On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton


Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,
Thomas Merton’s hermitage
In Gethsemane, Kentucky,
A stark cinder-block hut
With walls unpainted
Stuck incongruously
At the end of a long muddy path
Covered with stones
And fallen brown leaves
In a bleak December woods.

The journey to Gethsemane was tedious
But grand –
Two hours along twisting roads
Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch
With their stunning landscapes
Of rolling bluegrass hills
And endless farms
Dotted with double-wides
And red brick mansions
With identical Christmas lights
Following the contours of their disparate roofs
And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery
I passed huge black distilleries
of presaging Spirits --
Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,
A bedroom with a narrow cot
On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed
Of that nurse in Louisville
Who won his heart
And made him human
For the rest of us.
There was a kitchen and bathroom
And a chapel too
With a small square altar
And a wall with the Coptic icons
So dear to that mystic’s soul.

We sat in a circle
Twenty of us
In Father Louis’ living room
On folding chairs
Spotted with rust
Between a smoking fire
And the desk where “Louie”
Used to write.
Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,
We were told,
And MLK would’ve as well
Had not the assassin’s bullet
Aborted his planned pilgrimage
To the Great Man’s feet.

We listened to Brother Paul
Read his poetry –
A gloss on Matthew’s words,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In the winter cold,
Some dozed,
One snored.
But brother Paul was on fire,
His breath’s vapor blending
With the hearth’s smoke.
For the wakeful,
His words lit flames
That made wood fire redundant.

All of us are poor
He said.
None of this is ours
Everything is gift.
Prayer knows the Reality
That is always there
But not perceived.
It is coming to realize
What we already sense
But normally do not recognize.
Prayer is a pause
That shifts the atmosphere
Of the soul.
It is encountering a Christ
Who comes in ways hidden,
But not recognized
For a long time.
Paul quoted Emily Dickinson
“I’m nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too? . . .
How dreary to be somebody!”

Suddenly Paul jumped up.
“It’s time for Vespers," he said,
And ran off.
The rest of us scurried to follow him
To the monastery chapel.

“I used to live like this,”
I thought as I stared at the monks
In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.
There were perhaps thirty of them
Mostly middle-aged and older
One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.
“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.
I wondered how.
All men, dressed identically,
Praying together seven times each day,
Keeping long silences
Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,
Now and then catching glimpses of women
And wondering about them
Before driving those thoughts from our minds.
I’m  glad I failed at that.

But Brother Paul was right.
It is all gift.
Trying to be somebody
Is quite dreary
Truly I was born without anything .
So were you.
My goal is
To keep most of it
Till I die.
What’s yours?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

  1. Oh Mike! So wonderful! I have written two poems about Thomas Merton and the nurse, “M.” I’d love to share them with you.



  2. I will also

    be leaving

    before long

    to make room


    for a better


    But if not

    then may God

    have mercy

    on all your Souls


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