The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries is a travel memoir that ventures from Tom Montgomery Fate’s small town upbringing to vastly different cultures around the globe. Tom defines “home” not as a physical location, but as a way of belonging. We are pleased that the Collegeville Institute was one “detour” that formed part of this journey, and Tom also did work on other essays while at the Collegeville Institute. This excerpt comes from a winter visit as a short-term Resident Scholar.
I regard poets and monks as the best degenerates in America. Both have a finely developed sense of the sacred potential in all things. —Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk
A few years ago, I had a sabbatical at the Collegeville Institute in central Minnesota, where there is also a Benedictine Abbey. I knew about the Abbey from a Kathleen Norris book, which she wrote there thirty years ago. Dakota—a “spiritual geography”—turned these boring old plains into sacred ground. The book felt like a midwestern Walden to me. This mattered, as I’ve lived in Iowa and Illinois my whole life. Dakota also resonated with me at the time, because I’d just completed two graduate degrees back-to-back—in creative writing and religion—and was still not sure how/if they might align. Poet-monks like Norris and Thoreau gave me hope.
I said a prayer of gratitude. That’s why I had come, on the cusp of a sabbatical—to offer thanks.
Four o’clock pm. Twelve below zero. I had just arrived at the Abbey, but it was an hour before evening prayers, so I took a hike around Lake Sagatagan. My destination was Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”), a tiny red brick chapel built by the monks more than a century ago. It was much farther than I remembered. Or maybe it was just cold. Or the wind, or the snow. I last visited the Abbey in the summer. Then people were swimming and kayaking.
As I walked, I noticed a single trail of footprints led out to the middle of the lake, where a man kneeled on the ice in the brutal wind. He was very still. Waiting. Ice-fishing I assumed. Or maybe praying. Maybe both. That day they seemed like the same thing. Any fish that appeared would surely be a sign from God. When I got closer to the bank, I could make out the auger he’d used to drill the hole, and a little rod and a silver can. But no fish, or shelter from the wind.
A half-hour later I arrived at the chapel. It was warmer inside—maybe 15 above. I said a prayer of gratitude. That’s why I had come, on the cusp of a sabbatical—to offer thanks. “Thank you for Shmita, for Sabbath time to write and walk and pray,” I said to the empty room, to the frozen stones and small wooden pew.
“Attentiveness without an aim is the supreme form of prayer,” writes the French mystic Simone Weil. This sort of makes sense to me. The poet and the monk both attempt to live in a perpetual prayer of attention. But no one has the focus or patience to be fully attentive and present. No one’s perfect. If I were a verb tense, I would be imperfect, and present: an “unfinished” action happening now. As in “I am trying to fish” or “I am trying to pray”— both of which require waiting and wondering.
As I sat there in the chapel, hunched on the frozen pew, I considered why it was so hard to believe that everyone is unfinished—and beautiful. I used to tell my writing students that beauty is recognized and defined by flaw, not flawlessness. It’s about difference and uniqueness, not the cookie cutter shape or symmetry of TV models for underwear or face cream. It’s the sharp crook in the nose, the oddly tilted smile, or how one eyebrow arches up in disbelief all by itself.
Recognizing the beauty in our daily lives requires a deep attentiveness.
But recognizing the beauty in our daily lives requires a deep attentiveness. And that is harder now, since we tend to reward distraction—multi-present multi-tasking. As we tweet and snap and text, our FOMO and insecurity grow, though our attention spans shrink. Waiting, and paying attention, have become countercultural.
Which is partly what made the pandemic so difficult: we had to wait for months for a hug, or a Covid-19 test, or a vaccine, or rent money, or a new job. So, while my time at the Collegeville Institute did not prepare me for the pandemic, it didn’t hurt. I went there to practice—to wait and wonder—like Norris and Thoreau, and that guy out there on the ice. Because that’s what monks and poets do. They are unfinished. They don’t arrive.
Another poet-monk, Thomas Merton, visited this same Abbey in 1956, and walked to this same chapel. “Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon in the quiet woods behind Stella Maris Chapel,” he wrote, “reading, thinking and realizing the inadequacy of both reading and thinking.” Merton, a Trappist, may be the most well-known monk of the modern era. In part because he wrote 50 books and read voraciously his whole life. Often, he writes of the paradox of a monk’s life: they belong to the world by retreating from it. And, like the Benedictines, the Trappists also take a vow of stability—to stay put in one abbey for their whole lives.
Walking back around the lake that day, I felt the “inadequacy” Merton mentioned as I pondered what I was hoping to write—stories of travel, both physical and spiritual. Not stories of arrival—but of being lost, and found, and lost again. Not only “a journey into space,” as Nelle Morton once wrote, “but a journey into presence.” Not tours, but unmarked detours. Detours of intention, which can be read two ways: sometimes I chose the route, but more often it chose me.
A prayer is also a detour of intention.
A prayer is also a detour of intention. We don’t know where we’re going. We choose to wait, and to listen, but for how long? Five minutes? A week? And to what or whom? To God? To Her silence? Or mystery? Though sometimes a shivering sense of Belonging rises up, amid the icy rocks and creaking trees.
When we travel, we are always looking out at the physical world with the eye, and in, at the self, at the I. This delicate, difficult braid of self and world, of both seeing and seeking, is for me at the heart of the writing process. But it’s also at the heart of prayer.