Thomas Merton and one God: An intimate look

Apr 10, 2019 at 10:36 am
By Jill Baker.
By Jill Baker.
This article is part of a collection of stories about the existence of God. To read the others, go here.

It was noon. The autumn leaves fell silently around the entrance to The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. The air was warm. It was so quiet that you could only hear birds singing in the woods surrounding the buildings. My husband and I waited for Thomas Merton beside the door where hooded monks passed us silently, slipping into the building to eat, pray or enter the library.

It wasn’t long before we saw, far away, a sturdy 53-year-old man in a T-shirt and farmer’s coveralls quickly approaching. His tall boots were muddy, and he carried a grocery bag; the other hand was stuffed into his pocket as he plodded toward us. The sun shone on his balding head, but as he looked up, his eyes glimmered with joy and his generous mouth curved in a smile to see us. I thought Thomas Merton was a monk and did not recognize him in this rough garb and very strong human presence. He greeted us vigorously, shook both our hands, introducing himself and making sure he knew our names.

I looked down as he shook my hand, as I felt I was only a tagalong, hoping perhaps to draw something in my sketchbook on this beautiful autumn day. As an oil painter, I did landscapes and portraits, but I also was handy with my pad and pencil, which I carried with me. I knew the monastery was for men only and thought I would probably have to wait outside, so I was prepared.

But, he pushed us both inside the building and walked between us down the long hall, chatting with small talk to get to know us. In the hall were a few other monks coming and going. As Merton passed, they stopped and smiled or bowed; one even greeted him. Everyone knew him, I surmised. Of course, I knew he was famous, but I observed that the monks at Gethsemani really respected him.

A big door on the left side of the wood-paneled hall led into the Abbey library. Merton opened it, and we went inside. There was no one in the large room with big windows and walls of shelves filled with books. Merton said he had reserved it for our meeting. He explained that he lived in a cabin out in the woods nearby and did not often come onto the monastery grounds but thought the library would be a good place for us to talk.

My husband (at that time) was dressed in a black suit and starched white shirt, and he carried a briefcase. He seemed nervous, was calmed by the accepting demeanor of Merton, who seated us in comfortable chairs and put the grocery bag filled with various groceries down beside him.

I opened the top of the insulated lunch bag I had brought and took out three sandwiches. I had made a cheese sandwich for Merton, thinking that perhaps he was a vegetarian, and he must certainly like cheese. The other two sandwiches were hamburgers that I had fried up at home. I put them out on the table with napkins, pickles, condiments and bottles of water. Merton immediately chose a hamburger and said he could go into the back of the kitchen and find some beers if we wanted. We declined, but I realized later on that he probably would have preferred beer to water.

After lunch, Merton reached into the grocery bag. “I brought dessert. I know you’ve heard about our famous cheese here, but I personally can’t stand it, so I brought you something a little better.” And he pulled out a big, round tin. It was a fruitcake! On the lid he had lettered with a magic marker “Ye Olde Trappist Fruitcake.” We ate a little of the fruitcake, and I took the rest home, afterward using the tin to keep odd buttons in, remembering Merton every time I searched for a button. The tin is now on display at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, here in Louisville.

My husband was writing his doctoral dissertation on Merton’s life and had written to him, requesting an interview to show him what he had done, and Merton said he would meet with him. Thus our first visit. After this initial meeting, we met with him a couple of times before he was to travel to Southeast Asia to meet the Dalai Lama. During those times we met with Merton in the library at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, located in Nelson County, near Bardstown, Kentucky. I did the drawings from which I did a life-size painting shortly after his untimely death in Thailand.

I usually sat in the background, drawing and observing the two men talking, but Merton refused to talk solely to my husband while I was there, and, from time to time, he asked me questions, so I would join in on the conversation. He was not only a religious writer, but also an artist and a photographer. And I was not without knowledge or interest in theology and social issues.

As we talked, I observed his physical self through my sketches. He was not tall, but neither was he short. After observing him awhile, I began to realize that his most outstanding characteristic was his deep-set eyes that were sharply aware, with eyelids that were long and smooth when cast down. His skin was ruddy, his face a bit round with a pointed chin and square jaw, and his head, almost devoid of hair, appeared to be of sculpted stone, as if the Romans sculpted it. Except, of course, when this chiseled face flashed into a smile and his eyes crinkled and twinkled when a satirical remark or joke was made.

