Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Remembering Louie at 40 Years
FATHER LOUIS MERTON, OCSO
Born in Prades, France January 31, 1915
Entered Gethsemani Abbey December 10, 1941
Died in Bangkok, Thailand December 10, 1968
"What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe."
(From Day of a Stranger)
For all the many books, articles, poems, etc. -- for all the words -- which Thomas Merton wrote, I have a hunch that "Louie", as his closest friends called him, preferred "arrow-type" statements of what he felt deepest: simple, concise, understated. I remembering thinking, when I visited his birthplace in Prades in 1998, how much he would have liked the stark marble memorial plaque on the side of the building at the corner of rue de 4 Septembre and rue du Palais de Justice: "Thomas Merton, Ecrivain Américain".
Early on in my life my wise mother, Grace, bought me the first two sources of my sacred reading: a Douay-Rheims version of the Bible with pictures and a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. These have been the foundation for me of basic notions of how life and prayer go together. Later, in high school seminary, those were reinforced by my discovery of a copy of Thomas Merton's Seeds of Contemplation, originally published in 1949. What attracted me initially, I think, was the classy rough burlap cover!
From the time I was 14 I'd been at least curious about the monastic/contemplative life, mainly from correspondence with Abbot Eugene Martin of the Trappist Abbey of New Melleray in Dubuque, IA. I was ready to apply, but Abbot Eugene gently broke the news that, unfortunately, I was still too young to enter the monastery. Deeply disappointed, I put thoughts of monastic life on the back burner.
A year or so later came the introduction to Merton's book which became the springboard for my meditations for most of those early seminary years. Much of what he said was entirely over my head, but the few things I could understand touched something very deep within. I spent the next nine years pondering, praying, and see-sawing back and forth over whether I was called to the active or contemplative religious life. By 1956 I'd read most every book by Merton on which I could lay my hands. The fascination with the Cistercian way of life continued, though I'd still never had any first-hand contact with monks nor had I visited a monastery. I spoke with my family about it, but I think they thought it was a "phase" I was going through, and that I'd probably grow out of it!
In mid-summer, 1956, my stepfather, Tom, drove me to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky where I made a weekend men's retreat. Fr. Louis had recently been appointed Novice Master, so during the retreat it occurred to me that maybe I should speak with him about my vocation. I asked the Guestmaster if Fr. Louis might be available and if I could speak with him. He arranged it, and when Merton arrived that afternoon, 19 year old skeptic that I was, I actually asked if he was really Fr. Louis! He simply nodded that he was.
My "moment with Merton", though indelibly etched in my memory, was all too brief and unspectacular. I was an awkward, shy adolescent, not even close to making a decision about where I was headed, much less about the Trappists. I'd only briefly discussed it with my spiritual director at college, Fr. Norman Schmock, who later, as Fr. Hilarion, was one of Merton's novices and a fellow hermit monk with Merton.
The immediate impression of Merton was how humble and ordinary as an old shoe he seemed to be. Though by that time I'd read The Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas, in addition to Seeds of Contemplation, I could really have had no inkling of just what an impact Thomas Merton was already having and would eventually have on American Catholicism, on monasticism, on spirituality, and on me. I recognized that he was someone special and my motives for wanting to meet him, outside the obvious one, probably smacked a little of one-upsmanship among my seminary colleagues. During the 10 or 15 minutes we talked, I was struck by how intently he listened to my self-conscious questions and comments, to which he nodded quietly and wisely. He wore glasses with clear plastic frames and looked directly at me with a serene and kind demeanor. He explained that he and the monks at Gethsemani were just "ordinary people living an ordinary life in order to love God", or something to that effect. Simple, concise, understated.
As our brief meeting together came to an end, I asked Merton for his blessing, to which he graciously agreed, and I knelt to receive it. And that was it.
Thomas Merton has remained a kind of mentor and soul friend for me, as he has been for countless others, since my first exposure to his writings, even before I met him. I continued reading his books throughout my seminary days, before and after my own brief Trappist monastic experience as a novice in Utah in 1960. Since then I've continued to read a good portion of things by and about him through the years. In 2001 I was privileged to visit the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, and to view Merton's memorabilia, manuscripts, etc., and to meet Dr. Paul Pearson, the director.
Merton's seven volumes of journals shed particular light on much that was happening on a larger scale at that time in the Church and in my own life. They also put into perspective my later experience with the Trappist community at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, Huntsville, UT. I can also readily identify with much of Merton's earthy and human side: his sometimes irreverent nose-thumbing at ecclesiastical conventionalities; his fascination and struggle over relationships with women; and his constant wrestling with his inner insecurity. One thing is for sure: when Merton is deep he's really deep. Though there's not a ghost of a chance in hell that he'll ever be recognized as an official saint by the Catholic Church, for me he'll always be one because he unflinchingly lived the down-side as well as the lofty side of his quest for the living God. Thomas Merton was no plastic goody-two-shoes! He taught me that one can live even with seemingly contradictory tensions, convictions, and actions in one's life and still faithfully and passionately love God.
My first impulse, on this 40th anniversary of his death, is to say, "Rest in peace, Fr. Louis", but I'm gonna say, "May you carry on your eternal holy mischief, Louie!"