Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New! Improved!

The first copy of the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, my biography of Thomas Merton, arrived in a special delivery packet from Orbis earlier today.

It’s amazing how different a book is when it’s in print. I know the text backwards and forwards and have looked at several PDF files of the book at various stages of its design, including the final layout, yet the end result seems as surprising as a newborn child. (This “child,” however, looks quite a bit different than the last one of the same name — bigger by nearly 50 pages, with many more photos, a better cover, and ivory-colored rather than hospital-white paper.)

Living With Wisdom was first published in 1991 and has gone through at least ten printings since then. It never seemed dated to me, but when an invitation came from Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, to revise it, my positive response wasn’t long in coming. In the past eighteen years, much important Merton material that wasn’t available in 1991 has been released, including all of Merton’s journals plus volume-after-volume of his letters.

While I prefer recommending books by other authors to pushing my own, I can’t help saying I’m hugely pleased with what Orbis has done and hope it will reach many readers.

The official publication date in November 30, but I see the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon. Here’s the web page:


Attached is an extract from the book’s preface, the title of which is “Meeting Merton.”

— Jim

* * *

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting, but first there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get ready for publication — I had recently become the paper’s managing editor — and also a night class in English Literature at Hunter College to complete. I put off the trip to Kentucky until the beginning of February 1962.

I had no money for such a journey. Volunteers at the Catholic Worker received room and board plus small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses (mainly bread, cheese, orange juice, beer and an occasional book), giving the rest to the community.

Confronted with a nearly empty wallet, I opted to travel by thumb. A companion on
the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. Before sunrise one cold winter morning, we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off.

The going was slow. I recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. Sadly, this image of divine hospitality seemed to have little influence on those at the wheel behind the statue. It took us two-and-a-half exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Finally we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master, Father Francis, showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, I found thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the broomstick thin, fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon must be Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso — a face similarly unfettered in its expressiveness, the eyes bright and quick and sure, suggesting some strange balance between wisdom and mischief. (Merton once remarked that he had the face of a “hillbilly who knows where the still is.”) And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the intensely heady smell of feet that had been kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani and were now out in the open air. If the Catholic Worker had manufactured a perfume, this would have been it.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a new and different book. No wonder that Merton had twice mentioned the films of Charlie Chaplin in its pages. Not only did I become aware that Merton was someone capable of hurricanes of laughter, but I learned that he was far from the only Trappist who knew how to laugh, though no other monk seemed to exhibit this trait quite so readily and explosively as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of ragged Catholic Workers. In those days most American men were tidily trimmed thanks to frequent haircuts, but, as far as Bob and I were concerned, haircuts were a massive waste of money. Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have haircuts. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. No problem, we replied. On our second morning at the abbey, we took it in turns to sit in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes. (Merton in denims could have been taken for a New York City taxi driver.) The room also served as a barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, a good deal of hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, Bob and I were suddenly nearly as bald as Yul Brinner.

After the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what the abbot and I talked about — perhaps about my conversion, or community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity and prayed over me. He had a steel grip. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been maligned by Merton biographers.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond Flanagan, whose books were well known to Catholics at the time, though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had.

Merton and I were walking down a basement corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a leftward turn, and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was an older monk who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke.

Once again, Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” ( The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. Just ten months before his death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by his brother monk, irate about Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam.)

During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more striking, non-Christians. It happened the first evening I was there. There was a hurried knock on the door of my room in the guest house. Merton was standing there, but in a rush as he was late for Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of mystical rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained, as it was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. Without it, the monks would freeze to death.

The guest master knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him, and no doubt many of the monks. “How did Father Louis write all those books?”

I had no idea, no more than he, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) I was a little embarrassed to be delivering such a message.

What is most memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton the writer at work. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large gray typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply that seemed to issue from the typewriter at the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly, and doing it with four fingers. You will often see a stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one rarely sees actual writing at a similar pace.

I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall Merton admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God called many people, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter, filling one side of a sheet of paper, and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. By the time of my visit, he was able to spend part of his time in a newly built cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. It had initially been intended as a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but he saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace several months before, on December 2nd. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, three years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit in modern times.

When I came to visit, the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We sat inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. There was a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year and a black-on-black painting of the cross by Merton’s friend, Ad Reinhart. There was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window offering a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been built on the lawn. On the table was a portable Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake, a harmless but impressive creature.

What Merton took the most pleasure in when he showed me the hermitage was a sheet of parchment-like paper tacked to the inside of the closet door in his bedroom — a colorful baroque document such as one finds in shops near the Vatican: a portrait of the pope at the top in an oval with a Latin text below and many decorative swirls. In this case it was made out to “the Hermit Thomas Merton” and was signed by Paul VI.

During that visit, the latest copy of Jubilee arrived. Jubilee was a monthly journal edited by Ed Rice, Merton’s godfather, with the collaboration of a small, committed staff of talented, underpaid colleagues, one of whom was Bob Lax. Merton was among the magazine’s advisors, cheerleaders and notable writers. In the years it existed, 1953 to 1967, Jubilee was unparalleled among religious magazines. There wasn’t a single issue that failed to be arresting — impressive photo features plus some of the most striking typography of the time. The content was wide ranging, with vivid glimpses of church life, portraits of houses of hospitality, profiles and interviews with remarkable people, and well-illustrated articles on liturgy, art and architecture. In that particular issue was a set of photos of life in an Orthodox monastery. One of the photos showed a heavily-bearded Athonite monk who looked older than Abraham. He was standing behind a long battered table in the refectory, while in the background was a huge fresco of the Last Judgement. The monk’s head was bowed slightly. His eyes seemed to contain the cosmos. There was a remarkable vulnerability in his face. “Look at him,” Merton said. “This guy has been kissed by God!”

My visited ended abruptly. A telegram came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”

* * *


Anonymous said...

I just completed my presentation on Merton. Your book was my main source of inspiration. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Jim. Makes the reader feel as if s/he were right there.

It's good to be reminded of the down-to-earth sides of great spiritual accomplishment -- they are inseparable, and the more we realize that, the more we can transform all of our brief moments into worship and praise