Remembering Thomas Merton

Today is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton.

I first encountered Merton in a little booklet entitled On Opening the Bible. It was required reading for my first semester in seminary. Later that same year I would go with a group of classmates and we spent four days at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky. I am one of the privileged few who have stayed in the actual cloister of a Trappist monastery–with the no talking, cold showers, and vegetarian meals.

The impact of Gethsemani and Merton on my life has been profound. Merton witnessed first hand the disintegration of Western Civilization and believed that he and his generation were responsible. His response to that “guilt” was to enter into a life of prayer in the Cistercian way. Over the years I developed casual friendships with Merton’s confessor, Father Timothy, and one of Merton’s students–the retreat master at the monastery. Although these men took vows of silence, because of their work, they did indeed talk.

On my last visit to Gethsemani, on Good Friday nearly 8 years ago, I had a long conversation with my friend the retreat master (sadly, as sometimes happens in religious communities, I never got his name).

“You know,” he quietly said, “you are on the path, and someday you will end up here.”

I knew that day, with a little sadness, that I would not end up there in the monastery. I also had a little ache in my heart because I knew this might be my last visit to Gethsemani. I think I was right, it has been nearly a decade now since that visit, and this is the longest stretch without a “monk fix” in a long time. Father Timothy is dead now too, and his evening talks and poetry readings with a thick Boston accent are gone with him.

Even so, today is the day we remember Merton. He knew that he would never be officially called a saint. There is enough complexity in him that all the intellectuals glom onto the Buddhist bits, and the pacifist bits, and the cultural critique. And although Merton explored all of these things in his writings, the liberals forget that he was a monk who prayed about 4 hours a day, began his public day at Mass, and instructed his students to “keep the names of Jesus and Mary on your lips at all time.” As my old boss Jerry Mercer once said, “the center of Merton’s life was the cross.”

Merton loved God and had issues. Just like all of us.

When strangers ask me what I do, I describe myself as a “modern urban monk.” Somehow I have adopted a somewhat Trappist lifestyle in a very different setting. My cloister is a coffee shop, and I say the offices from my iPad. I take the direction to keep the names of Jesus and Mary on my lips seriously, and like they tell the monks, “You do not know who in the world is depending on your prayers.”

I believe God is about to do a new thing, and I am pretty certain it will be as dramatic as the Protestant Reformation. Today I am grateful for my roots in the monastary, for Merton, and for the permission to become my real self.