Louie and the
Reflections on Thomas Merton
Portrait of Thomas Merton by David
the age of eighteen I was an agnostic half-lapsed Catholic from
New Jersey. For reasons I won’t go into here, I spent my freshman
year of college at a Christian-based institution in the Bible-belt
of northern Georgia. It was my first immersion in a fundamentalist
religious culture, and as the
months passed I was subjected to continued calls to accept Jesus
as my Personal Lord and Savior. I was offered a God who really really
loved me, but would at the drop of a hat send me to hell—along
with Socrates, Plato, Siddhartha Gautama, and every other human
being who pre-dated Jesus, as well as all humans since Jesus’
time who never heard of him or whose personal relationships with
him did not live up to the criteria proclaimed by my twenty-year-old
It was enough to drive a person to drink, which would have been
a more likely option if the campus had not been dry. It was enough
to drive some people to Jesus (upon which occasion one would hear
great rejoicing on the dorm floor, no matter the hour. Imagine being
awakened at two o’clock in the morning by joyful shouts of
“Dickie accepted the Lord! Dickie accepted the Lord!”
Poor Dickie, I thought, finally brow-beaten into salvation). Some,
who earned my envy, were able to just ignore it all and go about
their secular business of getting an education.
I had this spiritual streak in me, despite my agnostic half-lapsed
Catholic state. I had never really given up on God,
just on the versions of God that had been offered by priests, nuns,
and, now, the post-pubescent college boys who had exclusive keys
to the magic-Jesus formula. So I needed something besides stoic
self-imposed exile or the occasional snuck-in shot of whiskey to
get me through. What I got was initiation, at an off-campus site,
into the technique of transcendental meditation.
things considered, I’d still take the meditative state of
consciousness over the fascist Jesus any day. And though the organization
that promotes transcendental meditation (whatever it calls itself
these days) turned out to have somewhat cult-like qualities of its
own, especially for a spiritual freelancer and non-joiner such as
myself, I think the interior experience it offered provided a standard
for my spiritual life and outlook that remains definitive, and it
opened Christianity up for me in a whole new way.
as Arlo Guthrie said about his long tale of getting arrested for
littering on Thanksgiving, That’s not what I wanted to tell
you about. . . .
wanted to tell you about the time, about a year later, while attending
a different college, much farther north, I went to a weekend residential
course to learn more about the whole meditation thing. The course
was given at a Catholic retreat house just outside Philadelphia,
out on the Main Line—an old estate, probably willed to the
Church by some good Catholic whose family had reached the end of
its line. The house was run by a group of nuns who provided gracious
hospitality and good food, and who didn’t seem to be worried
about meditators becoming possessed by the devil owing to the simple
act of quieting the mind (my fundamentalist dorm-mates the year
before had worried about this expressly, and saw my subscription
to the Village Voice as a clear sign of possession). It
was a beautiful spring weekend and all was well in my little world.
between meetings and meditations I
at one point noticed, on a table at the bottom of the main stairs,
a paperback book titled The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good
Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton by Edward Rice.
I had never heard of this Merton, but as I flipped through the book
he captured my attention. He was a monk of some sort—Catholic?
Buddhist? The book was filled with photos of Merton and his friends—in
this one they are nattily dressed, in another, slovenly, in yet
another, they appear to be seriously hung over. It included line
drawings by Merton—naked women, abstract calligraphies, pictures
made from words.
I looked through the book, the diminutive sister who seemed to be
the top nun on the retreat center’s totem pole walked through
the foyer in which I was standing. She smiled at me and said nothing
as she took note of the book in my hand. I sheepishly returned it
to the table, smiled back, and continued on my way.
between more meetings and meditations, I went to the main stairs
again to take another look at the book about Merton. The little
sister again walked by, again greeted me wordlessly, again noted
the book in my hands. Later still, I went to the book rack on the
landing halfway up the stairs and scoured the wire rack to see if
there was a copy of the book available to buy. I saw plenty of books
about St. Francis, the Blessed Virgin, the divine office, and the
rosary, but no Man in the Sycamore Tree. I was ready with
a dollar ninety-five to put in the honor-system cashbox, but was
out of luck. I checked the rack one more time, looking behind every
book to see if there was a hidden Merton to be discovered, and as
I hunted, the little sister descended from the top of the stairs,
greeted me again, and went on her way. I wrote down the title of
the book in hopes of finding a copy when I got back home.
next morning, when the time came to leave, I went to the book rack
for one last look. Lo and behold, a copy of The Man in the Sycamore
Tree presented itself. I stuffed my money into the cash slot,
picked up my overnight bag and, with book in hand, walked down the
stairs. On the table there was no copy of the book. I looked from
the table to my hand, realized it was the selfsame book, and then
saw that I was being watched by the little sister, who smiled and
wordlessly bid me goodbye as I exited to begin my walk to the train
that’s how the little sister made sure that my apparent desire
to become acquainted with Father Louie (Merton’s monastic
name was Louis) would be fulfilled.
