Remembering Thomas Merton

During the early 1960s, my family and I spent three summers in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I—an Episcopalian priest—studied in the graduate program of St. Luke’s School of Theology. There I met another seminarian with whom I shared a common interest: We were both admirers of Thomas Merton.

At that time I’d read only Merton’s spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain—a deeply moving account of his struggles and joy at finally finding a home in the Catholic Church. Merton was born in France, where his parents worked as artists. After World War I he spent time in both the United States and England, but ultimately he returned to the States to enroll in Columbia University. There, through some of his professors, he came in touch with the Catholic Church. After his conversion and baptism, he taught briefly at St. Bonaventure College before discerning a monastic vocation and entering the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Though I had no conscious desire to follow in his steps, I often wished I could meet the man.

My new friend told me that this was possible. After receiving numerous requests, the abbot of Gethsemane had allowed Merton (or, as he was known in the monastery, Father Louis) to meet with groups of visitors on late Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings. Sometimes dozens of people would come, and Merton would visit with them all.

I called the abbey and arranged to take part in the next group meeting, and on a Sunday morning shortly thereafter, I made the five-hour drive from Sewanee. When I arrived early that afternoon, the guestmaster took me to pleasant accommodations in the guest house adjacent to the chapel. He said I was the first to come. I assumed others would follow.

 

After settling into my room and waiting for about an hour, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to see a garbed monk of medium height, with a broad, warm smile, extending his hand to me in greeting. Immediately I thought, “This man acts like he’s expecting me!” Merton came into my room, introduced himself, and we chatted for a bit. Here I was, a total stranger, a non-Catholic clergyman, come to take up his valuable time just to get acquainted with him and ask questions. He could not have been more gracious in making me feel welcome.

Merton left me before dinner was served in the guest house, as the monks retired around seven and rose before two in the morning. The dinner was plain but quite tasty—I was especially fond of the Trappist cheese. (When I told this to Merton later, he agreed and noted that when a monk was sick in the infirmary, he was allowed to have some of the cheese, not otherwise. Their diet was vegetarian—”but,” he said ruefully, patting his stomach, “I can still gain weight on it.”)

I spent the long free evening that Sunday browsing through the extensive library of the guest house. Finally I settled on a book—I cannot recall the author—that turned out to be an Anglican’s account of his conversion to Catholicism. “Do I really want to read this?” I asked myself, and then proceeded to do so. The story was unsettling to me as an Episcopalian, but I put it out of mind and went to bed.

Shortly after 2 a.m., with the moon high in the night sky, I was awakened by music. It was faint, filtered through the walls of the guest house from the chapel. To my Protestant ears it sounded unearthly; I’d never encountered anything like it. Once I convinced myself that I had not indeed died and gone to heaven (purgatory didn’t figure into my thinking then), I lay back and listened to the Gregorian chant until it ended.

I learned after I arose that morning that what I’d heard were the voices of well over 100 monks chanting the early morning office. I had never before experienced Gregorian chant at any length and certainly nothing like what I heard from the monks of Gethsemane.

But apart from the beauty of their chanting, I was impressed by their apparent informality. Standing and leaning back on their upraised seats, they made it all seem effortless. No one was directing them, yet they sang in perfect unison. I also noted that when they were chanting, the organ was not audible. Only during pauses in the chanting could we hear the instrument. For years as a pastor I had vainly tried to persuade enthusiastic organists to accompany, not drown out, the congregation. Now this was true accompaniment.

After I finished breakfast, Merton again came to meet me in the guest house. To my surprise and delight, no one else had come that day. We spent the morning in the garden—sometimes walking, sometimes sitting, and always talking. I thanked him for the powerful account of his pilgrimage, and found him to be one of the few persons I’ve known who could accept a compliment with grace and ease. He generously asked about my background and my family—I knew from reading his autobiography that, in his younger years, he had had some contact with the Episcopalian Church through his father. None of his questions implied any criticism, nor was I ever made to feel defensive about my Episcopalian faith.

I, in turn, asked about Catholicism. His answers were simple, clear, and matter-of-fact. While he never, in any of our conversations, specifically encouraged me to learn more about the Catholic Faith, I realize now that everything he told me had that effect.

Merton was unusually articulate, lighthearted in his speech and countenance. Frequently he was quite humorous, especially when he made gently self-deprecating remarks. He never spoke of his work except in response to my questions. I knew from reading about him that the monk was extremely busy. He trained novices, wrote, translated, carried on voluminous correspondences with persons in this country and in Europe, and also worked in the fields—all this in addition to the rigorous schedule of prayer and meditation that was the heart of his monastic vocation. Yet at every moment of our hours together he seemed totally relaxed, as if he hadn’t a thing to do but talk with me.

