From the Louisville Courier Journal, Dec. 7, 2008
Remembering Thomas Merton: A final communion with ‘Uncle Louie’
By Patrick Hart
My abrupt departure from Rome in June of 1968 was in response to a
summons from the newly elected Abbot of Gethsemani, Father Flavian
Burns. He had replaced Abbot James Fox, who had been Abbot of
Gethsemani for 20 years prior to his resignation in late 1967. My work at
the Trappist Generalate in Rome was originally an assignment for three
years, to be followed by several years at our Monastery of Roscrea in
Ireland. But alas: “Man proposes; God disposes…”
When I arrived back at Gethsemani, Abbot Flavian told me that Father
Louis, or Thomas Merton, would be doing more traveling in the future and
needed a full-time secretary to take care of his enormous correspondence.
Abbot Flavian added that he had asked for me, since I was acquainted with
handling his manuscripts during my decade of service as Abbot James’
After a few days, Merton invited me to his hermitage to fill me in on what
my job would entail while he was traveling to the Far East. I recall when I
arrived at the hermitage after walking up the hill where his hermitage was
perched overlooking the knobs to the East, Merton was walking slowly at
the edge of the woods facing his hermitage reading Conversations:
Christian and Buddhist by Aelred Graham, the English Benedictine monk
who had been headmaster at the Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island.
Having welcomed me to the hermitage, I presented him with a gift from
Pope Paul VI, with whom I had an audience shortly before leaving Rome
for the States. It was an elegant bronze crucifix, which some bishops of the
Vatican II era were sporting as a pectoral cross. Merton smiled and thanked
me for hand-carrying it through Europe and the Isles before returning to the
States. He placed it on a desk in the main room of the hermitage, and
excused himself as he retreated to the kitchen of the hermitage where he
retrieved two bottles of beer, and one frosted glass. He opened one and
poured it into the frosted glass and offered it to me, while he himself used a
glass from the kitchen, non-frosted. A small thing, but after 40 years, I still
remember it as an indication of the singular hospitalilty of this American
Trappist hermit for another monk on a hot summer afternoon in Kentucky.
He asked me about my time in Rome, especially about what progress I had
made in Celtic studies with Father Joseph O’Dea, who was the Master of
Students in Rome, and was an expert in Celtic monasticism. He was
originally from Roscrea in Ireland, but had been sent to Nunraw Abbey in
Scotland to help out there, before being assigned to our Generalate in
Rome. It was Father Louis who had originally encouraged me in my studies
since he was too busy to continue his own interest in early Irish
monasticism, especially its art and poetry. He was now concentrating on
Russian and Chinese, as he confessed to me.
With Abbot Flavian Burns’ approval, he looked forward to experiencing
first-hand some other monasteries of the order, especially those in the Far
East — Hong Kong and Indonesia were scheduled as places where he would
be visiting to give conferences to the monks after he fulfilled his obligation
to present a paper on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” for the meeting
of Benedictine and Cistercian superiors to be held at Bangkok on Dec.
In addition to visiting Cistercian monasteries of the Far East, he was
primarily interested in making contacts with the Tibetan Buddhist monks
exiled in Dharamsala in northern India. Dom Aelred Graham had
introduced Merton to Tibetan monks and scholars, especially persons like
Harold Talbott of Harvard, who had been living close to the Dalai Lama,
and agreed to be his interpreter and translator for the three hour-long
audiences Merton had with the Dalai Lama in November of 1968. In short,
Merton was eagerly looking forward to his pilgrimage to the Far East, not
only sharing with these monks of the East something of his own Western
monasticism, but also learning first-hand the ancient wisdom of the East.
As his Asian Journal would make clear, he was blessed with meeting the
best examples of monasticism in the Far East.
The day before leaving on his long-awaited trip, Father Louis invited
Brother Maurice Flood, Phillip Stark, the young Jesuit scholastic from
Woodstock, and myself to the hermitage to help celebrate the Eucharist on
Sept. 9. Phil Stark had been helping Merton with the typing and layout of
Monks Pond, an avant-garde journal of poetry Merton was editing in 1968.
Brother Maurice assisted Merton in maintaining the hermitage, such as
supplying wood for the fireplace, and mowing the large lawn. We walked
through the woods leading up to the hermitage on Mount Olivet before
sunrise, getting our feet wet in the heavy dew along the path. When we
arrived at the Hermitage Merton was sitting on the lighted porch of the
hermitage reading his Breviary for the day, the Feast of the Jesuit St. Peter
Claver. Coincidentally, it turned out to be Phil’s birthday, so it was
appropriate to have the Mass in honor of a Jesuit saint.
After filling the cruets with water and wine, Merton began to vest for Mass,
as we lighted the candles. The chapel, which was a more recent addition to
the hermitage, was just large enough to accommodate a congregation of
three. On the wall above the cedar altar hung a group of five or six icons of
varying sizes (one originally came from Mount Athos), and on the floor in
front of the altar was a hand-woven Navajo rug, a gift from the Benedictine
monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, where he had
visited several months earlier.
We all joined in the Prayers of the Faithful; Phil read the Epistle, and
Merton read the beautiful Gospel narrative of the Good Samaritan, after
which he surprised us with a brief but deeply moving homily. He compared
himself to “the traveler” who had been attacked by robbers on the road to
Jericho, and was then left half dead along the way. He went on to describe
how each of us in our own way had been Good Samaritans to him, helping
him “to get out of the ditch.” He embarrassed us by expressing his
appreciation for all we had done for him and concluded by saying he was
offering this Mass for our intentions. Before Communion he embraced
each of us with the “Kiss of Peace.” We received under both Species, and I
remember he addressed us personally, using our first names: “The Body of
the Lord, Phil, etc.” It was as beautiful and as meaningful a Mass as I have
After a short thanksgiving, we heard “Uncle Louie” (his nickname which
amused him) in the kitchen preparing coffee for our breakfast, so we came
in from the porch and got in his way in an effort to help. Places were set on
the wooden table in the front room with the fireplace before the large
windows overlooking the quiet valley. By now the sun was beginning to
rise from behind Rohan’s Knob in the east. There in the joy of the morning,
we broke bread with our hermit for the last time.
We then cleared off the table and went out on the porch of the hermitage,
where the sun was not very bright. Merton remembered that he had some
unused film in his camera, and so he began at once taking pictures of the
three of us. We took turns with the camera so that we had photographs
taken with him in front of the hermitage and in the surrounding woods.
When the last roll of the film was shot we returned to the hermitage and
began cleaning things up in preparation for his departure.
Merton gave each of us books and photographs, saying “Here, Phil, a book
for you,” one of Victor Hammer’s excellent hand-printed books, Hagia
Sophia, and to me a copy of The John Howard Griffin Reader, which I was
eager to read. A “hermit button” (medal of honor) was pinned on Brother
After some last minute instructions about taking care of his correspondence
during his absence, he handed me his set of keys to the hermitage and to his
post office box, where an enormous stack of mail was delivered daily. We
said goodbye, never realizing that this would be our last Mass with him.
With loaded arms, we headed down to the monastery.
This was my last sight of the man of God, who was to me a father, a
brother and a faithful friend. May the Lord be rich in rewarding him, “good
measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over…”
Thomas Merton has been dead 40 years, and I am still his secretary and
grateful for the opportunity to assist in editing some of his voluminous
legacy for future generations of seekers after the one thing necessary.
* * *
Brother Patrick Hart is the editor of Thomas Merton’s journals. He is also
the author of numerous books including The Intimate Merton (with
Jonathan Montaldo). He resides at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist,
* * *