Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The good Fr. Louis

Photo by Jim Forest
I finished the Lipsey book ("Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down") last night. I had been reading it almost non-stop since it arrived. I knew that Lipsey could do this. He  could honestly delve into the muddle of confused emotion that characterized Merton’s relationship with his abbot, Dom James Fox, and come out with something authentic and believable. Even more than Merton’s own journal writing, Lipsey’s accounting of what was happening between Merton and his abbot makes Merton more believable. More human and relatable. Here is a popular monk, the 20th Century’s most prominent spiritual writer, and he is embroiled in the same complicated and painful relationship patterns that afflict most every family. Resentments, deceit, dysfunction, self-doubt, distrust, projection, exasperation. Arm wrestling indeed, and under the cover of politeness and piety. Merton’s own writing about the struggle is one sided, not giving the full context. Lipsey gives Dom James’ side of the story. He looks for ways to understand and explain Dom James and gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. In the end, it is what it is and one is left seeing more clearly the role of providence in this particular relationship and all relationships.

While Merton was writing exquisite poetry and funny letters, THIS was going on. This is encouraging.

Thank you Roger Lipsey. It all had to be said. The next time I visit Gethsemane I will be sure to bring some flowers to the grave of Dom James Fox.

30 comments:

  1. How did it come about that Fox and Merton were buried next to each other?

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    1. They say that it was rather happenstance. Dom James died on Good Friday in 1987 at the age of 91. Here is the way Lipsey describes it (pp. 258-259) " ... that they are buried side by side has seemed to me and many others the last contradiction: who decided, and why? Couldn't there be a little more distance between them? Hadn't they seen enough of each other in their lifetimes? I approached this question with my informants in the Gethsemane community as if a great truth might be revealed, a transcendent thought that has escaped most of us who care for Merton's example and writings. But no one seemed to really know: it was just that way and not some other way. Finally, in conversation with Fr. Timothy Kelly, abbot of Gethsemane at that time, I heard the simple facts. "I don't think there was any great decision made on it. I recall that Br. Gerac, who arranged things in the cemetery, said to me, 'Let's bury Dom James beside Fr. Louis' and I agreed. I think he saw it as a sign of reconciliation and of the brotherhood of our relations in eternity. I wouldn't look for any more profound reason than that. That's the depth of the matter -- unless it also had something to do with Br. Gelac's Irish sense of humor."

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  2. Beth, enjoyed your review. I remember visiting Gethsemane while on retreat a bit to the south in a little retreat center run by sisters. They told me how to access Merton's Hermitage. When I got there, there was a man in a red bathing suit sitting outside. I asked if I could go inside. He said yes. I took some pictures and had a bit of a conversation with this man, who I found out was a (former) Jesuit. He proceeded to put Merton down a bit. I thought, "this seems to me to be the height of arrogance." While on retreat I read Mott's THE SEVEN MOUNTAINS OF THOMAS MERTON. I made it a point to visit across the street from the Monastery where Merton entertained guests. I also visited the two graves of Merton and his Abbot and was confronted by the seeming paradox of them being buried next to each other. Seb, was quite an expert on Merton. While we were teaching together at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wi. Seb had some of the seminarians turned on to Merton.
    My wife Alva and I were in the Hill Country since last Friday. She almost made reservations in Wimberly. Instead we were in Comfort, Texas at a B & B. Found out about a founding group of the town who were "Freethinkers from Germany."
    On the way back we passed through San Antonio and the hotel where Seb and ourselves stayed for our wedding. Seb was our best man. We miss him. All the best. David

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    1. That's interesting and funny, David. Were you with the Sisters of Loretto? It's not far from Gethsemane. I actually grew up in Bardstown KY (my mother was from Loretto) and have known about Merton from my earliest days. My father was a dairy farmer who often joined the monks at their early morning Lauds. Seb and I talked a lot about Merton ... not to be arrogant or anything, but I think I knew more about Merton than he did :-) ... I miss Seb too. Still can't quite believe that he died.

