Amer­i­can-born Wangaratta priest and the­olo­gian Robert Whal­ley has con­tem­plated the words and works of 20th cen­tury monk Thomas Mer­ton for decades. Their dis­tinc­tive sto­ries re­veal par­al­lels in life and faith.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents -

The life and work of Wangaratta priest and the­olo­gian Robert Whal­ley.

TYPE the word ‘jux­ta­po­si­tion’ into an on-line et­y­mo­log­i­cal search and the an­swer will show it’s of sev­en­teenth cen­tury French ori­gin. It de­rives from Latin ‘iuxta’, which means ‘be­side, very near, close to, near at hand’. It is thought to stem from ‘yeug’, a hy­po­thet­i­cal Proto-indo-euro­pean root word mean­ing ‘to join’, from the San­skrit word for yoke.

Its ar­cane source is ev­i­dent in var­i­ous syn­onyms – of com­bi­na­tion and as­so­ci­a­tion, ap­po­si­tion and com­par­i­son, of con­trast and con­nec­tion – and in nu­mer­ous ways th­ese have come to point in life to par­al­lel ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­pe­di­tions in faith by Amer­i­can Trap­pist monk and mys­tic Thomas Mer­ton and Amer­i­can-born Aus­tralian priest Robert Whal­ley.

Rob grew up in a Cal­i­for­nia fam­ily and was pur­su­ing a lib­eral arts de­gree at univer­sity dur­ing the 1967 ‘Sum­mer of Love’ in San Fran­cisco. He later went to grad­u­ate school, en­tered a sem­i­nary in Berke­ley and be­came a lay min­is­ter in univer­sity chap­laincy. For al­most 20 years he has lived in Aus­tralia – the past 10 in Wangaratta - where he shares a house with long-time friend and fel­low priest John Davis. Among fine pic­tures on the cream walls of the hall is an un­ex­pected, ar­rest­ing im­age of In­di­ana Jones, the movie char­ac­ter, who all but mus­cles out of the frame. Just across the way stands Wangaratta’s Holy Trin­ity Angli­can Cathe­dral, the great Arts and Crafts Gothic-style church in which Rob was or­dained dea­con in 2009.

His prized, orig­i­nal poster for the film Raiders of the Lost Ark – with ac­tor Har­ri­son Ford, then 39, in the ti­tle role – was a gift from a friend, a cin­ema man­ager, when the movie was re­leased in 1981. It was the first in a series of four through which ar­chae­ol­o­gist Henry Wal­ton Jones, Jr., an Amer­i­can Ivy League univer­sity pro­fes­sor, quests for ex­tra­or­di­nary things which pos­sess in­her­ent and in­es­timable power for good. In Raiders, Jones’s 1936 mis­sion is to find and keep safe from Nazi hands the ‘Ark of the Covenant’, the chest which God com­manded Moses to cause the Is­raelites to make, and in which the prophet was di­rected to place the two tablets of the Ten Com­mand­ments.

The Bi­ble’s Old Tes­ta­ment book of Ex­o­dus re­counts God’s words: ‘They shall make an ark of aca­cia wood…(and) over­lay it with pure gold; in­side and out­side shall you over­lay it…and you shall put into the ark the tes­ti­mony that I shall give you. …And you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold…and put (it) on top of the ark …there I will meet with you…and speak with you about all that I will give you in com­mand­ment for the peo­ple of Is­rael’. >>

“I was al­ways in­ter­ested in the pos­si­bil­ity of God,” says Rob. “The chang­ing light in the morn­ing, the rhythm of breath­ing, the fact of our flesh, the sad and amaz­ing and frag­ile and mag­nif­i­cent world we see face-to-face ev­ery day, all seem to me very plau­si­ble rea­sons to be­lieve in a cre­ation made, met and min­gled in a con­scious and con­tin­u­ing act of love.”

“I read a lot of psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, lit­er­a­ture and po­etry in my 20s, but it was spir­i­tu­al­ity and the search to un­der­stand re­li­gion and ho­li­ness, to touch this love, that re­ally at­tracted me. I stud­ied T. S. Eliot’s po­etry and shared his at­trac­tion for both Bud­dhism and Chris­tian­ity. But when he wrote that a Westerner would be bet­ter served by look­ing at the mys­ti­cal tra­di­tion of his own civil­i­sa­tion, rather than ex­plor­ing Eastern sources of knowl­edge and wis­dom, I de­cided to be­come an Angli­can.”