Merton was an excellent listener, drawing out my thoughts. He never gave the impression that, like so many of us in conversation, he was only waiting as I spoke to take his turn in speaking. There was never a lull in our conversation. A bystander would have taken us to be old friends. So gracious was he that only while I was driving home did I reflect on the fact that he had spent those hours with me, a total stranger, and had made me feel he was glad I’d come.

Before we parted company on Monday at midday, he led me to the bookstore and autographed two of his books for me. We shook hands and parted, he to return to the monastery and I to return home. For five hours on the road I scarcely thought of anything other than my conversations with Merton. And I grinned broadly at each memory.

The following summer I returned to Gethsemane—again, as Merton’s lone visitor. The morning after my arrival, we walked through the monastery gardens and caught up on each other’s lives. Merton said he’d long wanted a hermitage in the woods for secluded times of prayer and that he’d mentioned this to one of his other visitors. Not long after, the abbot was informed that funds had been collected to build the hermitage and an architect had drawn up plans (“All steel and glass,” Merton said with a broad grin).

Moreover, a working party of college students was scheduled to come to the abbey and build the hermitage under professional direction. Merton told me that when the abbot learned of this, he said he was not going to have a bunch of college students running around the abbey. “If you’re going to have a hermitage,” he told the monk, “we’ll build it.” And so they did.

Merton and I got into a jeep and he drove me through the woods to see it. After following the winding road for a short time, the hermitage came into view. It was an oblong cinder block structure with one room across the back, two rooms half that length in front, and a porch that ran along its length. Inside, the furnishings were sparse: one room for sleeping, one for prayer and writing, one with primitive kitchen facilities. The hermitage was plain, even rustic, and as I entered it I sensed a peace about it. For about three hours, Merton and I sat in rocking chairs on the porch, talking and gazing down a gentle slope into the woods.

At one point, our conversation turned to current events. Merton, who I knew was strongly drawn to pacifism, said he’d recently written several articles on peace and war. Apparently he’d been writing as many as he could, because he sensed the abbot was none too pleased that one of his monks was so involved in temporal affairs. Merton grinned mischievously and said, “I think he’s going to tell me to stop writing these articles, so I want to get as many in print as I can before I have to stop.”

While he spoke, I focused my movie camera on him, hoping to have something for posterity. Unfortunately, when the film was developed later—and I still have it—it revealed a double exposure. I had filmed Merton over film previously taken of my ten-year-old daughter dancing in a circle. The two events combined to show a smiling Merton with our daughter dancing around him. (He would have laughed at the mistake.)

During neither of my visits to Gethsemane did Merton speak to me about coming into the Church. I think he was willing to let the Holy Spirit use whatever inspiration I received at Gethsemane to bring me to my true home. He did promise to pray for me, and I believe his prayers attended me in my pilgrimage.

My visit drew to a close and my friend (for so I counted him) bade me goodbye. As I drove down the lane from the abbey to the highway, I heard a loud roaring behind me. I was overtaken by a young monk driving a large tractor at break-neck speed. I caught a glimpse of a bare-headed, handsome young man, on his way to the fields. He waved and smiled as he glanced over his shoulder at me. It was the last time I would visit Gethsemane.

Two years later, shortly before we entered the Church with our children, my wife and I jointly composed a letter explaining our decision. We mailed it to about 250 friends and acquaintances around the country. One went to Thomas Merton. He promptly wrote back—in tiny handwriting—offering a bit of advice that I’ve never forgotten:

Dear Ray,

I am happy to hear the good news. Blessings, and congratulations. It is not the human element in the Church that is important, so don’t be surprised if you run into hardship sometimes. But it is worth it to be in the true Body of Christ, and to be fully His and more able to serve Him effectively.

Ever in the Spirit,

[signed] Father M. Merton

Faithful Catholics of recent decades will understand what Merton meant about “hardship.” A few years before, one of his favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, had written to a friend who was being drawn to the Church: “It seems a fact that [as a Catholic] you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it.”

On December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died—electrocuted accidentally while in Asia, attending a conference on Buddhism. Since that day, dissenting Catholics have claimed him for their own, making him in their own rebellious image. Some have even said he was about to become a Zen Buddhist himself. This is simply untrue. Shortly after his death, Merton’s secretary, Patrick Hart, stated definitively that at the moment of his death, Thomas Merton was a devout Catholic who had no intention of deserting the Faith. Indeed, with the blessing of his abbot, he was going to start a new Trappist foundation and had preliminary conversations about it with people in both Washington state and Alaska.

I believe what Patrick Hart has written. In my hours with Merton I sensed his deep joy in Christ and a serenity I had never encountered in another person. Those brief meetings did much to cleanse my mind of Protestant prejudices against the Church and helped open the way for the Holy Spirit to lead me home.

Thank you, Thomas Merton.

By

Rev. Ray Ryland is a contributing editor of This Rock magazine and chaplain of the Coming Home Network.

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