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  3. I was on retreat at Bethany Spring. It is (or was) located 1 mile south of the Abbey in a renovated farm house. I was there from May 23, 1988 till May 30th. I just dug out my journal from those days and kind of amazed myself. I think the SCN's were running it because Sr. Janice Downs, SCN was listed in the brochure as Director and Sr. Betty Dorr, OP as assistant and spiritual director.
    I'm sure Seb would be the first to say that you knew more about Merton than he did.

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    1. Oh gee. I was taught by the SCN's from 1st grade through high school. I kind of knew about Bethany Springs, but haven't been back to KY enough to know what it is all about.

      I still go back there to family and class reunions and I have a dear aunt (age 101) who is still there. Most every time I go back I go over to Gethsemane and just hang around. My cousin is a Benedictine priest at St. Meinrad's and has a lot more clout than I do with the monks. He says he can get me a pass to see the hermitage if I want, but I don't know if I want (or need) it.

      Yes indeed, Seb would be the first to admit that I knew more about Merton than he did. That was one of the things I so loved about him. His humility and his recognition in me that I was on to something :-) ... most people just think I'm weird.

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    2. Beth, I think I followed some of your posts in comments sections of things I was reading. I don't think I learned of your friendship with Seb until we visited him in West Palm Beach.

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    3. I just noticed that "sebastian" has a comment on the very first post of this blog ... http://fatherlouie.blogspot.com/2006/12/louie-louie.html#comment-form ... he wasn't especially computer savvy, so getting that comment on there was an accomplishment for him.

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    4. Great that you found Seb's comment. It is so him.

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    1. Seb is Fr. Sebastian Muccilli.

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    2. James, I have known Seb (Fr. Sebastian) since he arrived in West Palm Beach in 1990 from Haiti with his adopted son, Jimmi. We became friends - more like mother-friends because my own son was about Jimmi's age. We were on the same wave length re: religion etc. and became very good friends. Sebastian was not like a "priest", even though he was a priest through and through. He was anti-clerical, had his own home, his own friends. Seb died on Feb 16th of this year. I am still in shock. David knew Seb in a different context, earlier than I knew him, and then Seb officiated at his wedding some years ago. I got into that because Sebastian was computer challenged and I helped out and came to know about David even before I knew David (if any of that makes any sense) :-)

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    3. I like knowing about good people, like Seb. Thanks.

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  5. I worked at the monastery for three months about 1959. My experience in meeting with Dom James is proof to me that James protected and nurtured Father Louis and his writing. I had spent nine months in a training center which Father Louis had written about in Seven Storey Mountain. I was upset that I had felt abused in that training center, and I told James that I wanted to express my anger to Father Louis! Thankfully, James rejected my request, and I only met Father Louis in a brief unplanned passing by each other while walking through the monastery. Dom James had explained his denial to me, that Father Louis had been having doubts about his writings, which were only about half completed at the time. My anger could have destroyed that second half!

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    1. Thanks, Anthony. I have mixed feelings about Dom James, it seems to me that there was a lot of projection going on in that relationship, both ways. But I appreciate your thoughts. Lipsey is clearly biased toward Merton in the book, but ends up painting James as both complex and sincere. I feel a lot better about James now after reading the book.

      Your story also reminds me of that of James Finley, who was one of Merton's novices. Merton was his spiritual director. Finley was sexually abused by one of the monks and left the monastery, but without ever telling Merton what had happened. I wish that he had.

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    2. In fact, I wonder a lot about why Finley couldn't tell Merton about the abuse. Finley had a bad (abusive) childhood, maybe the shame was all too much. Somewhat miraculously, Finley worked his way through the alcoholism and chaotic life that followed his life as a monk and is now a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher himself.

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    3. Having known both Dom James and Merton, I bet you'd really like the book.