Rob was born not long af­ter Ja­pan sur­ren­dered in the face of the United States’ un­prece­dented atomic bomb­ing of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, pre­cip­i­tat­ing the end of World War II in the Pa­cific. He was the younger of two chil­dren whose par­ents, he be­lieved – as he came to un­der­stand some­thing of life – were “cling­ing some­what list­lessly to mid­dle class as­pi­ra­tions”. “I lasted three months in the sev­enth grade,” he re­calls. “Just be­fore I be­came a teenager my folks lost a lot of money, moved to a new neigh­bour­hood, left the ten­nis club and al­most di­vorced. Then my brother moved away and my mother’s fa­ther died of cancer. None of this was talked about openly and I feared it was all my fault. I dropped out of school and be­came one of those hid­den ado­les­cents try­ing to fig­ure out the an­swers with­out un­der­stand­ing the ques­tion. I masked be­ing painfully shy by be­ing ex­ces­sively ar­tic­u­late, moody and for­mal, and I read vo­ra­ciously.”

At 18 he took a ter­tiary en­trance exam in which he scored high on words but low on numbers. He at­tended oc­ca­sional classes on var­i­ous cam­puses while help­ing in the fam­ily print­ing busi­ness be­fore grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in cul­tural stud­ies and “a lot of classes in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture”.

“The 1967 hippy ‘Sum­mer of Love’ hap­pened in San Fran­cisco, less than an hour away, when I was 21,” Rob says.

“While I never wore flow­ers in my hair I did smoke a cer­tain amount of weed. Years later Pres­i­dent Clin­ton said he never in­haled. I sel­dom ex­haled.”

He jokes that he spent his 20s mak­ing up for his teens and his 30s mak­ing up for his 20s. “But there’s some truth in there,” he says. “I had been such a scared kid and self-con­cerned teenager that I be­came both a ro­man­tic and a bit of a rois­terer. This was an era when a univer­sity pro­fes­sor sug­gested that stu­dents should be graded on how many iden­tity crises they had in any given year. I would have quickly grad­u­ated with dis­tinc­tion if that had hap­pened.”

It was at about this time that Rob be­came aware of the life and works of Amer­i­can monk, poet and mys­tic Thomas Mer­ton for the first time. The choir­mas­ter at his church in Fair­field – just east of the lower Napa Val­ley, north east of San Fran­cisco – gave him a book which had a few short se­lec­tions of Mer­ton’s.

“It con­tained one of his last es­says, called ‘Day of a stranger’, and it spoke to me,” Rob says.

“I was 22. Then I read The Seven Storey Moun­tain about a young man try­ing to get all the ex­pe­ri­ence out of life that he pos­si­bly can… It gave me the heart of him, the as­pi­ra­tional and ro­man­tic quest of re­li­gion.”

It was an en­counter sim­i­lar to that which in­flu­enced Los An­ge­les Catholic aux­il­iary bishop Robert Bar­ron. He re­calls that as a teenager he was work­ing with his brother in a book­store in Illi­nois dur­ing school hol­i­days.

“There was this tat­tered book and the man­ager de­cided to get rid of it,” he says.

“My brother threw it to me and said I’d be in­ter­ested be­cause it was writ­ten by some Trap­pist monk. In my 16-year-old con­fi­dence I said I didn’t want to read a book by some Bud­dhist. And he an­swered by say­ing: ‘Trap­pists are Catholics, you id­iot’. The book in ques­tion was The Seven Storey Moun­tain, Thomas Mer­ton’s won­der­ful, be­guil­ing, de­light­ful au­to­bi­og­ra­phy – the story of how he moved from be­ing a ‘worldling’ – a man of the world in ev­ery sense… to be­ing a Trap­pist monk.”

Bishop Bar­ron re­lates that he was en­tirely caught up in the

ro­mance and drama of Thomas Mer­ton’s story – “…ba­si­cally the story of a man fall­ing in love with God”. It was praised as a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of The Con­fes­sions of Saint Au­gus­tine, a fifth cen­tury the­olo­gian from what is mod­ern-day Al­ge­ria who had led an en­tirely worldly life un­til he en­coun­tered God. Lead­ing English writ­ers – Catholics Gra­ham Greene and Evelyn Waugh – of­fered plau­dits (al­though Waugh was not un­crit­i­cal). Greene said The Seven Storey Moun­tain was “a book one reads with a pen­cil so as to make it one’s own”. That it was writ­ten by a sharply in­tel­li­gent monk from an abbey in ru­ral Ken­tucky also sparked the in­ter­est of many young Amer­i­cans in the prospect of monas­tic life.

