From The Sound of Listening
The clear blue sky shines brightly across West Virginia and Kentucky as I make my way to the hidden hills near Bardstown. I get lost driving along the country roads when suddenly the large, white monastery appears on my left. I see the lower, dark grey wall, a remnant of the original cloister, and the dark pointed church bell tower with the cross on top. I pull up to the front entrance and take a deep breath.
Today marks the seventh anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuits and their coworkers, Elba and Celina Ramos, at the Jesuit University in San Salvador, El Salvador. I remember visiting with them throughout the summer of 1985, when I had gone to work in a church-sponsored refugee camp in El Salvador. I remember the pictures of their bloody, lifeless bodies lying face down on the front lawn of the community house. With Jesuits and friends in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, I spoke out for an end to United States military aid to El Salvador. A month after those murders, just before Christmas, 1989, I made my first pilgrimage here to Gethsemani. I came tired and devastated, and shortly I found new strength in the peace of the monastic life.
Once again, on this important anniversary, I come to the Abbey of Gethsemani. I arrive tired and spiritually drained. I come to recenter my soul in Christ. I think of the many Jesuits and friends from around the country who gather today for prayer and nonviolent civil disobedience at the gates of the School of the Americas in Georgia, calling for the closure of that military training center for death squad troops in Latin America. The soldiers who killed the Jesuits and their coworkers, as well as the four North American churchwomen and even Archbishop Romero, were trained in Georgia. I pray with my friends for the immediate closing of this “School of Assassins.”
Yesterday, I visited my father at Georgetown University hospital. His leg is reddish and swollen, but steadily healing from a sudden and serious infection, which is related to the removal of a vein for his heart by-pass surgery last January. His spirits are good, though his energy has been depleted. He expects to go home tomorrow and encouraged me to go on ahead to Kentucky. A real survivor, he has overcome colon and liver cancer, angioplasties, heart by-pass surgery, and now a serious leg infection. He remains in my heart and prayers every moment.
I walk along the monastery wall to the cemetery below the church bell tower where Thomas Merton rests with his brother monks under the shade of a huge cedar tree. At his grave, before a short white cross, I offer a prayer that these days may be filled with peace and prayer, that I may turn to Christ with all my heart, that I may become an instrument of Christ’s peace. I look up at the clear blue sky. The breeze refreshes me. I walk back slowly and enter the monastery.
I want to start with a clean slate. In the guest house, a sign invites retreatants to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I wait in line in the chapel. I confess my sins. A compassionate monk listens attentively. He calls me back to the basics, to the love of Christ and the roots of my vocation.
Saint Francis’s peace prayer offers a framework for my confession. I begin: I have not been an instrument of the Lord’s peace. Parts of me have been sowing hatred, instead of love; despair instead of hope; darkness instead of light; doubt instead of faith; sorrow instead of joy. I seek my own consolation instead of consoling others; arrogantly insist that I be understood instead of understanding others; and demand to be loved instead of generously loving others. It’s the same old story. My heart has grown cold. I feel burnt-out, far from God. I take responsibility for myself. I’ve become exceedingly proud, selfish, ungrateful, narcissistic, thoughtless, hurtful, even violent. I have not loved as I could, have not believed as I should, and have not hoped as I would. God have mercy on me a sinner.
As my penance the priest suggests a quiet, prayerful reading of Psalm 139:
Yahweh, you have probed me and you know me; you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. My journeys and my rest you scrutinize, with all my ways you are familiar. Behind me and before, you hem me in and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too lofty for me to attain. Your eyes have been my actions; in your book they are all written; my days are limited before one of them existed. How weighty are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!
I have arrived.