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  6. Beth, i hope my previous reply was not too nasty :) WOW i googled James Finley and i am amazed at how wonderful his work has been since Gethsemani...i had never heard of him until your message...in 1959 the monastery was absolutely overcome by danger and wilderness...rattlesnakes actually slithered into the dining area where the men on retreat ate !! i slept in the working monks area, totally away from any comforts, there were huge bales of hay shaped like mattresses strewn about and loaded with bedbugs which bite me PAINFULLY near my fingernails and woke me every night...bats flew directly toward my face when i went from my bed to the restroom so i had to bend down below four feet to avoid them...i had contracted severe poison ivy blisters around my ankles two inches long and an inch high...the thunder felt like a concussion and echoed through the monastery like an earthquake ...in the chapel where any male or female visitor could attend Mass say about 6 AM had extremely heavy soundproofing tiles on the ceiling and one day about 5 AM the tiles broke loose with a huge exploding sound, thank God no one was there yet !! an elderly monk had been crushed to death years ago by one of the IMMENSE bulls whose heads were about 3 feet wide at their forehead and horns each about 3 feet long...about 10 young steers were constantly escaping into the Kentucky bluegrass and it was my job with about 3 other workers and Brother Ambrose to go out on foot to round them up :) one of my lifetime memories is seeing Brother Ambrose pulling the tail of a very large steer, which pulled Brother behind him with Brother;s huge leather sandals acting like water skis while Brother flew along the high grass like skiing on a lake :)

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  7. oops so sorry my previous reply aborted, i simply explained that my anger nearly destroyed my own life until i retired and my doctors prescribed lisinopril for high blood pressure, now at age 76 if i miss even one day of lisinopril the anger is nasty enough to recognize that i missed my pill :) there is a research study that certain types of HPB and certain prescriptions for it can actually mediate the patient's racial bigotry !! speaking of which, the Louisville bus station where i first arrived in 1959 had signs saying COLORED ONLY over the water fountains and restrooms, of course, my first act in Kentucky was to drink from the COLORED ONLY water fountain :) sadly a racially bigoted man came up to me and told me i could not drink from that fountain :(

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  8. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=94006569

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  9. sorry that is the obit for Br Ambrose Rico O.C.S.O. (1919 - 2012)

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  10. By the time of his death, at 92 years of age, he was the eldest member of the Gethsemani Community.

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  11. Much obliged for the discussion. Blessings.

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  12. Those are some very interesting stories, Anthony.

    I used to visit Gethsemane often during the 1950s. But I never got further than the gift shop, where we would browse the holy cards, and the loft overlooking the church. There were NO WOMEN ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT all around. It was kind of creepy. But one Xmas Eve my father and I went over to Gethsemane and an old monk gave me a little music box creche that he had made himself. I still have it.

    Thanks for the information about HBP. Last month, all of a sudden, my blood pressure was high. I have been on targeted chemo therapy for almost 3 years now, and it can affect my heart. So the doctor put me on a calcium channel blocker. I was on that for a month and it didn't lower my BP much, so he just added an ACE inhibitor. Now my blood pressure is LOW (111/66)!! My feet and my fingers are tingling!

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  13. I like the stories about Brother Ambrose very much. THANKS!

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  14. I was at Gethsemane a couple of years ago for Pentecost and was thrilled when they opened the gates and let all us ordinary lay people (even women!) join the monks at the altar.

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  15. Beth, I was able to talk with two young monks by phone about ten years ago who were with Brother Ambrose and immediately relaying my praise to him, that is that he gave me a moral and work ethic that had lasted my whole life since 1959, and I am sure I expressed my gratitude in even more touching ways during the phone conversation because one of the young monks told me that Brother Ambrose was crying :( I have always believed that loved ones are always present within our own awareness no matter what happens physically...

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  16. Beth I hope you are doing well now, chemistry is basically controlled by temperature, pressure and concentration of reactants, temperature and concentration were pretty much covered for centuries :) thank God we have ways to control pressure now :)

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  17. I am amazed and pleased about you [and other women] being able to join the monks at the alter !! while at Gethsemane I became aware of some very personal information by accident when a new young male novitiate entered the monastery as a priest, while sitting in the conservatory where huge banana trees were grown by the monks, and hid my presence from them, one male friend of the new novitiate was urging the novitiate to leave the monastery after just a few weeks to rejoin him and the two young women with whom they were in a romantic relationship !! it became apparent that there had been a personal breakdown of ability to communicate and tolerate the differences between genders :( perhaps we are making progress to heal that rift :)

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