Thomas Mer­ton was born in 1915 in a small vil­lage deep in south western France. His fa­ther, Owen Mer­ton, was a New Zealan­der and painter. His mother, Ruth Jenkins, was also an artist, an Amer­i­can from a wealthy Long Is­land fam­ily. Within 12 months the Mer­tons had moved to the United States where the boy grew up and a brother, John Paul, was born. Ruth Mer­ton died in 1921 and in 1925 Owen Mer­ton, with his el­der son, re­turned to France, where 10-year-old Thomas was en­rolled in a French pri­vate school for boys. In 1928 fa­ther and son moved again – this time to Eng­land. Thomas, who had been bap­tised an Angli­can as an in­fant, was sent to a small prepara­tory school near Lon­don and later to Oakham School in ru­ral Rut­land. In 1931 his fa­ther died and one of his old col­leagues from New Zealand was ap­pointed guardian. Thomas was just short of 16. The young man also had a sig­nif­i­cant trust fund.

Two years later he en­tered Cam­bridge Univer­sity’s Clare Col­lege as an un­der­grad­u­ate. Rob Whal­ley says it was a time of “riotous liv­ing” for Mer­ton. It is said by some bi­og­ra­phers that he drank and played the field and fa­thered a child, and that his guardian ef­fected some le­gal set­tle­ment with the in­fant’s mother. Thomas went back to New York the fol­low­ing year and in 1935 was en­rolled as a sopho­more – a se­cond-year stu­dent – at Columbia Univer­sity. He edited its 1937 year­book and be­came art editor of the univer­sity’s Columbia Jester be­fore he grad­u­ated and be­gan study­ing to be­come a mas­ter of arts. He faced the prospect of a promis­ing literary ca­reer. But some­thing moved him. In 1938 he was re­ceived into the Catholic church, taught English at Saint Bon­aven­ture’s – a Fran­cis­can univer­sity in up­state New York – yet was turned down when he sought to be­come a Fran­cis­can brother. He in­stead be­came an oblate – a vol­un­tary as­so­ciate of the Fri­ars Mi­nor, one who takes a rule of life. Yet in 1941 he found his call­ing en­tirely in an­other place – in ru­ral Ken­tucky at the Abbey of Geth­se­mani among a com­mu­nity of Bene­dic­tine ‘Trap­pist’ monks of the Cis­ter­cian Or­der of the Strict Ob­ser­vance. “It was a me­dieval foun­da­tion,” Rob Whal­ley says. “The French monks who founded it (out­side Louisville in the late 1840s) brought with them me­di­ae­val agri­cul­ture and a pious strain of be­ing sinners. With the Fran­cis­cans you’ve got this sort of child­like trust in open­ing up the res­ur­rec­tion life, of liv­ing life with ut­ter faith in the glory of God’s new cre­ation. What you find with the Trap­pists is what you see with the early (Chris­tian) desert her­mits: peo­ple who are flee­ing from a fallen world in or­der to pray for it in soli­tude and in pen­i­tence.”

So how did Thomas Mer­ton, the ‘ wordling’, the gre­gar­i­ous in­tel­lect, take to it – and par­tic­u­larly the prospect and prac­tice of con­tem­pla­tive life?

“I would say for prob­a­bly the first years of his monas­tic ca­reer he was ‘su­per monk’,” Rob says.

“He was a con­vert, so he was very pen­i­ten­tial; he was very pious and very sen­ti­men­tal, and sud­denly he be­came a best­selling writer. He went to his ab­bot and more or less said: ‘I think I should write a mem­oir’. The ab­bot said: ‘It’s not our Trap­pist tra­di­tion’. Mer­ton re­sponded: ‘I think I should write a mem­oir ba­si­cally in­flu­enced by James Joyce, Saint Au­gus­tine and T. S. Eliot and a num­ber of other peo­ple’. And the ab­bot said: ‘That’s just so far from our tra­di­tion that it may be a gift’.”

The book was The Seven Storey Moun­tain, pub­lished in 1948. It went on to sell more than a mil­lion copies. The abbey, not Mer­ton, re­ceived the roy­al­ties. It has re­mained con­tin­u­ously in print. Thomas Mer­ton went on to write Seeds of Con­tem­pla­tion, The Sign of Jonas, Con­jec­tures of a Guilty By­stander and other ti­tles among more than 60 books and hun­dreds of po­ems and ar­ti­cles. >>

The fol­low­ing year he was or­dained priest. Rob Whal­ley says it was a call­ing to which Mer­ton re­sponded for deep­en­ing rea­sons. “…One of the dy­namic qual­i­ties of the monas­tic tra­di­tion, es­pe­cially with the Trap­pists, is that it’s de­signed to bring you into ‘the dark night of the soul’; to bring you into a place where all your ideas of God fall short and the only thing you can do is shut-up and lis­ten. And so it be­comes (a place or point) where you’re al­lowed to be re­newed, or you con­sent to be re­newed, or re­born even, by God’s grace, in a way that is be­yond your con­cep­tion. …It’s to re­alise that you are a vir­ginal mo­ment in time, a place that can be a new man­i­fes­ta­tion of cre­ation. Mer­ton went through this.”

