"His grave is out past the cedar tree," says the woman in the abbey gift shop. It is an icy Monday morning on the back roads of Kentucky's bluegrass country. We've come out past the Jim Beam bottling plant on Route 248 in Clermont. Out past Stephen Foster's "old Kentucky home" in Bardstown. Out pas the tiny sign on Route 31 that says simply "Trappist." Past Monk's Creek and Monk's pond. And past a gate that says "God Alone." Now, near a snow-laden cedar tree there is a white metal cross. On it is written: FR. Louis Merton, died December 10, 1968.
I've been here once before, in the Abbey of Gethsemani, home of America's most famous monk, know to the world through his writing as Thomas Merton. I've stood in front of this cross. The time before had been a vacation with my family. I think it was in July, 1975; I was not quite a teenager. I remember it was hot, muggy, and we got to swim in Monk's Pond. After visiting the abbey, we stopped at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill. Beneath an image of Mother Ann Lee's blazing Tree of Life, I are corn pudding for the first time.
Why had I come back? What is it in me, or us, that loves a circle, sometimes to our detriment? Even though my memory is sketchy from the visit to Gethsemani in the '70s, it has a profound impact on my soul. It shifted the banks of my spiritual river.
The first time I was here, Merton had been dead only seven years. He died in Bangkok exactly 27 years to the day after he had entered the monastery as a 26-year-old conscientious objector and Catholic convert. He had been in Thailand for a conference to foster understanding between Eastern and Western religions. In India, Merton met with the Dalai Lama, who had been in exile from Tibet for just eight years. The circumstances of Merton's death are unclear. He finished his talk on inter-monastic dialogue, told everyone to go have a Coke, then went to his room to shower. He died of electric shock, apparently from touching a poorly grounded wire.
At Gethsemani, half a world away, Merton's brothers were at the noon meal, listening to the reading of a biography of Teilhard de Chardin, when the abbot signaled for the reader to close the book. He had received a telegram from the State Department. Like so many telegrams coming from Southeast Asia in those days, it began: "The Department regrets to inform you that...Thomas Merton has died." They said the closing meal prayer and the day went on.
Merton's body was brought home : one more body on a U.S. Air Force plane bringing back the dead from the war in Vietnam. "We have to have a deep, patient compassion for the fears of men," Merton wrote, "and the irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us."
Now I stand again at the foot of Merton's grave. The ground is frozen. There is a cedar wreath with dried flowers leaning at a cockeyed angle against the cross. It is very quiet, tangibly quiet. I have no great thoughts. I just stand here, shivering, while tears fill my eyes. Why? I wonder. Why cry at the grave of a man I never met? It has something to o with thanking my parents for thinking that taking the kids to a monastery was a good idea. It has something to do with a place where men are gentle and psalms are sung. And to do with the "We regret to inform you" letters that arrive now from Afghanistan and Iraq; the planes landing at Dover Air Force base; the overflowing casualty ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It has to do with the generous silence filtering up through the limestone and Kentucky bluegrass and billowing down from the branches of the cedar tree.
"There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful" wrote Merton, "as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily."