Every fall a single cricket manages to get into my basement.
This is amazing, because our ancient, Michigan-style basement is like an encased stone vault with cobwebs and a coal room. I have no idea how a cricket finds its way from the outdoors down into the basement through a foot-thick stone foundation wall, here in my inner city neighborhood in South Bend. But there it is again, in my quiet house. Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp.
The arrival of the basement cricket signals the end of summer for me. It only shows up in mid- to late August, when the weather is still warm. As if the cricket knows what’s coming and will need to find dry, safe, and warm accommodations for later on.
The cricket always starts out strong. On the warmest, most humid late summer evenings, it’s a raucous CHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRPCHIRP all night long. Full volume, singing its heart out. It’s an amazing, piercing, simple, yet charming one-note song and I’ve never been able to understand how an insect the size of a paper clip can generate that much sound just by rubbing two dry wings together. Only nature could come up with that.
As the days wear on into fall, the cricket gets quieter. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. It (he) is still down there, belting out its song for…well, for whom? For her? His hoped-for mate? Out of compulsion? Out of joy? Can any other crickets even hear him? Are there any female crickets down there with him? He sure is persistent. The days get shorter, the nights gets longer, but the cricket plays on. More modestly now. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.
One evening in mid-October, I notice that the cricket sounds weaker. I walk over to the top of the basement stairs, and stare down into the dark. How are you doing, buddy? Are you getting tired? Hungry? Lonesome? Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. I’m a little worried about the cricket. I wish I could feed it or something.
The morning of October 26th I’m sitting at the kitchen island in silence. Regina and the girls are off to work and school. It’s just me, a bowl of granola, and the newspaper. I don’t want to look at the newspaper. And then I hear,
chirp. chirp. chirp.
The cricket sounds really tired. Like its batteries are almost dead. I can hear it, but only because the house is quiet.
And then after a long wait, nearly holding my breath, silence.
* * *
A few weeks ago I made a long-desired trip southward to Kentucky to visit Gethsemani Abbey, the Trappist monastery situated in the rolling hills and wooded knobs south of Bardstown. It was the home of the late Trappist monk, writer, and activist Thomas Merton.
At Gethsemani, a conservative Roman Catholic religious order with roots in the middle ages, the monks live under a vow of silence, community prayer, work and strict isolation from the world. No outside news comes in, and no writing goes out. But Merton’s abbot, as the story goes, recognized his gift for spiritual writing early on and breaking with centuries of monastic tradition, the abbot allowed (actually ordered) Merton to write and publish. And later on he allowed Merton to move into a private hermitage out in the woods on the Abbey property, another break with strict tradition.
The rest is history: Merton, through the paradox of writings composed in complete solitude, became a semi-reluctant spiritual rock star for an entire generation of seekers in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was visited by poets, writers, spiritual leaders, artists and activists (Joan Baez for godsakes). He became a known voice of peace, social justice and spiritual clarity in the upheaval of the Cold War and Viet Nam. Young men read his writings and lined up at abbey gates to join the monastic life. Merton’s autobiographical first book, Seven Story Mountain (1948) continues to sell to this day and was single-handedly responsible for my leaving the legal profession and entering Catholic lay ministry back in the 1980s.
During my own stay last week at Gethsemani, I found Merton’s grave. It’s marked by a simple, undistinguished iron cross with hundreds of other simple, undistinguished iron crosses in a lumpy little knoll next to the abbey church. The only thing that distinguished Merton’s grave from the others was a little splay of plastic flowers, and several prayer-bead bracelets draped over his cross. A small steel plate on the cross reads, Fr. Louis Merton. Died Dec. 10, 1968.
I stood there quite a long time, fascinated. Unsettled, actually. I walked away. I came back. I did this like, four times during my weekend at the Abbey. Here he was: the monk that even his abbot knew couldn’t be quieted, now quieted forever. Silent as the once-noisy cricket down in my basement. I stood there gazing at that lumpy little non-celebrity grave. Knowing the monks are traditionally lowered directly into the bare earth with no vault or casket nearly took my breath away.
