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Ending the Earthly Pilgrimage

August 27, 2010

This Sunday, at 9 am, (and then again next Thursday, at 6 pm), we will complete our 5-part Adult Ed series examining our lives as pilgrimages toward and with God through our reflections on the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. During these final sessions, we will read Paul Elie’s descriptions (from his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own) of the last days and deaths of these four great American Christians. Here’s Elie’s description of Merton’s death, which took place in 1968:

On December 8 Merton returned to Bangkok… The conference was taking place at the International Red Cross compound—a group of cottages surrounding a meeting house—but to arrive there was to return, momentarily, to the world of the Church and Catholicism… A Trappist habit had been sent to Merton from America… Speaking from a prepared text… he told the monks and nuns about some student revolutionaries in California who described themselves as monks. He related his conversations with Tibetan lamas. He suggested that the real dialogue warranting further exploration, the division worth overcoming, was not between Marxism and monasticism, but between East and West, Asian and European, Buddhism and Christianity.

He evoked for those present an image of the monk who is concerned for society and yet is not a revolutionary. Marxism and monasticism, he proposed, are alike in their suspicion of social structures. Marxists look toward the eradication of such structures. Monks are confident that, though structures change, the monastic impulse will endure wherever people believe that at the root of ordinary experience, there is transcendence to be found… He had spoken for nearly an hour. It was lunchtime… The group scattered, and Merton, like the others, went to his cottage, to be alone, to rest, to read and to write in his journal.

A cry of pain came from his room shortly afterward. That he was killed instantly no one seems to doubt. He had taken a shower; coming out, he slipped on the floor and grasped a fan whirling on a stand. He cried out, but there was no immediate response. Some time later the door was broken down and the monks and nuns gathered around him… In the weeks to follow… people who knew Thomas Merton would seek the meaning of his death and of the grotesque fashion in which it came about. Some hinted at suicide. Others suggested that he had attained nirvana. A friend determined that after twenty-seven years in the world and twenty-seven in the monastery, he had just begun the third half of life. But there was no great significance to be found in Merton’s sudden death. In that year of grandiose acts, of blood and fire, it was a spasm of direct and terrible experience, with no significance outside itself.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 2, 2010 1:06 pm

    i am interested in speaking to someone of staff at St. Peters. Please contact me via e-mail. thank you. theresa gaus

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