Joe Ford of Louisville offered these thoughts after reading the post “Home on the Ridge,” which ponders whether an affinity for the outdoors can be inherited. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
When we were young, weather permitting, my parents would stuff all eight of us children into the car and head south out of Louisville to Bernheim Forest.
Once there, the doors flung open and we loudly poured out. Save for a couple of ponds where you could feed the (kind of scary, tall as us) Canada Geese with a fistful of corn from a converted gum ball machine, there wasn’t much there except the miles of expansive woods, rocky streams full of crawdads (“Oh sister, I have a surprise for you!”), and a few picnic areas good for frisbee and football. Perfect. And almost deserted. Toward evening, the deer would steal into the meadows and we fell silent and talked in whispers.
At times, though, we drove right past the entrance to Bernheim, continuing west then south down SR 245 to Bardstown, past the Cathedral, south across the bridge at Beech Fork and left at the tiny sign that simply read “Trappist.”
Once inside the stone walls that flanked the parking lot for the Abbey of Gethsemani, we knew to keep our voices hushed and our steps measured. No one told us. It was just the nature of the place.
My Dad would slip inside the gate house and let the brothers know we were there. We’d drive or walk across the fields to the edge of their woods and haul our picnic fixings up to a few tables scattered among the trees. We were popular picnic company, as we came bearing fried chicken and beer—neither a normal item on the monks' menu.
(I know I don’t need to say this to the readers of this blog, but just in case it somehow falls into the wrong hands… You cannot just show up and invite the monks out for a couple of cold brewskies and fried chicken. My father taught them philosophy and maintained ongoing friendships with many of them. You have to bring St. Thomas, too.)
Afterwards, we would walk the woods and then attend vespers or compline before heading back home, a quieting and sacramental end to the day. In later years I’d walk those woods again, a little more cognizant of “the nature of the place.” But what stayed with me was the sense that every wood, every meadow at evening, was imbued with meaning, with beauty, was sacramental. That is, whether considering the joy of Bernheim or the sense of the sacred at Gethsemani, in my young mind they mixed; woods were woods, and woods were sacred.
Why do we have such a sense of awe for nature, such reverence? Think of all the cultures that consider the woods or the mountains either sacred in themselves or as the dwelling place of gods. The Incas in South America. The Sherpas in Nepal. Where in our brain—or should I say soul—is that, and why? Of what evolutionary advantage is that? Or, purely from an aesthetics point of view, why do we think they are beautiful? Why are they pleasing to us?
I’d like to think it is the little bit of divinity in each of us that connects with nature's sublime beauty. We recognize and respond to the Creator's presence there amid the mountains and the trees and the gurgling streams. It’s why we say we feel at home.
"Home on the Ridge" ended with a quote from Henry David Thoreau. I will take that as permission to end this with a rather long quote from a resident of the abbey itself. I’ve loved this passage for years, but only noticed just now how much Merton recognizes the echoes of the divine in nature.
"The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation…,We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance…
"No despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
"Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation