Merton’s Ghost

In a cemetery behind Gethsemani Abbey, there is one grave that has a scarf laid across it.  It is also the only grave that contains a body in a casket.  The monastery owns one casket that is used for all monks as they lay in state. When the bodies are buried, they are lowered into the grave without a casket and a white cloth is placed over their faces.  This single grave was special, of course, not only because there was a casket in it, but because of who it contained.  unnamed (1)

You have heard me mention Thomas Merton and I have used his prayers in worship.  Merton was the author of more than 20 books and, in his later years, a champion of ecumenism.  It was this embrace of other religions and humans in general that indirectly (or directly) led to his death in Thailand while he attended a gathering for monks.  Some believe that his mysterious death (electrocution when touching a fan as he got out of the bath) was not an accident as he was a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War and a vocal proponent of civil rights.  He was 53 when he died in 1958 and was transported back to Gethsemani in the casket that he would remain in.
As I encountered these enigmatic individuals in their white robes and black scapulars, I wondered what would drive them to leave the world and its materialistic trappings and commit to a life within those hallowed walls.  After a five-and-a-half year “trial period,” the monk has to give away all of his earthly possessions and make a solemn vow to live the rest of his days among these brethren.
Seven times a day, the monks and retreatants would make their way into the sanctuary and, after genuflecting and bowing toward the altar, sit silent awaiting the bell to begin the chanting of the liturgy.  The cantor starts off the praying of the psalms and the monks sing in response followed by a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  This happens these seven times plus mass all the way up to the last prayer of the day at 7:30.
The psalms being chanted reverberated off of the cavernous walls of the sanctuary that was dark except for a couple of candles.  As I made my way with the other retreatants and the monks toward the abbot who was sprinkling holy water on each bowed head, there was a certain sense of peace that washed over me.  We had chanted the portion of the liturgy of the divine hours known as Vespers and entreated God the same was way done at the end of each day: “Protect us O God from the darkness and awake us in the morn with the light of your new day.”
As two candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary and the baby Jesus, the spirits of Merton and of every monk who had arrived at Gethsemani since it’s beginning in 1848 were alive and well.  And for that moment, while I had a glimpse of why these monks would choose this life, there was the feeling of confidence that the words uttered so long ago by St. Julian of Norwich were true: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

One Response to “Merton’s Ghost”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    The monks seem to be living out Merton’s ideal, as he wrote in his “New Seeds of Contemplation” that you shared with me:

    “It is in this ecstasy of pure love that we arrive at a true fulfillment of the First Commandment, loving God with our whole heart and our whole mind and all our strength. Therefore it is something that all men who desire to please God ought to desire — not for a minute, nor for half an hour, but forever. It is in these souls that peace is established in the world.”

    Candor compels me to confess that no only do I fall light years short of such a “true fulfillment” … it is not even a goal that I consciously pursue; nor a state that I mindfully hope to attain.

    Nevertheless, I am awed by the monastic lives these monks have chosen to lead, and in my heart I whisper “Amen” to them, and to their brother Thomas — for they have embodied that most lofty of credos:

    “Let there be Peace on Earth, and let it begin with Me.”


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