sanctuary. A sparsely furnished room, with a cold bare floor, firm bed and a crucifix hanging on the wall, was where I fell asleep each night. And there were the long periods of silence throughout those winter days.

The solo walks into the dense Kentucky woods and the visits to the onetime hermitage of Thomas Merton remain in my memory. That simple, concrete-block abode was my daily pilgrimage site. Not once during those few days did I feel awkward, uncomfortable or out of place. I knew when I left the abbey that monastic retreats would become an important part of my life, a refuge of sorts. I had found a religious and spiritual community that understood my hunger for periods of silence and solitude, a community that strove for cooperation rather than competition.