Engaging the Night

Aug 11, 2013 | Field Notes

I am awake. It is 2:00 a.m. A distant neighbour’s dog is barking and with the windows open the noise has slipped into our house and stolen away my sleep. I wonder how long this dog will bark. I’m frustrated with the dog and peeved at the dog owner. Meanwhile, to distract myself, I head downstairs and settle in with a little book on Thomas Merton and his thoughts on the writing life.

Merton, the famous Trappist monk, certainly wrote a lot during his life. Much of the revival of contemplative life in the west was spurred by his writings. He also sowed the seeds for much of what we today understand as interfaith dialogue. He had his faults, like we all do. But he was certainly a man ahead of his times particularly when it comes to tackling issues of justice and peace from a spiritual perspective. Merton was always just as concerned with the person of the social activist as much as the need for justice in our world.

I’ve visited Merton’s home monastery of Gethsemani three times so far in my life. I’ve roamed the hills around the abbey where he walked. I’ve visited his hermitage and stood by his grave. I’ve followed the monastic prayer schedule for a few days so as to get a taste of the flow of monastic life. I’ve even seen where the Gethsemani Trappists make their famous cheese and fruitcakes, which they sell to support themselves. Through it all I tried to soak up the experience of the place so as to be able to recall it later if needed.

Here I am now, in the middle of the night, reading Merton while a dog barks. Both Merton and the dog are competing for my attention. Then a little later, still unable to fall asleep, I pick up the scripture for the day and read “stay awake and be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. Now, I’m doubly awake. Have dog and scripture conspired to wake me up? Maybe, just maybe.

Then continuing to recall the memories of visiting Gethsemani, and other places of retreat that I had slipped away to over the years, I begin to relax and the sound of the dog recedes while pleasant thoughts of these places fill me. I am soothed by these memories and soon begin to feel a sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to withdraw from the bustle of life and rest in the retreat enclosures offered by some religious communities. I grow sleepy again and return to bed where I soon fall asleep with a grateful heart. But before I do I tell myself that I’ll need to speak to that dog in the morning.

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