In 1962 New Seeds of Con­tem­pla­tion was pub­lished – the 1949 con­tent and ti­tle re­worked. It was a book, Rob says, in which Mer­ton de­con­structed and re­con­structed his ear­lier un­der­stand­ing of the con­tem­pla­tive jour­ney in the apophatic tra­di­tion of Bene­dictines – of “be­ing with­out light”.

“Apophatic and cat­aphatic are two streams of the­ol­ogy through­out the church,” Rob says.

“(One is cat­aphatic) – that we can talk about what God is with the light of rea­son. (But the other) is that there’s al­ways a point where God is be­yond our rea­son – be­yond what is light to us. Where we see God in light there is also God in dark­ness. So if there’s a God in love there’s a God in anger, in gain and in loss, in know­ing and of un­know­ing, so you can come to the ‘cloud of un­know­ing’: where you can fi­nally give your­self to God – to a God who is be­yond what you could ever know. And Mer­ton found that to go be­yond what he knew was to find the world re­newed in a way that he had never ex­pected.”

This sense of re­birth led Mer­ton deeply into ex­plo­rations of Zen Bud­dhism, Eastern psy­chol­ogy, Chris­tian mys­ti­cism and di­a­logue across faiths: here was a con­tem­pla­tive Catholic en­gag­ing with the world – with read­ers and lead­ers, Or­tho­dox and Protes­tant, Mus­lim and Bud­dhist. Some think that he wan­dered from Chris­tian­ity, but Pope John XXIII recog­nised this pro­found ca­pac­ity to en­gage and to hear by giv­ing Mer­ton one of his Eucharis­tic stoles, and the Dalai Lama wel­comed talks with the monk from ru­ral Ken­tucky. Th­ese were el­e­men­tal ac­knowl­edge­ments of Mer­ton’s acute ear – the con­tem­pla­tive habit of lis­ten­ing.

But death took him un­ex­pect­edly, just shy of his 54th birth­day, when he was at­tend­ing a con­fer­ence of Bene­dictines in Thai­land in De­cem­ber 1968. He was ac­ci­den­tally elec­tro­cuted. It was the twenty-sev­enth an­niver­sary of the day on which he en­tered Ges­the­mani abbey.

Rob Whal­ley first de­signed a pro­gram called ‘The Mer­ton Cen­tre’ when in sem­i­nary in Berke­ley in the 1980s. At its heart was the means for peo­ple to gather to­gether “to find out what mat­tered most”. Rob rewrote the tem­plate in the 1990s when a univer­sity chap­lain in San Fran­cisco and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill and RMIT Univer­sity, in Mel­bourne, in the early 2000s, of­fer­ing for­ma­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, cel­e­bra­tion and trans­for­ma­tion. Th­ese el­e­ments are now part of a pro­gram he’s de­vel­op­ing in Wangaratta, cen­tred at Holy Trin­ity Cathe­dral, and of­fer­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for spir­i­tual friend­ship. He’s also work­ing on a book draft which has reached “far too many pages”.

“The es­sen­tial ges­ture of be­ing hu­man is to take a voy­age with­out a plan to sur­vive,” Rob says.

“It is to take that sense of a jour­ney when life turns a cor­ner and you don’t know what in God’s name is com­ing up ahead.”

It is an­other way of ex­press­ing what Thomas Mer­ton dis­cov­ered: to go be­yond what he knew and to find the world re­newed.

In­for­ma­tion about Rob Whal­ley’s pro­gram can be found at https://the­mer­ton­cen­

words Jamie Kron­borg photos Marc Bongers, Robert Whal­ley and Mer­ton Legacy Trust

NOW AND THEN / Rob Whal­ley’s prized, orig­i­nal poster from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark was a gift from a friend, and (in­set) Rob rid­ing a pony dur­ing his Cal­i­for­nia child­hood.

JOUR­NEY / Rob Whal­ley (right), study­ing the­ol­ogy as a post­grad­u­ate in sem­i­nary at Berke­ley, first read the work of in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can monk, poet and mys­tic Thomas Mer­ton ( left) when he was 22. (Pho­to­graph of Thomas Mer­ton used with per­mis­sion of the Mer­ton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Mer­ton Cen­ter at Bel­larmine Univer­sity (Ken­tucky, USA)).

AT HOME / Rob Whal­ley (fourth from left) with Bishop John Parkes, Archdea­con John Davis and clergy, af­ter Rob’s or­di­na­tion in Wangaratta in 2009.

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