T. Merton: An Amazing Find After All These Years

The other day I found my old Roman Catholic Maryknoll Missal that I had had with me as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. And in doing so, I found a long-lost communication that shaped my beginning of my journey down life’s road. For some inexplicable reason, I took myself up to my study the other day and hunted on the bookshelf until I found what I was looking for: My old Roman Catholic Maryknoll Missal that I had had with me as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. My prayer practice for many months – years actually – has been to say the Eucharist in the morning. After communion I pray for family and friends – the saints in my life – as well as this sorry, sad world we live in. In any case, I have always used the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for this devotional practice.

But then one day recently I thought, “Why not occasionally use the missal of my childhood?” So up I went to find my old prayer book. I started thumbing through the pages still filled with what we called holy cards – depictions of various saints, iconic images of Jesus and Mary, prayer cards and notes of blessing from folks in my past whom I no longer remember.

And then … it fell out from between the pages. A postcard handwritten to me, saying, “… May God bless your vocation – I think the future of the Church on Earth depends, humanly speaking, on Africa. Will remember your vocation in my prayers.” It was signed, “Be of good heart. Rejoice in the Holy Spirit always, T. Merton.”  

Now some of you may know that T. Merton – Thomas Merton – was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th Century. A Trappist monk who made his way into the monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, near Louisville, after a rich secular and intellectual life extending from France and England in his childhood, through New York and studies at Columbia, to a conversion and desire to become a solitary and a saint. He was a voluminous writer while a monk, publishing numerous books on contemplation and the spiritual life.

But his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain – written after entering the monastery and tracing his pilgrimage from sinner to hopeful saint – was first published in 1948 and was responsible for drawing many into Roman Catholic monasteries, convents, and professed religious life. This isn’t the place to trace his further life odyssey – perhaps at some point I will. But finding that postcard – in response to my note after finishing the book – brought back a flood of memories.

First off, I have wondered off and on for years whatever happened to that postcard communication. So I was amazed to find it now. But the memory it brought back was the summer that I spent at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, studying conversational French because I had decided during my freshman year at St. Mary’s College to enter, at some point, a missionary order called The White Sisters (because their religious garb was white) or Sisters of our Lady of Africa. Now if you know me, you would know that would have been quite a stretch! But at the time, at age 18, I actually thought that that is what I would do – much to my parents’ horror.

I took The Seven Storey Mountain with me to Quebec where I boarded with two elderly French-speaking ladies and had quite a summer of it! But that’s another story. The memory that finding Merton’s card brought back was the following:

I was seated on a bench in the middle of a small park that fronted on the Hotel Frontenac in the old city. I was finishing the book and remember being nearly transported to another realm as I read the final two pages. Merton ends the work in words of a prayer dialogue he has with God. He hears God say to him:

“I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way …

“Do not ask when it will be or where it will be or how it will be: On a mountain or in a prison, in a desert or in a concentration camp or in a hospital or at Gethsemani. It does not matter. So do not ask me, because I am not going to tell you. You will not know until you are in it.
“But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end and brought you from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani:

“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

The next words ended the whole book: Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi. Meaning, this ends the book, but does not end the journey. And what a journey both he and I have had. Somehow, finding this – what I had believed to be a long-lost postcard – closed a circle on my earliest part of that journey. And I am so grateful for the find and for Merton’s life as he shaped my own at its beginning.