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October 22, 2017

Thomas Merton, Monk and Mountain

On this day in 1941 twenty-six-year-old Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist Order near Bardstown, Kentucky; and on this day in 1968 the fifty-three-year-old Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand. His accidental electrocution -- a poorly-wired bedside fan, touched while Merton was still wet from the shower -- came just hours after his address at an international conference of religious leaders, before a packed audience and television cameras. This fame began when Merton's early autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), became a best seller; a mountain of journalism, journal-writing, political activism and poetry followed over the next decades. Merton felt that a monk's life could be "a furnace of ambivalence," and he was heading in new directions at the end, but to the world he "embodied the quest for God and for human solidarity," and his death was mourned on many front-pages.

Merton's first, two-week visit to the Gethsemani Trappists in 1941, at the age of twenty-six, made an impression: "I had wondered what was holding the country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is this monastery if only this one.... This is the only real city in America -- in a desert. It is the axle around which the whole country blindly turns." Too, this was April in bluegrass Kentucky, "full of rolling and dipping land, woods, cedars, dark green fields.... The Trappist brothers in their medieval peasant hoods and their swathed legs and big homemade boots tramp along in a line through the vineyards; bells ring in the steeple." The return to New York was not easy: "Candy in a drugstore window. Newspapers. Mannequins in store windows. Women's clothes have military insignia all over them now. Speech is violent and hard and blasphemous...." Nor was it for long. When he next rang the Gatehouse bell on December 10th, "an icy wind was blowing over the gray grass and the concrete walks," but he had his poetry books in his suitcase -- Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake -- and he was overjoyed "that conversations were over and done with." After a day of washing dishes and waxing floors, he handed over his fountain pen, wristwatch and cash.

He got the pen back. Expecting and hoping to be forbidden his compulsion to write -- the rules allowed monks only two half-page letters four times a year -- he was instead encouraged to keep at it. As Merton imposed a publication ban until twenty-five years after his death, many of the journals have only been made available in the last decade, but enough was published in Merton's lifetime to make him a counterculture celebrity -- visited by Joan Baez, quoted by Lenny Bruce, a karma-child to many. But he was aware of his paradoxes and conflicts -- with his Abbot, for example, whom he lobbied for both his own hermitage and for permission to travel -- and he could scoff at the public image: "Due to a book I wrote thirty years ago, I have myself become a sort of stereotype of the world-denying contemplative -- the man who spurned New York, spat on Chicago, and tromped on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, St. John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open at the Apocalypse."

Merton's final trip was not as an orthodox, if famous, Trappist to a religious conference. Whatever form his spiritual quest was about to take, his journal entries in Asia make it clear that he did not expect to be returning to his Kentucky monastery. He had become increasingly interested in Zen Buddhism, and just days before his death had experienced some sort of epiphany while looking at the eight-centuries-old Buddhas carved in the rock at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. In his last scripted remarks at the conference he spoke of a religious path that was neither Eastern nor Western, that "should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals -- and mere this and that." His next impromptu statement, just hours before his death, seems to capture, perhaps eerily, the divergent paths that he and the world were taking: "So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something. Thank you very much."

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