I visited my first monastery when I was a senior in college. I had recently read Thomas Merton’s proclaimed autobiography “The Seven Story Mountain.” Merton was a gifted English student, who was deeply influenced by a professor of English and author of a famous biography on Benjamin Franklin named Mark Van Doren. The two struck up a great friendship along with a fellow student named Lax.
I had a similar experience in college with a Roman Catholic priest and professor of philosophy and a fellow student, who also later became an Episcopal priest. Hence, I could relate to Merton. “The Seven Story Mountain” is one of the greatest spiritual autobiographies even written.
Merton was expelled from Cambridge University in England for drinking, carousing and reportedly allowing himself to play the role of Christ in a comical, mock crucifixion. He ended up attending Columbia, where he entered a profound spiritual journey that led him to join the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Over the next four years, he wrote over 50 books and communicated by letter to significant figures around the world, including the Buddhist monk Tich Nah Hahn.
Merton’s abbot ordered him to write a spiritual autobiography of his journey from carousing college student raised by an nomadic artist father in Europe to an isolated Trappist monk devoted to God and prayer. The book became a New York Times best-seller and sparked the interest in scores of men joining Trappist monasteries following World War II. It is one of the most influential spiritual books that I have ever read.
Merton’s autobiography led me to take a spiritual retreat at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia during my senior year of college. Since then, I have taken retreats at various monasteries throughout Europe and the United States. I developed friendships with some notable monks such as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, who came to the churches that I served to teach Centering Prayer.
Monasteries are like a second home to me. While in Burgos, I visited two. Las Huelgas is a quick walk from the cathedral. It lies outside the city’s ancient walls. More significantly, later that same day, my dear friend Ildefanso Quintana took me to visit Santo Domingo de los Silos – a monastery that Merton wrote about.
The monks from this monastery recently became world famous, taking their incredible Gregorian chant on an international tour and recording CDs. I heard them sing 15 years ago in Philadelphia at our Episcopal Cathedral. There was a downside to this fame and travel. Several monks left the monastery after gaining too much taste of the world and seeing too much focus on non-monastic living.
Today, Silos remains one if not Europe’s most famous monastery for singing Gregorian chant. I counted 23 monks in the sanctuary for Vespers. Many of them were fairly young – a good sign for a monastery’s future. Their singing was magnificent. I found the ancient medieval town of Silos, with a year-round population of less than 100 and the monastery located 60 kilometers outside of Burgos in a landscape fit for a wild, wild west movie to be just the right spiritual tonic for me. I hope to return one day and take a five-day retreat with the monks.
With love and prayers from Spain,