A symbol of spiritual rebirth and transformation
In the early 1970s, I joined a singles’ mixer that took a charter bus to a hotel in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. About fifty of us worked on suntans around the pool enclave shielded from offshore winds by a glass barrier. Laughter, mixed with nonstop chatter, filled the air as alert waiters worked the crowd.
I happened to sit next to a fellow named Jose. The slight graying of his close-trimmed beard suggested he was in his late thirties. He was a former Trappist monk and we talked at length about our common experiences residing in a monastery.
“I spent weeks in the Gethsemane infirmary hung up in traction. I had not taken my final vows yet, so the Order wasn’t obligated to provide me lifelong healthcare,” he said.
“So I suppose they asked you to leave?”
“Yeah, but I can’t blame ‘em. A disabled postulant at a monastery is fiscally unfeasible.”
“How long were you there?”
“About three years. I went back home, recouped, and got a desk job. How about you?”
“I spent a month as a candidate at St. Joseph’s Abbey, but I felt uneasy there, so I left.”
“What was it that troubled you?” he asked, sipping on ice water.
“I got high from all the chanting but had the creepy feeling it was a rehabilitation facility.”
“Huh! Without this crippling sciatica, I’d still be at Gethsemane,” he said, flexing his back.
“Did you meet Thomas Merton? I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.”
“Yes. He was my novice master in 1963 but was known then as Father Louis. He was about 48 at the time. He asked me what drew me to the monastic life, and I told him it was Thomas Merton’s book, not knowing he was the author. He must have been quite amused. Only later did I learn that Father Louis was actually Thomas Merton. By then he was famous for all his writings. The Abbot encouraged him to keep writing, for they needed a stream of income and more novice candidates.
“Merton told us novices about the advanced training of Buddhist monks with amazing abilities, learning this from correspondence with top Buddhist masters. He got permission to reside outside the compound in a secluded forest hermitage, the first American Trappist to do that. I believe he was unhappy anchored there by his vows and wanted to travel to the Far East to learn more about Buddhist training techniques. He finally got permission to travel to Thailand in 1968 for a world religious conference, but it was there that he died of a tragic accident in his hotel room.”
“That same year, Gethsemane was next up on my pilgrimage list, to meet Merton in person.”
“So you never got to meet him. But his spirit is right here from talking about him,” he said.
“Did you pursue his interest in Buddhist concentration techniques?” I asked.
“I learned to pray with a sharp focal image and experienced some extraordinary abilities.”
“Like what?” I was curious to know.
Jose pointed to a giant Blue Morpho butterfly flitting about our enclosure. I looked over to the gorgeous creature maybe six inches across with blacked fringed wings of iridescent blue. In a startled moment, I imagined it as a flying flower.
“Watch this,” Jose said with confidence. He sat up and kept his focus on it.
It took about five minutes before the butterfly swooped past us, circled back a couple of times, then landed on Jose’s nose. He had attracted the insect, but for the casual observer it would have appeared to be a natural, spontaneous event. I was not alone staring in wonder.
He stood up cautiously and walked around the compound so that everyone could see. Most conversations stopped as people saw a magnificent butterfly pulsing its wings on Jose’s nose.
I had walked beside Jose half way around the pool when he said, “Now I will tell it to fly away.” Sure enough, it took off without physical prompting and flew over the glass barrier.
The loud talking resumed as if nothing amazing had happened. After we returned to our places, a woman came to us and asked, “How did you do that? Can I do that too?”
“Of course you can — anyone can. If you have faith strong enough and you practice, then all things are possible.”
“So what do I have to do?” she said, looking around to see that only she was interested.
“Do you have pets?” he asked.
“I have a poodle.”
“Experiment: call your pet to you with mental commands until you see results. Mentally make him scratch a specific ear. Success breeds success and that’ll increase your faith in prayer.”
After she left, he said to me, “Our prayers would be much more effective by learning to focus. Even in strong sunlight, an unfocused magnifying glass cannot ignite tinder. The Church is failing to teach how to focus the mind for effective prayer. That’s what troubled Merton.”
“So why isn’t focused contemplation taught to laity?” I asked, lying back in my lounge chair.
“It’s not easy to do it, for one thing. Stilling my angry mind was like calming a raging sea, and I found most helpful the image of Christ awakened to still the wind. Buddhists ponder it, too.
“Increasing my confidence took lots of practice like anything else worth doing. Besides, most people are too distracted with their mundane chores to learn how to pray effectively. We settle for intellectualizing our faith and fail to actualize it. We love to theorize about charity but fail to act charitable. We love to talk about the saints but do little to emulate their rigorous austerities.”
I took his advice and after months of practice demonstrated it myself. If I had not seen Jose do this, and practiced it at home, my efforts might have fallen short. But once, at a lawn concert in Quebec, a Monarch flitting near us became the object of my focus. It took several minutes for the butterfly to settle upon my nose ― to the amazement of my companion. I was not wearing any lotion or yellow clothing that would have attracted it to me only and not a thousand other folks.
“You know,” she said, “it’s a superstition in the Orient that if a butterfly comes and lands on you, it means you’re special.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I read that it symbolizes spiritual rebirth and transformation.”
A long search for miracles led me to gazing cross-eyed at this regal butterfly on my nose. Then I ordered the Monarch to leave, and, as for Jose, it flew away. I suppose to my companion it was nothing more than a natural event. But for me it was a reminder of Christ’s promises: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7), and, “Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24).
From The Narthex
Of late we’ve heard much about caution—indeed, an abundance of caution, and rightly so. My…
The other day I had a chance, via Skype, to have a conversation about what…
Is the road to hell paved with good intentions? Yes and no. Yes, if we…