By Will Lawbaugh
They whom we love and lose
are no longer
where they were before.
They are now wherever we are.
–St. John Chrysostom
Thomas Merton’s journals, from 1939 to his death in 1968, in seven volumes reveal the intimate Merton (published by HarperCollins, 2009-2010). The third volume states on page 219: “I am a writer, and because for me to write is to think and live and also to some degree, even to pray.”
I am a writer, too, having retired from active ministry and returning to my first calling, which started in a Benedictine boarding school as sports editor, then editor-in-chief. of the student newspaper, The Periscope.
I had just finished The Seven Storey Mountain and was thinking about the possibility of my own religious vocation when I was stunned by what appeared to be Merton’s weird premonition of his death “among the burnt men.”
Having married an Irish girl and raising seven children, I read and reviewed many of the 50+ books penned by Merton in his lifetime. I also kept up with the biographies, hagiographies, anthologies and studies of Thomas Merton in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What struck me most were the multiple traumas Merton suffered in his relatively brief lifetime, , beginning with the death of his mother from cancer when Tom was a child, and the brain cancer death of his father when he was a teenager. More traumatic events followed in boarding schools, in rejection by Franciscans, and even at Gethsemane with the death of his only brother, an RAF pilot in WWII.
However, Merton experienced tremendous healing in two epiphanies in 1958 and 1968, also described in his journals as grace-filled mystical experiences. The first cleansing came at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville when “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people…. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the concept of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too readily presents as a complete illusion.” This was also recorded in Part Three of “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”
That was in 1958. Later, after he obtained permission to live alone in a hermitage beyond the confining walls of the cloister , Merton struck up a beautiful but intense relationship with a young student nurse. That relationship was cut short in just three months when an intimate phone call was overheard and reported to the abbot. Thus, another major traumatic event.
Later, a chastened Merton was invited to an East-West dialogue on the Benedictine Rule at the Red Cross conference center outside Bangkok. He expanded his itinerary to meet first with the Dalai Lama in India, and then a pilgrimage to the massive statues of Buddha in Polonnaruwa in Central Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. At one of the most sacred Buddhist sites, Gil Vihara, Merton wrote: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…. All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.” This is recorded in Merton’s posthumous Asian Journal.
In 1968, Merton gave his final talk on Marxism and monasticism to the Benedictine monks and nuns in Thailand, saying he would “disappear” for a while and then was electrocuted by a frayed DC electric fan cord, his final trauma, becoming one of the “burnt men” mentioned at the end of Seven Storey Mountain.
I did not know why Merton, especially in his many journals, resonated so deeply within me until my first major trauma: the death of my eldest daughter, Aimee (French for “beloved”), due to an epileptic seizure on top of an asthma attack at age 21. Since then, I have somehow endured many more major traumas, but I still find a measure of consolation in reading the many journals, books like New Seeds of Contemplation and studies by and about the only writer who seems to understand my dilemmas with compassion and non-violence, two traits Merton found in Buddhism. I even have a daughter who declares she is Buddhist. Most of all, I can be completely transported by the graceful prose of Thomas Merton. See for yourself by reading The Fire Watch, prelude to his most famous journal, Sign of Jonas. You will thank me.
The Rev. Will Lawbaugh lives and writes as a Resident Companion of The Community of Celebration in downtown Aliquippa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org