Merton talked frankly of what he was thinking about during those days, especially during our last meeting, when he was thinking mostly about the trip he was anticipating, to meet in Thailand with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism, a world religious leader. He was hoping that he might use his own reputation for believing in an all-encompassing God to expand that belief into Buddhism and perhaps other world religions, with the ultimate goal of all religions recognizing the universality of One God. Merton’s followers, his faithful readers, were already in step with him, dedicated to a belief in a beneficent God, but he knew expanding Catholicism into Buddhism was far in the future. He was hoping to take the first step during this meeting in Thailand with the Dalai Lama, then in his early 30s, and other young Buddhist monks.

In our hour-or-more-long meetings he expressed his viewpoints on many subjects, some of them controversial. We discussed the violence in the world, race relations, and the economic injustice that creates both. One thing I remember him having opinions about was the matter of his being considered for sainthood.

I first knew of Thomas Merton through his writings and through the doctoral dissertation my husband was writing that I was typing on my portable typewriter in triplicate carbons.

Thomas Merton had become a part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists, in 1941 and had lived there at the Abbey since then. The Trappists, as you may know, are silent, never speaking to each other, dressing in white, black and brown habits with hoods, going about in constant prayer as they work, tending to the maintenance of the monastery, making cheese and fruitcakes and gardening, all by hand. So it should have been a peaceful, physically industrious and silent life, quite different from his former boisterous life as a poet living in the environs of New York City. The people he would know would be diametrically different from the crowd he ran with. To adopt a religion would demand a very different viewpoint from his atheistic upbringing. He was suddenly converted to Catholicism in 1938 during a dramatic experience, which he talks about in his book “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Joining the monastery in 1941, he enthusiastically and wholly embraced its life and beliefs, with the worship of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Christ; but especially adoring Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Merton thought, when he entered the monastery that he would be shutting himself off from the world, which he wanted to reject, as he had found the ways of the world distasteful for several reasons. But, instead, he was asked to write about the world by his superior. He did not like this, but complied, and in so doing, grew in skill, thought and theology. His writings became known worldwide. However, if you follow the direction of his writings, you can see how he naturally outgrew his early strict religious convictions and came to a new understanding of his relationship to God, the world and other humans.

In November of 1958, while standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville, he had a very different, enlightened vision of the world in which he lived. His description of this vision is quoted on the historical marker at that spot. It was during this last phase that I knew him and was able to converse with him.

They are making a saint out of Thomas Merton. Someday there will be very few people who will be able to say “I knew St. Thomas Merton.”

Merton was not your triptych saint in beliefs. His thoughts swung to frustration with the very people about him who would raise him to sainthood. He both sought and despised the very state of being a saint, so he was only what he could be — human. People who would worship him and raise him high above them he found upsetting. But he gladly spoke to and favored those who would meet him on his own level, the human level. People who were opinionated, closed-minded or who kept to narrow-minded ways of going about their lives and religions were his antitheses. He had once been that way, but now he said he had outgrown it and therefore loved people for what they might become, while he hated that some spent their present lives imprisoned in a narrow box of their own making.

On the subject of sainthood, he was first of all himself, the human he had become, with the personal history he had lived and the things he did now that were so down-to-earth. He relished his “Man”-hood and in so doing, recognized that this did not repudiate his relationship with God and all other humans on a spiritual plane.

He remained always an artist and a poet. He was thoughtful, which means “full of thought,” and not only swam in the beauty of the world with his poetry but with his drawings and photography. He loved the fact that he was human and that he was living temporarily in a world that gave him so much that he could not swallow it all in one gulp.

He loved the fact that I drew him, liked my sketches and would have liked the painting that I did of him. He loved all people and wanted everyone to see each other as children of God, expressing the essence of being themselves.

As Merton said at the 1967 opening of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville:

“Whatever I have written, I think it may be reduced in the end to just one truth: that God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another in Christ, in the Church, which is his Mystical Body.” (Thomas Merton, “Concerning the Collection in the Bellarmine College Library,” vol. I, “Thomas Merton: Collected Essays” ((Trappist, Ky.: Abbey of Gethsemane, n.d.)), P. 18.)

I believe his ultimate influence on me was that he “illuminated” me on how to live. I think he saw my young 20-something husband and me as progeny to care for and encourage, for we would one day grow into our potential. He showed me, as a young woman, that I was equal to him by asking my opinion about things and earnestly listening to me. He demonstrated to us, as a human and a thoughtful person, that no matter one’s background, one could look at all others with love and respect, even as he acknowledged the joys and problems of this world.