was back in the days before a few keystrokes on a computer could
bring a person’s life to your desktop. Today there are plenty
of resources (books, web sites, entire libraries) that anyone can
consult to learn about Merton: his Euro-American upbringing, the
deaths of his parents, his conversion to Catholicism, the many twists
and turns that led eventually to a monastic vocation to a Trappist
house in Kentucky, his absurd death in Bangkok. It doesn’t
take long to gain an appreciation of his breadth of interest and
his depth of understanding and compassion; he was an eclectic’s
eclectic with an amazing knack for leaving a paper trail. It has
been nearly thirty years since Father Louie and I got together with
the attentive help of the little sister, and though I have delved
deeply I realize that I still have far to go. With new works coming
to light every few years, it is unlikely I will ever “finish”
with Merton. But he was far from done himself when he met his untimely
all these years I have not
canonized Merton or sat awestruck at his feet or, God forbid, made
him the object of “study.” I have, in a way, stayed
in touch with him as if he were an old friend. Just
as with actual friends, we sometimes lose touch for awhile and then
enjoy a new period of intense contact. He has also been the conduit
to new friends without whom my life would be less rich:
Van Doren, one of Merton’s mentors at Columbia University,
whose literary work, if you can find it, still rings true;
Tzu, the ancient Taoist whose stories and sayings Merton re-presented
with ebullient respect;
Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk who continues to
teach peace to millions of readers and retreatants, a man from whom
I learned that you do not “strike a bell,” you “invite
it to sound”;
Reinhardt, the abstract painter whose black-on-black paintings will
either take your breath away or leave you scratching your head—I
was breathless the time I stood in a gallery with several of them;
Eugene Meatyard, the Kentucky photographer whose photos of Merton
are the best ever made and whose work in general shatters norms
and presents the world in a whole new way;
Lax, Merton’s best friend and perhaps the most under-appreciated
American poet of the twentieth century. Lax was a spirited minimalist
who made words dance and whose presence, by all accounts, was that
of a spiritual master.
then there are Merton’s writings, pieces of which have traveled
with me everywhere I’ve gone as the years have rolled by.
Reading Merton’s autobiography, it was impossible for me to
continue without stopping to re-gather myself when I came to his
poem about his brother John Paul, missing in World War II:
brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.1
one of Merton’s most quoted passages, he, a monk, has a deeply
spiritual experience in an unlikely place. I’m glad that I
can still read it as if for the first time, back before I knew there
was an army of seekers hanging on and analyzing Merton’s every
Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center
of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the
realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine
and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though
we were total strangers. . . .2
is his astounding “Special Closing Prayer,” offered
extemporaneously during his final journey throughout Asia.
us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we
go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You
present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate
reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.3
haunted occasionally by the beauty of single lines of his poetry
that float through my consciousness context-free.
note one wood thrush hear him low in waste pine places 4
these four lines say everything I need to know about the necessity
think poetry must
I think it must
Stay open all night
In beautiful cellars 5
the decades since his death, Merton has been analyzed and systematized,
travelogued and catalogued, synthesized and criticized and all but
canonized. But the Merton who stays with me is that man in a sycamore
I met by surprise on a lovely spring weekend.
I take him seriously because he was flawed and raucous and even
a little bit reckless. As a young man he fathered
a child in London (mother and child were later killed in the Blitz).
He had the kind of wild and potentially dangerous zeal that has
marked converts going all the way back to Saul of Tarsus. He was
as headstrong, as a monk, as he was obedient. When friends came
to visit him at his hermitage he was known to knock back several
cans of beer. In middle-age he fell in love with a nurse half his
age while hospitalized in Louisville. He wrote and wrote and wrote.
He spoke his mind and called for peace and justice, and corresponded
with Pasternak and Milosz and Berrigan and Day and total strangers.
He wrote a book’s worth of laugh-out-loud letters to his good
pal Lax, and could just as easily riff on James Joyce as he could
on John Cassian or Bernard of Clairvaux. He shot challenges at the
Catholic hierarchy, and received, from Pope John XXIII, the gift
of a stole the pope had worn.
engagement with Father Louie has been a long night in a beautiful
cellar, complete with art and laughter and friends and anger. It’s
been the kind of friendship that could only have begun with a wordless
introduction offered by a small nun to a young man on the prowl
for a new sort of light.
door’s open. We’ll be here all night. Come on downstairs.
My Brother, Reported Missing in Action, 1943.” See The
Seven Storey Mountain, Selected Poems, or The
Louisville”: See Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (page
140 in the original hardcover edition).
“Fill us then with love”: The Asian Journal,
“Long note one wood thrush”: The Geography of Lograire,
page 3 (also in The Collected Poems; this is the first
line a book-length experimental poem).
“I think poetry must”: Cables to the Ace, no.
53; also in The Collected Poems, this is another book-length
poem, dedicated to Robert Lax (a.k.a. “the Ace”).
of Merton’s more than 70 published works:
The Seven Storey Mountain, Seeds of Contemplation, The Silent
Life, Selected Poems, Gandhi on Non-Violence, Conjectures of a Guilty
Bystander, Mystics and Zen Masters, Faith and Violence, Zen and
the Birds of Appetite
©2005 Michael Wilt