Monday, December 10, 2012

Merton's last words

Mary Luke Tobin, SL, and Thomas Merton, OCSO, probably early 1960s at Loretto Motherhouse.
Sister Mary Luke Tobin "got" Merton.

As Mother Superior of the Sisters of Loretto, whose motherhouse was just a few miles from Gethsemani, "Luke" and Merton first met in October of 1960.   Merton had brought his friend, Dan Walsh, over to Loretto to arrange a series of classes by Dan for the sisters.  Merton and Sr. Luke connected with each other immediately.  Merton considered Sr. Luke his intellectual equal, a woman who was spiritually in sympathy with his vocation, and a fellow worker for peace and social justice.

Merton and Luke met with each other several times, both privately and during conferences, over the next few years.  After his death, Sr. Luke fostered Merton's legacy at her Merton Center in Denver.

If there is a feast day for Father Louie, December 10th is it. This is the day, in 1941, that he arrived at the Abby of Our Lady of Gethsemane to begin his life as a Trappist monk. Twenty seven years later, on this day, he died in Bangkok Thailand while participating in a monastic conference.

This year I would like to share Sr. Luke's telling of Merton's last words.  The passage is transcribed from a talk that she gave.  I believe that it gives a great deal of insight into the person of Merton from someone who knew and understood him.
I want to conclude by telling you about Merton's last words.  Merton gave a talk in Bangkok, a final contribution, and he talked quite a bit about alienation, the separation of ourselves, tearing ourselves into parts: that which somebody else tells us we are, and that which we know ourselves to be as a center where God is present.  Now if we choose from that center, as Merton continually instructed his novices, then we are choosing according to a unified sense of self.  If we choose from what other people tell us we are or tell us we should do, or tell us anything else that we should do, or have or whatever, we have broken ourselves into two.  That's alienation.  And that's what Merton talked bout so much in his last days, that alienated self, brought all the way over to what others say we should be rather than choosing from one's center.  That is what I think was the great message of prayer and everything else that Merton taught.  At the end of it he asked for the blessing of God for himself and for all these others that are there.
 In the very last of his life, he gave this final talk in Bangkok.  I went to the place in Bangkok, and I visited the room where he gave the final talk, and I visited the little bungalow where he died.  I remember then what I heard about his last words.  Merton, as you know, gave his talk, and then sat down and said. "We are going to have the questions tonight.  Now I will disappear."  Many people repeat that as a prophecy.  I think Merton meant he'd leave.  And we'll have the questions tonight.
 So then he went from there to the lunchroom and had the lunch they had prepared, and then he walked over to his room accompanied by a French monk who talked to him as they walked along to Merton's room and said to him, "Well, thank you for the talk you gave this morning.  Everybody didn't exactly appreciate it, though.  We had some question."  And I thought to myself, "Yes, this is the way it always is.  Yes, I know they said some good things BUT."  There's always that little part, and Merton was experiencing that there.  Actually, it was a nun that said that, but usually I don't say that because we have a bad enough press as it is, so I don't usually set up the nun as the one who said that.  Anyone could have.  She happened to say it, and what she said was repeated to Merton: "I thought he would talk more about converting people to Christianity.  I thought that's what he was going to be talking about."  She enlarged on that.  This is a pagan area where we are working, and we're missionaries, and it's a pagan area, and here he's talking about something else and alienation, whatever.  But I thought he'd talk about bringing people to Christ.
 Merton, when he heard that, instead of getting upset the way many of us would get upset, said simply, "Well, I don't think that is what we are asked to do today.  All the preaching we get on television telling us who God is -- honestly, you wonder what the word 'God' is to mean in all of that."  Merton has it better.  "today I don't think it is what we are asked to do.  I think today it's more important for us to so let God live in us that others may feel God and come to believe in God because they feel how God lives in us."  These were Merton's last words that we know anything about and were said right before Francois de Grunne took him to his room where he tragically died, tragically for us, in any case.  Certainly he had completed what was his journey.  In other words, so let God live in us, so allow God to be the center where we make our decisions, where we live our lives, so let God live in us that others may find God by seeing how God lives in us, by somehow grasping how God lives in us.  Better than any long television explanation of who God is.  A beautiful last message, and I'd like to leave that with you as we conclude the talk on prayer because prayer, that presence of God, that reality of God, which each of us possesses, is our good fortune, "All love's luck."  We have achieved it.  Thank you very much.  -- Sr. Mary Luke Tobin SL
Thomas Merton, Dan Walsh, Luke, and Rose Alma Schuler, SL, probably spring 1968.
Below are some posts where Merton's death is discussed in this blog. It is an eclectic collection, as is this entire blog.

December 10th (December 10, 2009)

The Funeral of Thomas Merton - a white celebration (December 17, 2008)

the monk / poet's journey toward silence (December 10, 2008)

a monk among monks (January 19, 2008)

the Daniel Berrigan connection, part 4 (July 15, 2007)

photo of a dream, finding your way (March 4, 2007)

When Prophecy Had A Voice
(December 10, 2006)

the death of Thomas Merton (December 10, 2006)

kanchenjunga (December 9, 2006)

on photographing kanchenjunga (December 9, 2006) 


  1. This post and all its links has been such a powerful and moving exploration of the impact of Merton's death..

    1. thanks, J - it's kind of amazing how many years I've been adding to this louie blog! There's always more to say about Merton ...

  2. Thanks Again for another powerful post. I read the Michael Mott Biography of Merton this past summer. I am more moved by Merton's writings and life since. Especially, since I am the age Merton was when he past. What an amazing life.

    1. Merton was certainly an interesting person. I suspect that he would say that all of our lives are pretty amazing!