A Nun, a Monk, and a Priest Walk into a Monastery: The Incredible Discovery of Thomas Merton’s Worldly Possessions

A Nun, a Monk, and a Priest Walk into a Monastery: The Incredible Discovery of Thomas Merton’s Worldly Possessions

John Smelcer

Sometimes the greatest stories fall into your lap, which is what happened to me in the spring of 2015 when I “discovered” the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, one of the most influential figures of the Twentieth Century. Writer, intellectual, philosopher, poet, mystic and social rights and peace activist, Merton was the most famous monk in the world when he died in December 1968. The author of 65 books, including his iconic The Seven Story Mountain, Merton influenced the Civil Rights Movement, helping to inform Martin Luther King Jr. on the nature of nonviolent protest. With fellow priests, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, and refugee Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton was one of the most vocal critics of the war in Vietnam. His last book, Faith and Violence, published just before his death, was extremely critical of America’s war-mongering in Southeast Asia. Weeks before his mysterious death, Merton met with a young Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, northern India (photo below).

mertondalailamaWhat I discovered was the most significant “treasure trove” of Mertonalia in history. While numerous archives hold letters, notes, book drafts, etc., almost nothing personal of Merton’s was known to exist. Merton was, after all, a Trappist monk, and therefore poor of earthly possessions by choice. The trove included all the clothing Merton is wearing in photographs from the last years of his life: photos of him in his white monk’s habit and black hooded cowl; photos of him in his iconic denim jackets, jeans, and sailor cap. The collection included such sacred objects as his rosary, his flagellant whip, and his personal Psalter. It also included notes, photos, letters, and audiotapes of him talking. The objects had been protected by close friends of Merton’s—a fellow brother monk and a nun from a nearby nunnery. Upon learning of Merton’s death, the Abbot of Gethsemani ordered the fellow monk to collect Merton’s possessions and to get rid of them (he was worried about devotees descending on the monastery in search of Merton relics). Shortly thereafter, and on Merton’s advice, the monk and the nun left their respective religious orders and married. They moved to Louisville, Kentucky, for years, and eventually to Kansas City. For almost half a century they safeguarded their friend’s belongings. The former monk died in 2009. In her mid-eighties, the former nun, named Helen Marie, worried about what would happen to the collection when she passed. She had been praying to Thomas Merton to send someone who would help her.

And then I came along.

frazier2While working on my book The Gospel of Simon, inspired by and dedicated to Thomas Merton, a gentleman at a coffee house came over and asked what I was writing. I told him it was a book inspired by Thomas Merton, thinking he’d have no idea who Merton was. His answer floored me. Not only did he know, but he told me that he knew of a former nun who had all this stuff that used to belong to Merton. He said he had seen it about twenty-five years ago in Kansas City. In short order, a meeting was arranged and the little nun gave me the entire collection with the instruction and promise to donate the materials to relevant institutions, such as the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, where Merton himself wanted his archives to be collected, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I spent the summer and fall of 2015 contacting institutions and traveling to meet their staff members. I communicated with Pope Francis about donating something to the Vatican. I’m proud to say the Merton materials have now been donated to institutions with the ability to preserve them. (Photo above of Helen Marie and me at Merton exhibit at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, January 2015. The dress tie I’m wearing belonged to Merton.) By happenstance, in his September 2015 address to the United States Congress, Pope Francis named Thomas Merton as one of the greatest Americans, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Abraham Lincoln.

My life having touched Merton’s, as it were, I began to read everything I could about him. I learned that Merton was a seminal figure of the Twentieth Century. Coming out of WWII, he understood how religion can be a catalyst for intolerance and violence. With gritted teeth, he witnessed the Catholic Church’s complicity in the Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe. He despaired over the way priests proclaimed their support of war. More than anyone else, Merton advocated for interfaith discourse and understanding. It was he who began the movement toward religious tolerance that began in the 1960s. Merton believed that religion should be a force for peace and social justice and be less concerned about its persistence as a bureaucracy.

Merton and Thich Naht Hanh AK1968I contacted Merton’s old friends to tell them about my discovery: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Daniel Berrigan. They were glad for the news. One book I read was The Raft is Not the Shore (1975), a series of interviews between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh in which Merton is frequently mentioned. Immediately, I began a similar project with both to discuss the continued relevancy of the book and its exploration of religion, society, and violence. Berrigan passed away this summer at the age of 95, but not before we were able to get some thoughts down on paper. At 91, Thich Nhat Hanh’s health has been failing. My next blog will be the complete discussion. (Photo of Merton and Naht Hanh in Cordova, Alaska, fall 1968)

Listen to an interview about the Merton discovery on NPR: http://kbia.org/post/thomas-mertons-personal-belongings-resurface-missouri-nearly-fifty-years-after-his-death

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