Suddenly, BONGGG. I nearly jumped. The abbey church bell high above my head clanged. Again. And again. The bell was calling the monks to midday prayer but had completely jolted me out of my thoughts. Just like Merton’s earthy writings startled people out of their naive, conceptual, narrow assumptions about faith, “holiness”, sainthood, prayer, mysticism, and the spiritual life. The bell’s intrusion could have been Merton himself, weary of my wistful past-directed ponderings and giving me a brotherly dope-slap aside the head. Hey, dream boy. Wake up. What are you doing staring at graves? Get out of here, for godssakes. Go live your life!
* * *
I made the long drive back to South Bend thinking about monks, urban crickets, and the rare experience of any kind of solitude for us modern city dwellers, let alone a real monastery. I thought about the field cricket singing out from the vault of my inner city basement- about as far as he could be from his natural habitat of a prairie field. I thought about the paradox of the “famous hermit”, Merton, writing from the seclusion of the monastery, about as far as he could have gotten from his worldly European boyhood and his Columbia University days as a young man. Singing his sacred song, to this day.
I thought about all the small, but captivating points of sound, of writing, of joy and of love that sneak down into our lives for a little while and sing and then go silent. Chirping for us, or speaking to us.
They ask a quiet but insistent question: Who is this, that is hearing this chirp or reading this essay? What is the music, what is the life, that aches to come alive in your own heart? What are you doing staring at gravestones, TV screens, this essay, or whatever else you do to keep yourself in the trance, the dreamy sleepiness of secure but stagnant nonaction?
Years ago, I attended a retreat lead by one of Merton’s contemporaries, James Finley. Finley had been a novice monk at Gethsemani Abbey as a young man, and was assigned to Merton for routine supervision and spiritual support. Finley, like Merton, has a sharp mind, a quick wit, and an impish sense of humor. But he described himself back then as very sincere, perhaps too sincere, a young man very earnest about the spiritual life and in complete awe of Merton as the world-famous writer-monk-theologian. One day Finley sought out Merton to ask him about something that had been troubling his young heart, about the whole matter of death and life after death and the resurrection of the body and soul and the various Catholic religious teachings on these matters.
“What do you think happens to us after we die?” Finley asked Merton, with all the quiet seriousness and deep piety that only a novice monk can summon. “What do you think about the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Merton burst into laughter. “Well one thing’s for sure,” he said to the young monk. “There sure won’t be much of you there!”
Finley was taken aback, saved only by the twinkle in Merton’s eye. Only slowly did Finley come to understand the brilliant mastery of Merton’s single, koan-like response. A response that completely punctured the pious religiosity and self-important ego-identification the young novice brought to the monastery, like all his peers. The outer shell of social identity and psychological security that had been seeking some kind of escape into purity, solitude, mystical oneness with the Divine, whatever. All that needed to die, Merton was saying. And was going to die, in fact. So, get over yourself, young monk. The sooner the better.
At that same retreat I attended with Finley he said something I have thought about often in my life since. He was talking about the universal human condition, our mortality, and all the crazy things we do to avoid thinking about that and living as if we were something special because we were good, or religious, or hard-working, whatever. “Look,” he said, “our horses are all hitched to a hole six feet in the ground.” And he went on to talk about the urgency we should thus be feeling about getting it right: our perceptions, our consciousness, as we live our daily lives. And then Finley sat there behind his desk and grinned and watched all us pious, earnest, spiritual seekers squirm a little in our seats with the vivid, grounding, inescapable truth that we would all be skeletons some not so distant day. Just in case we thought we were special. Or immortal.
So here’s to two of my favorite spiritual directors. The cricket in my basement, and the famous hermit Merton, who has been one of my own most helpful, persistent, and delightful guides. I am grateful for his writings, the twinkle in his religious eye, and his reminders of our sacred nature when we get too caught up by our mortal package. His good-hearted wisdom shows up at just the right time in my life, at the darnedest times, while my own horses draw me closer to the great portal of nothing that is also the portal of everything.