Spots of Time: Meditations on Merton

The anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton (Dec. 10, 1968) is coming up, and I offer this meditation from a few years back.

"Spots of time” is what the poet William Wordsworth called those places that imprint themselves so deeply into our minds that simply remembering them can lift our hearts—in other words, holy places. I thought about that phrase as I left Kentucky recently after visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown (actually it’s in Trappist, Ky.), and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville. For me there are a handful of spots that have become such a source of spiritual life that just thinking about them fills me with consolation. The famous grottos at the Marian shrine of Lourdes in southern France is one. The less famous, but no less beautiful, Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass., hard by the Atlantic coast, is another. And though I have visited it only twice, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani is a third.


Not long ago I was invited by the Merton Center to give a little talk as part of the center’s continuing lecture series. A few weeks before my visit, the director of the center, a friendly Englishman and Merton scholar named Paul Pearson, mentioned that a visiting group of Elderhostel students would be touring the monastery the morning of my talk. Did I want to join them?

Who knew that Kentucky in the fall is every bit as beautiful as New England? (I didn’t, that’s for sure.) Our bus ride to the monastery took us through amber and russet trees in the middle of bluegrass country. In just an hour the tall spire of the abbey’s church came into view, like a ship’s mast appearing over the sea. After we parked, I wandered over to Merton’s grave, which stands in the midst of the abbey cemetery, beside the church, and prayed for friends and family.

The monastery has just built a new visitors’ center, in which James Conner, O.C.S.O., (the Father Tarcisius of Merton’s journals) reminisced about his friend, Thomas Merton. “How did Merton react to his silencing over the cold war?,” I asked. With both obedience and grace, he replied, but also with some creativity. (Merton, as is well known, distributed copies of his writings on the topic to friends with access to mimeograph machines.) On the way to community prayer, I met a gray-haired monk standing outside the church. Brother Patrick Hart, formerly Merton’s secretary, greeted me cheerfully. The next day I would meet Tommie O’Callaghan, who knew Merton when she was still a young mother. She laughed as she told stories about Father Louis (using Merton’s religious name). Having met three of Merton’s companions, I could have gone home satisfied. But there was more to come.

The day after my talk, Paul brought me to the Thomas Merton Center. Located in a series of hushed rooms within the library of Bellarmine University, the center functions as a scholarly research institute housing Merton’s writings and a kind of museum. (It also maintains a Web site at Lining its walls are photographs that I had seen dozens of times in books, but never in person. And there was my hero’s typewriter standing atop a tall wooden stand. “Can I touch it?” Paul laughed and said, “Sure.” I placed my fingers on the keys and wondered if any writing graces would come through this future relic.  “Now I probably shouldn’t be showing you this,” said Paul conspiratorially, “but follow me.” He unlocked a door that led into a room full of bookcases and black metal file cabinets. This, he said, were the center’s archives.

Opening a file cabinet drawer, he reached for a cardboard box. Gingerly, he lifted off its top to reveal an archival bag with something inside. Then he removed a hardbound book and smiled. “Are your hands clean?” I opened the book and saw lines and lines of neat, familiar handwriting. “It’s the journal from the last months of his life,” said Paul.  I turned to the final entry, for Dec. 8, 1968, which, though prosaic, I remembered well. Merton was on a long trip, his first as a monk, and was now in Thailand. “Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.... I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon.” The writing stops mid-page. Two days later, Merton was accidentally electrocuted and died instantly.

Standing there in the quiet room, surrounded by Merton’s writings, holding the same book that he had labored on, rendered me uncharacteristically speechless. I thought of so many things: the suddenness of Merton’s death, the prodigiousness of his work, the holiness of his life and the graces in our own lives that bring us to these remarkable places—these “spots of time” that we remember for the rest of our days.

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9 years 3 months ago
Wonderful reflection, especially for December 10, which is the anniversary of Merton's death.
Michael Widner
9 years 3 months ago
Having been to Gethsamane many times, I can identify with your "Being There" and the beauty of the place.  Kentucky is, as Fr. Clyde Crews wrote, an "American Holy Land".
On the down side it was always difficult to put up with the Merton "groupies" who showed up more often than not, but the place remains a holy place!
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 3 months ago
I confess to being a Merton groupie of sorts, but I have an excuse.  I am a KY native and grew up in a town (Bardstown) very near to Gethsemane.  My father was a dairyman, and attended Lauds every morning with the monks.  I tagged along sometime.  Merton's books were brought home to our shelves as he wrote them, so I've known of Merton for as long as I can remember.
If there is a feast day for Father Louie, December 10th is it. This is the day, in 1941, that he arrived at the Abby of Our Lady of Gethsemane to begin his life as a Trappist monk. Twenty seven years later, on this day, he died in Bangkok Thailand while participating in a monastic conference.
On that last day, Merton was speaking to the “Meeting of the Monks of Asia”, a gathering that was organized by AIM (Aide a l’Implantation Monastique). The event had brought together seventy monks, nuns, and scholars from twenty-two countries in Asia, America, and Europe, along with journalists and television crews from three countries.
Merton was not especially looking forward to the talk. The journalists and camera crews - his very notoriety - were what he wished to avoid. In fact, the photographers, journalists, and TV crews did, in fact, focus on him, and he was the only person at the conference who was treated that way.
Merton's talk was about the future of monasticism. Not necessarily the monasticism that is tied to an institution (what happens when the institution collapses?), but to the monk/man who knows the score. The monk who takes up a critical attitue toward the world and its structures, who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent, who attains a liberty that no one can touch and who lives by the law of love.
I thought of Merton's speech this morning while watching Barack Obama accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. His speech, like Merton's, was about the future.
"I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more – and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share."
Joseph Farrell
9 years 3 months ago
Wonderful meditation, Father.  Thanks for sharing!


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