As many of you know the influence on my life by Monk Thomas “Father Louis” Merton has been monumental. Today, December 10th, is a special day in our memories of Thomas Merton. On December 10, 1941 he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. 27 years later, on December 10, 1968, he died in a tragic accident in Thailand. So today represents the 40th anniversary of his death.
I remember seeing some of the telegrams received at the abbey the day of his death. One was from Ethel Kennedy and another from Coretta Scott King. Both of them had lost their husbands the same year.
In the Catholic tradition, the day of death is the remembrance day for saints. So today I would like to share two things recently written about Merton.
One is an article written by Ray Waddle in the Tennessean on Saturday December 6 about Merton. I became a fan of Waddle’s when he lived in Nashville. He wrote a book on the Psalms titled, “A Turbulent Peace.” I love the Psalms. It is my favorite book in the Bible. Because of Ray’s influence I read through the Psalms and placed in my Bible a title for each Psalm. It took me over 3 years but has been significant as I study the Psalms.
The second note is from Rev. Wayne Burns. Wayne and I have been friends for over three decades. We have shared Merton as a friend. We have been to the monastery several times together and each day he sends out a Merton quote to hundreds of people on his mailing list.
So thanks Ray and Wayne for the remembrance of Merton. With Peace, Brother Dan.
BY RAY WADDLE
America's most famous monk lived up the road in Kentucky at Gethsemani monastery, writing books and wrestling with his own questions and impulses, until his sudden death 40 years ago next week.
Some admirers want to canonize Thomas Merton. The notion would embarrass him. To him, the point of his spiritual writings was to invite people to the blazing life of God around them, not the life of a curious fellow named Merton.
People read him today because he lived what he wrote about, seeking to renounce futile self-centeredness in order to discover the freedom of living with God. As one commentator put it, he thrilled at the life of prayer the way others thrill at Notre Dame football.
A fine new documentary, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton (prime-time debut on Channel 8 is 7 p.m. Dec. 19), gives insight into a remarkable man's conversion to God and solitude, and his struggle against fame. (The helpful companion book, $39.95, includes the DVD.)
Merton's passionate personality provided drama and conflict. He converted to Catholicism at 23 after medieval philosophy showed him two things: Intellectual rigor is important to belief, and God is not remote but the essence behind everything.
Convinced that secular success is a sham, he entered the monastery's disciplines. He entered, also, out of self-disgust, after a destructive college year in England (rumors were he fathered a child) and a bohemian embrace of New York City. At Gethsemani, he surrendered to something new, the peace of God, which emboldened him to speak against forces of modern war and modern despair.
He lived often as a hermit at the monastery but corresponded with popes, poets, laypeople and children. He believed contemplation was not just for monks but available to anyone in the turbulent world.
He dreamed of peace
His era's passions got personal: During an illness in 1966, he fell in love with a young woman, his nurse. Perhaps he who wrote so much about love needed to know he too was loved. When monastic superiors told him to end it, he did.
Fearless belief in God gave him confidence that he had something to learn from Asian spirituality. He attended a conference of Christian and Buddhist monks in Thailand when, on Dec. 10, 1968, he was electrocuted by a faulty electric fan in his hotel room. He was 53.
The 21st century has yet to live up to this 20th-century risk-taker and his dreams of reconciliation and peacemaking. But let's not make a cult of Merton. Instead, seek his books, like New Seeds of Contemplation, where he says, "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.''
Columnist Ray Waddle, former Tennessean religion editor now living in Connecticut, can be reached at email@example.com.
FROM REV. WAYNE BURNS
"On December 10, 1968, life changed for many rather quickly in the religious world. Two interesting theologian/writers died. The two had
never met, now would they. It was on December 10, 1968, that Karl
Barth and Thomas Merton died.
I was a student at The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I had studied Karl Barth and had some knowledge of Thomas Merton.
In the spring of 1967, I visited for the first time the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton was living. My professor and Merton's friend, Dr. Glenn Hinson, was the leader of a group of students to the Abbey. Since that trip, I have always remembered the Abbey. After all these years, and the study of Merton and Barth, I find December 10, 1968, to be a day to pause and remember. The writings of Merton have meant so much to me in my spiritual journey. Merton has helped me as a Baptist to think and discover some important things.
1. He gives me a deep appreciation for the monastic life. It is real and needed for every generation.
2. He challenges me to study the importance of silence and solitude in my spiritual journey. [Not easy for a Baptist minister!!!]
3. He helps to give me a desire to be open to all people and especially all religious people. He believed very deeply that everyone can be a teacher. And, we can learn from all people.
4. He taught me that life is not always easy. His writings reveal his inner and outer struggles.
5. He continues to challenge me to see to understand the love od God and make spiritual growth a daily experience.
It was forty years ago that the telegram was received at Gethsemani addressed to Abbot Burns that Thomas Merton has died.
I mentioned Karl Barth's death on the same day as Merton's death because Merton had written about Barth in the book CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER. I find the following on page 12 most interesting in remembering this day.
"Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy! Though you have grown up to become a theologian. Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation."
I am so grateful that God blessed this world with Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Glenn Hinson, and the Abbey of Gethsemani. Today , let us remember and be grateful.
MY FAVORITE MERTON QUOTE TO CLOSE WITH:
“The things I thought were so important – because of the effort I put into them – have turned out to be of small value. And the things I was never able to either to measure or to expect, were the things that mattered.”
Thomas Merton be at peace and thanks.