- Tall Blue Ladder
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2013376pp.
Everyone has memories they can’t erase. Because they are painful. Because they are beautiful. Because they leave behind vivid scars that continue to ache. Like cold, white mushrooms that sprout behind your racing heart whenever you think back on those days.
I lost three people that year. Of course I went on to face other difficulties, and other deaths, and even at times other separations that seemed unbearable, but none left as deep of a mark on me as those losses. Of course, my youth was probably mostly to blame for that. Back then, I was a young Benedictine monk preparing to be ordained as a priest.
The monastic life is difficult to explain, even to other Catholics, regardless of whether you’re a Benedictine, Franciscan, or Carmelite. I guess you could put it in secular terms and say the monks live in a commune where everyone abandons worldly possessions, takes a vow of chastity, and never marries. Someone once referred to monks as “people who leave the world in order to listen to a deeper voice hidden within themselves.” A young Spanish monk in the early twentieth century said we were “people who give up everything in order to gain the most precious thing in the world.”
But can any of these one-line definitions come anywhere near to explaining the life of a human being? I prefer to use a quote from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who referred without any hesitation to the visionary poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud as “Christians turned inside out.” He also alluded to Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre as ascetics, because they “have looked into the face of death, have plumbed the abyss of man’s nothingness, have probed man’s inauthenticity, and have cried out for his liberation.” I like his analogies best. Explaining one life by comparing it to another seems the most appropriate. Or to put it another way, how could you compare anything to a flowing river unless it’s also something that flows? Like years, hours, life, or wind and clouds.
The first thing you have to address when you talk about the monastic life is, of course, silence. What I have learned from living here is that silence is not simply quiet, not simply the absence of sound. Nor is it the gaps in between sound but rather a state of very active listening. Silence is necessary for perceiving the sounds beyond sound, the senses beyond our senses.
During my early days at the abbey, whenever I was out walking, I would pause to take in the sounds I couldn’t hear over my footfalls. Despite the fact that the bottoms of the sandals I wore back then were rubber and barely made a sound, there were still countless tiny whispers that were concealed by even that small noise: snowflakes slipping from the arms of a pine tree, leafless branches trembling in the wind, squirming insects twisting and turning deep underground, tree roots slowly stretching their thin toes deeper into the earth. Was that slight breeze brushing past my ears the friction generated by the earth as it rotated on its axis? Those moments I experienced back then felt like sly glimpses of the universe, or God, or human life, revealing themselves ever so slightly. Whenever that happened, the sky opened up and something like an indescribable peace cascaded over me.
Up until that year, the monastic life more or less suited me. I grew quite fond of the five daily calls to prayer, and the courses in theology, which I’d continued studying after transferring to the seminary, were difficult but refreshing. I’d also earned the trust of the priors and the monks senior to me. I wanted to plumb the depths of the universe and wrap my mind around the world. I loved the tall bookcases that reached all the way to the high ceiling of the abbey library. There, books containing over two thousand years of the compressed wisdom of Christ’s followers awaited my hands and eyes. I sat in that library every day, determined to read every book in there. In the afternoons, when I tired of reading, I walked the grounds of the abbey. Large trees over fifty years old stood quietly in rows as if to cheer me on.
Some days brought letters from friends who were still living on college campuses, getting drunk, attending cram schools, and studying for standardized exams. I felt like a mountaineer who’d left them all behind in the playground of a national park and set off alone for the highest summit. It was the luxury of one who has been chosen and I, of course, had all the arrogance of one who has chosen himself. Every season, nature showered its sumptuous gifts on me as someone who’d already learned in his early twenties the art of silence. Well, up until that year, that is.
Of course, having grown up in the noisy world outside, the silence of the monastery did not come easily at first. Silence is probably why I remember my first day there so clearly. The abbey was located right behind the train station in Waegwan, less than a five-minute walk away. When I showed up at the entrance to the main building and told them why I was there, the gatekeeper said the abbot had been waiting for me and led me inside. I assumed my grandmother had called them. I’d been visiting the monastery with my grandmother ever since I was young. But it felt very different to actually live there. Settlers always notice things that tourists overlook.
The inside of the abbey was much simpler than the outside. It was very dark and quiet with many long corridors. Posted above the entrance was a placard that read Ora et Labora, a famous Benedictine motto that meant pray and work. Another read, If you love truth, be a lover of silence. “Please turn off your cellphone,” the gatekeeper added, his voice sounding rehearsed. I took my phone out of my pocket and powered it off—the effect was like standing in the middle of downtown right as someone flips off the switch to your auditory nerve. The atmospheric pressure inside my heart changed in an instant, and inexplicable sobs rose up to my weightless vocal cords. Once the curtain of noise had been drawn aside, silence entered.
Silence was a dark mirror that saw all the way through to the marrow of my bones, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore. I was frightened at first glimpse. I’d yearned for that silence while preparing for the monastic life, but I did not foresee its enormous power. I don’t remember if I actually did hesitate and turn to look back, but it felt like I did. The whistle of the train leaving, the same train that had brought me here, sounded like an auditory hallucination. I’d left my brief youth behind on that train when I got off at the station. Noise and hope, joy and nausea, nerves and tears, envy and jealousy . . . I took another step down the long hallway where a gentle darkness had settled. In that gap between the curtains of sound, I caught my first glimpse of my naked soul.