On March 18, 1958, a Trappist monk named Brother Louis took a customary trip into the city of Louisville from his home at the Abbey of Gethsemane in the hills of rural Kentucky. Suddenly, standing at the corner of Fourth Street and Walnut, Brother Louis (whom we know better by his birth name, Thomas Merton) had a rapturous vision of the beauty and oneness of humanity:
In Louisville, at the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race.
As Merton reflected more on this experience, he penned some of the loveliest lines in 20th-century contemplative writing:
There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all of the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . .
—from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday, 1996)
* * *
It’s the summer of 2012, a humid afternoon in early August, and I’m standing at Brother Louis’ grave on the grounds of Gethsemane. The marker is a simple cross with no distinct features — one among many in the small plot — and would certainly be passed over by a visitor looking for a tourist attraction. It seems appropriate in light of the oneness Merton saw so clearly; while he surely shined like the sun, so did everyone.
I’m at the Abbey because my friend Dave has invited me to his home in Louisville. I have become acquainted with his project called Antler and want to learn more. Meanwhile, Dave has heard about my novel Beggars in Heaven and thinks it sounds like a story Antler may want to support. The trip would inspire and give us clarity.
What is Antler? And why does it matter?
We talk about it on the winding Kentucky back roads from Louisville to Gethsemane. I understand that Merton will function as a kind of patron saint for the project, and that his epiphany will be a touchstone in Antler’s formation. Gethsemane, too, will play a part in the organization’s development. That’s a start.
I learn the big picture: that Antler (which takes its name from a William Stafford poem) exists to promote creativity for spiritual growth, where faith and imagination are cultivated by individuals and communities. It’s not only a blog or literary journal or small press or group that meets once a year. It will feature — online and onsite through workshops — practical writing advice and exercises, interviews with artists and spiritual leaders, reflections on forms of intentional living and peacemaking, and devotional work from a variety of contributors including writers, pastors and priests, monks, business people, doctors, students, and others.
The project will embody, as Makoto Fujimura has written about in Refractions, the true meaning of shalom: not just the absence of terror or war, but the integration of the self and community toward wholeness. If there is “no way to tell people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” Antler matters because it might at least point us in the right direction, give us glimpses of “[our]selves as [we] really are,” at the core of our being.
Dave is well read in Thomas Merton’s work and has developed a friendship with Brother Paul Quenon, who has been at Gethsemane Abbey for over 50 years, spending the first part of his monastic life working directly with Merton. After Vespers, we sit with him on a hillside overlooking the monastery’s extensive grounds, eating a dinner of cheese and bread (made by the monks) and red wine that has warmed in the afternoon sunlight. Each of us recites a poem. We talk about current events, and tell stories from our personal journeys. The sound of crickets is broken by the bell tolling for Compline. We realize we’ve lost track of time, so we rush Brother Paul back to the Abbey for the service.
Later, I will recall the blend of bread and wine and storytelling with prayer and the observing of silence. The rhythm of the afternoon, I think, might be a good model for the cadence of Antler’s work.
After Compline, we meet up with Brother Paul again and head far across the fields toward a lake. On the top of a hill, we discover another pilgrim sitting on a bench praying. He’s come alone to retreat at the Abbey for a long weekend.
“Join us!” we offer. He does.
Wildflowers I cannot name dot the rolling pastures on the way to the lake. The lake, too, is unnamed. Without ceremony, we undress and stand naked for a brief moment before plunging off a flat rock into the cool water. We swim out to the middle of the lake and begin a conversation that will last until nigrescence, when the bats begin circling overhead and swooping down close to us. We say and do nothing special. We just are. And in those moments, we belong: we “could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
* * *
The vision of Antler is now being realized, slowly but also vigorously. The organization is growing, forming partnerships and gaining mentoring from veterans in publishing and editing, as well as working with writers, leaders, and churches who want to be a part of it.
As word gets out, people continue to inquire. Many of them are like me: they seem to be at home neither in the church nor to the world, they are simultaneously residents and aliens in both places. And so their writing is often unsuited to the current corporate models: their stories are “too religious” to garner mainstream appeal, yet too radical, honest, or real to be picked up by religious publishers. Most of these writers, thank God, are unwilling to sanitize their narratives to pass the censors. But that leaves them with few good options.
Antler is listening to the rhythm of this movement and finalizing the creation of a publishing platform to help facilitate community through the telling of our stories. They are finding manuscripts that respect reality and the diverse ways in which faith works to shape our identities for the good. They don’t want half-truths that ignore and repress the shadow side, but rather work that will speak to and model what the Antler community wants to accomplish, work that lets us see ourselves as we really are.
Alan W. Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, has written, “What does reimagining religion involve? Exchanging the dogmatic stance of certainty for the way of imagination, which is not frightened by the thought that God is greater than religion.” It seems to me that Antler may have a part to play in reimagining religion — which, I think, is not as sweeping as it sounds. All it takes is people with a vision — something akin, perhaps, to Merton’s vision of the beauty and oneness of humanity.
Marilyn Nelson once said to a small group of aspiring writers, “Follow your vision. You must believe that there are people out there who are hungry for what only you can give them.” And so the Antler journey begins: built on imagination and shalom, eschewing the dogmatic concern with needing to be right. Like four ordinary men in an unnamed Kentucky lake, Antler is a place to be naked and vulnerable in order to be baptized, to give up the old ways, the easy cynicisms of our age, and to emerge with a vision for who we are at the core of our reality.
Merton wrote, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race.” Another poet, Galway Kinnell, reminds us in “Saint Francis and the Sow” that
sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
. . .
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing
In the end, I think that’s what I want to do through Antler: celebrate our glorious destiny of membership in the human race by reteaching loveliness. So, what we offered the man sitting on the hilltop at the Abbey, I offer you now: join us. The sun is still shining, and the water’s beautiful.
Learn more about Antler at www.thisisantler.com.
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of two books, A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and Beggars in Heaven: A Novel (Antler Books, forthcoming fall 2013). His work has appeared in American Poetry Journal, Books & Culture, Image Journal’s Good Letters, The Midwest Quarterly, Rio Grande Review, Seneca Review, and many others. A native of upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Bethany, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is Assistant Professor of English at Taylor University.