“It seems to me there is no more fascinating subject in the world than the influence of surroundings on human character.” –Ruth Merton
. . .
“I opened New Seeds of Contemplation for the first time,” wrote Sue Monk Kidd in her preface to the Trappist monk’s masterpiece, “during the winter of 1988 while visiting Thomas Merton’s hermitage in the Kentucky woods about a mile from the Abbey of Gethsemani.”
She had visited the monastery several times, but this was the first occasion in which the 39-year-old was given the opportunity to see the small, cinder-block house in which the book’s author spent the last few years of his life.
She, the nurse and mother of two, who was about to publish her first book—a memoir. He, the cloistered logophile, who, by the time he had died 20 years earlier, had authored some seventy volumes of varying lengths. Sharing a space two decades divided.
“I doubt there could be a more ideal location in which to read Merton’s masterpiece on the contemplative life.”
With those words in mind, I turned into the narrow lane that lead to the retreat center where Henri Nouwen spent some of the last years of his life. The house sits across the street from L’Arche Daybreak, which, founded by the Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier, exists as a place where men and women with intellectual disabilities live together in community.
I, the seminary student, worn thin from my work and from writing. He, the late Dutch priest, who held prestigious positions at the likes of Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame, who quietly stepped away from his teaching career into life with that obscure little community north of Toronto. Sharing a space two decades divided.
The architecture, while beautiful in its simplicity, was of course entirely commonplace. As was, if I am honest, most of my stay. My times there, I believe, in as much as they were motivated by a fascination with Nouwen, were not so much an attempt to make some sort of pilgrimage but rather – along with my struggle to find a measure of rest and spiritual solitude – served as an experiment in reading the world in which a few of the books I had read were written.
I had Can You Drink the Cup? with me. The book, which was the last to be published before Nouwen’s death, is a deeply personal reflection on the question which Jesus asked the brothers James and John, and was assigned as required reading for one of the classes I was taking. There are, to be clear, many ways in which my understandings of theology, ethics and practice differ from that of Nouwen (as well as Merton, Vanier and Kidd for that matter, I am sure), but the depth of his simple insights regarding cost and calling struck me in a particularly moving way when I read them that weekend, knowing that this was one of the places in which they were worked out.
Every book is birthed from a particular landscape. Maybe we’ve forgotten that. Maybe, being able to access the text of nearly any book we can imagine within a few seconds’ time, we have lost the sense in which those words were the product of an author who lived in a particular place at a particular time, whose writing was shaped by a unique geography and community. Literature, in an era when nearly everything is, on a certain level, made immediately proximate by means of an ever-expanding digital universe, has lost part of its distinctive connection to place.
For Merton, it was a childhood in France, England, Rome, a small cinder-block hermitage in Kentucky, and, eventually, Thailand. For Nouwen, a family dinner in Holland, an exchange with someone begging for money on Yonge Street, a season spent in Guatemala. The same, of course, could be said of any author, be it Dostoyevsky, Austen, Steinbeck, or John of Patmos. Every book is birthed out of a particular landscape, and to see those places, though veiled by the centuries that have since passed, is to see something of that world.
Kidd was right: “I am pretty sure I could have read the book on a bench in a shopping mall and it would have affected me similarly.” There is something universally accessible and affective about good writing, regardless of where it was written. There is also, however, something particularly beautiful about reading a book in the place it was written, if ever the opportunity is allowed. It could mean a trip to California or Jerusalem, yes, or to a Kentucky monastery, but it could simply involve reading something that was written in the place that you live now—or writing something in that place and sharing it.
Photo by: John Cremons