Saturday, January 19, 2008

a monk among monks (and other comments from matthew kelty)

I appreciate the writings from those who knew Merton that enlighten my way of knowing Merton.

I especially like the Lax passage about how Merton walked: “he did walk with joy. he walked explosively: bang bang bang. as though fireworks, small & they too, joyful, went off every time his heel hit the ground.” [see “a certainty of tread”]

Matthew Kelty was a novice under Merton, and also has some things to say about how Merton walked:

“You could tell Father Louis by his walk. He had a rather rapid walk, but not altogether measured and orderly. For one thing, his feet were spread out fan-fashion, and there was something off in his gait. But it was a vigorous walk, except when he was reading, as he often was …” (from an essay, “The Man” by Matthew Kelty, included in the book Thomas Merton – Monk, p. 19)

Fr. Kelty has some other things to say about Merton that I like:

“If you stopped to talk to him for a moment, and he was glad enough when you did, he was always wide-awake and intent, looking closely at you with bright and eager eyes, for he had a plain and even common face, his eyes were rich in life, never far from merriment. His voice was quiet and his laugh gentle, but deep and like a chuckle. He had a way of sensing when something was done and would end the matter there. This was a real characteristic. He loathed dragging things out beyond their measure …”(p. 20)

“His place in the community was a monk among monks. No one made anything of him. He neither expected special handling nor got it. This does not mean that he adopted some sort of humble manner by which he managed to hide his own importance. On the contrary, he was very much himself, very alive and very real. When you met him, spoke with him, had dealings with him, you never felt you were dealing with something artificial: quite the opposite. He was nothing if not real. And part of that reality was his simplicity, his being himself. He said what he thought and he did what he thought should be done, and that was all there was to it … He never made a big thing of his writings, and once they came out he never read them again …he saw his whole life as a calling from God and one he was bound to answer faithfully. (p. 27)

“It was perhaps at his death, and the funeral and burial following, that the true dimensions of Gethsemani’s relations with Father Louis became manifest. It is rare for a monastic funeral to have such an impact as his had. It is not that in the death of other monks we were less concerned with love, for there is genuine love here, but the intensity of this particular experience escaped no one. And it was as the man himself, a combination of contradictions. For it was very sad and grief-ridden, but at the same time something brim-filled with joy and a kind of rapture. I have never in my life assisted at such a joyous funeral; it was more of a wedding celebration! And yet the anguish of knowing that he was no longer with us was a great weight on the heart. All in all, it was a community experience of great love, a testimony to the great mystery of love among us in the power of Christ, a love hidden in some way, yet there, as the great inner reality, the core of our life together. The comings and goings, the brightness and the dullness, the stupid and the silly as well as the brilliant and the accomplished – the whole fabric of the life of day to day was laid bare, and there for all to see was this glorious presence of love behind it all, beneath it all. It was evident that the man loved us. And it was evident that we loved him. And this love is the evidence of the presence of Christ.

“… he was a kind of dividing spirit, a sign spoken against, a sort of question demanding an answer. Thus, he raised issues, and there was no way out but to reply one way or other. In this he was unsettling, disturbing, not comfortable to live with. Put in other words, there was a kind of truth about him that got under your skin, into your heart. He belonged to nobody, free as a bird. He could not be categorized, labeled, pigeonholed. And he had vision … (p. 34)


  1. "I have never in my life assisted at such a joyous funeral; it was more of a wedding celebration!"

    I've attended many funerals over the years, Beth, but only one at which this same supernatural joy came over all the mourning family/friends, truly making it seem more of a wedding than a funeral. It was like a confirmation from above that the soul was truly with her Bridegroom. It was so beautiful.

  2. That description of the funeral is really beautiful, isn't it Gabrielle?

    I don't know that I have attended such a funeral, but I am always struck (and comforted) by the "white" that is used at Catholic funeral liturgies, and the joyousness of the readings as the coffin is brought into the Church.

  3. Thank you for sharing these portraits of Merton and his funeral. They put flesh on the man. I have a bookmark pasted into a commonplace book with these words by Merton on it: A saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and the way he stands, the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand. (from memory)It would appear he walked the walk.

  4. Beth - I am a bit late for this post - but the reflections here are awesome. I have been reading Fr. Kelty's homilies for a long time. I believe he has given up this trade - as age may no longer allow.

    I really love Merton. It is sad to think that some religious orders will not read him.

    I find myself in Merton - we both are "only human."

    God bless..

  5. Thanks again, Brian.
    I recall seeing some of Fr. Kelty's homilies on the Abby of Gethsemane website about a year or so ago. But, you're right, he's getting up there.

    I didn't realize that there were religious orders who do not read Merton. That's too bad - I'm sorry that they are missing his unique gift. I consider him my primary spiritual guide, and he has never misled me.


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