Thomas Merton and Our Dad

A Father's Day Reflection

Dad at Gethsemani on retreat, October 2010
Dad at Gethsemani on retreat, October 2010

In that cosmically complex and fun butterfly effect way of looking at the world, we may never have been born if it wasn’t for Thomas Merton, the world’s most prominent Catholic monk and prolific author. Besides being a father himself before entering the monastery and Catholic priesthood (thank God Catholics and spiritual seekers everywhere have such a wild and real role model to look to), Merton has always played a huge role in the mythology and background story of our own father and was always the subject of many memories shared in the evenings over family dinners.

In the early 1960s, inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, our dad decided to follow what he thought was his calling and go join the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Kentucky monastery made famous by Merton.

Growing up in our very, very Catholic family, we used to hear these stories all the time, though it wasn’t until somewhere in our mid-20s that we realized how exceptional they were. It’s one thing to have worked, sung and prayed in the same monastery as Tom Merton, but a whole cooler experience to say you were able to discuss life, prayer, and the world with him as your spiritual advisor.

According to Dad, Merton’s talks would center on world affairs, prayer in one’s personal life, and the hermitic spirituality of devotion and silence. He would begin discussing a religious subject and always seem to get off topic somehow. Dad remembers him as a good man: fair, smart, open, and sociable.

The basic rule of the monastery then and now is an epigram of sorts: Silence Is Spoken Here. The phrase is pure Zen. The silence encourages contemplation, though could sometimes be a source of confusion as we found out through one of Dad’s recollections. It was November 22, 1963, and he had just finished typing up some of Merton’s notes when a monk suddenly appeared at the doorway, speaking with hand gestures — very common in the monastery, monk sign language — to describe something. He frantically pointed his index finger in the air then quickly made a shooting gesture with his thumb and index finger. With great haste and excitement, the monk disappeared down the hallway, leaving Dad puzzled and wondering what it meant: that somebody had shot God? After supper, gathered with the rest of the monks and novices in the chapter room for daily reflection, he was finally told aloud about President Kennedy’s assassination.

Inside those cloistered walls, Dad, forever the avid athlete, often found himself restless. He frequently shares this favorite memory, the hint of a wry smile crossing his lips: One afternoon after showering, he crunched his damp towel into a ball and proceeded to score a perfect shot in the shower room laundry basket — an innocent, yet telling moment. When the monks met for their daily reflection that night, someone mentioned seeing Dad playing basketball with the dirty laundry. The other novices chuckled, Dad reddened with embarrassment, and the superiors looked him over sternly. He was told he was behaving as if he were still in college or the Air Force and not in the monastery. He was given some kind of crazy penance to inspire humbleness. Though Merton was not such a demanding taskmaster, the slower, more reflective lifestyle of the monastic life was turning out to be quite trying for Dad.

Dad first entering Gethsemani as a novice, August 1963
Dad first entering Gethsemani as a novice, August 1963

Lastly, and probably for us kids most importantly, comes a memory from those early days after first entering Gethsemani. In order not to be completely shut off from the outside world, novices were allowed to write two letters a month — strictly to family members. Merton believed in writing letters and understood the opportunities they afforded. As the novice master, it was also up to him to decide when and if the novices could bend any rules. We can see it now, a young version of our father, sheepishly making his request to Merton.

Dad: Fr. Louis.
Merton: Yes?
Dad: I was wondering if it would be all right if I could write an additional letter to a friend.
Merton: And who would that be?
Dad: A young woman. I’ve been writing her for a while.
Merton: A girlfriend?
Dad: Kind of. But we’ve never met. Just been corresponding over the past year.
(Merton smiles, remembering a girl from his own past or perhaps his own romantic pen pal then looks upon Dad closer, seeing something written on his face, an inkling of a truer calling to something other than that of the silence and innerness of the monastery.)
Merton: I think that would be fine.

That “kind of” girlfriend turned out to be our mother. Merton’s encouragement gave Dad the inspiration to continue writing her throughout his next six months at Gethsemani and for three more years after he left, finally meeting her in the summer of 1966 and marrying a few months later. The first of us children was born two years after that in 1968, the same year Dad would find out on the nightly news that Merton had died while in Thailand.

Since leaving the monastery, Dad has continued to get spiritual advice from Merton, having read nearly all of his books. The monastic life has remained a part of him as well. At least once a year, he visits Gethsemani, along with Mom, no longer a wandering novice but a regular retreatant. Just as the contemplative life helped Merton find the peace he searched for, contemplative prayer and the Lay Cistercian lifestyle have changed everything for Dad.

Thank you Thomas Merton, for having had such a real sense of life and the world to have encouraged a young novice’s spiritual journey from the inside out. And thank you Dad, for not only being the greatest of fathers these past 43 years, but for listening to that little voice that called you to the lay life of marriage and fatherhood, as Fr. Louis had listened to his own calling.

Originally published June 19th, 2011.