Finding Thomas Merton
SOMETIMES THE BEST STORIES come to you when you least expect it.
At least that’s the way it happened to me.
Ever since I left upstate New York a little more than two years ago, I’ve been living in a small town in the Midwest where the only place for a writer to sit and write and have a good cup of coffee is the local grocery store. The place has none of the ambience of a coffee house. No warm and complementary colors on the wall. No wood furniture. No art on the walls. No jazz or alternative music. It has all the characteristics of a junior high school cafeteria without the food fights.
But it’s all I got.
I’ve become somewhat of a fixture here. People even joke that there should be a placard fixed on the wall by the booth where I always sit: “Writer at Work.” I often refer to it as my office. The other patrons—almost entirely retired farmers—don’t know what to make of me, sitting in the same booth every morning, seven days a week, writing and bobbing my head and swaying rhythmically to whatever music I’m listening to on my blue Skull Candy headphones, clad in a flamboyant shirt and sporting an English-style cap. To them, I must appear altogether too happy for someone living in the Bible-Belt. I get a lot of looks followed by low whispers and the occasional finger-pointing. Some people smile weakly as they pass me in a way that seems to say, “Why don’t you get a real job?”
But, for the most part, people are friendly enough.
I had been working on the finishing touches of a novel that is influenced by Thomas Merton, widely considered one of the most influential thinkers, philosophers, writers, Christian mystics, and social activists of the twentieth century. His mega-selling The Seven Story Mountain is often compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions as a coming-to-faith autobiography. In all, he published sixty-five books. During his lifetime Merton communicated with many of the world’s greatest writers, artists, and social rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. He was one of the most vocal critics of the Vietnam War. James Laughlin published Merton’s first book of poetry at New Directions, and shortly thereafter Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was then founding City Lights, published Merton’s poems in a proto-Beat anthology with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg. In his speech to Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton numerous times, praising him as one of the greatest Americans, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Abraham Lincoln. For a week afterward, Thomas Merton became one of the most searched topics on the internet as millions of people wanted to learn who this guy was. The Thomas Merton Center in Louisville and the Thomas Merton Center for Social Justice in Pittsburgh were inundated with calls and media interviews.
One day last spring, while I was working on the book in the cafeteria, a fellow brave enough came over and asked me what I was working on. I replied that it was a novel influenced by Thomas Merton, certain that a local would have no idea who Merton was.
Instead, his answer floored me.
“Oh, I know all about Merton. A little old lady I used to work with used to be good friends with him, and she has these trunks full of his personal belongings from the Gethsemani monastery,” he said quite matter-of-factly.
My jaw dropped.
“Really?” was all I could muster in reply.
“Yep. She was a nun back then. I think she lived at the convent a few miles away from where Merton was. That’s how they became friends.”
“Do you remember her name?” I asked eagerly.
“Helen Marie [not her full name]. We worked at the same place back then.”
“And she told you she had these trunks . . . of stuff?” I asked.
“Do you think she was telling the truth?”
“Nuns don’t lie. Besides, I’ve seen them . . . about twenty, twenty-five years ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. My brain was racing, red-lining with a million questions.
“How did she come to have them? Do you think she’s still alive? Where does she live? Do you think she still has them?”
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:46-51