Wednesday, January 10, 2007

blessed art thou a monk swimming

One of my commenters has requested a “Merton Humor” thread. The following is part of a reflection of Dom James Fox, Fr. Louie’s abbot for 20 years. Those who have read the journals know that this relationship was blessed with challenges for Merton. Merton was Dom James’ confessor for the last 15 of those years.

I think this is pretty funny.

One quality that endeared Fr. Louis to all the brethren was his terrific “sense of humor.” His sharp and penetrating intellect enabled him to perceive the amusing and the comic, seconds before almost anyone else. I noticed this, in Chapter talks. “Chapter” is the time, whether in the evening before Compline or Sunday morning after Lauds, when the entire monastic family gathers in a large room outside the Church proper. Usually at that time, the Abbot gives some spiritual conference, and makes any announcements pertinent to the family – such as, for example, new appointments or changes in schedule, etc.

The monks all had seats around the wall, usually in rank of seniority. The monk who sat on one side of Fr. Louis was Fr. Paphnutius. He and Fr. Louis often had jousts of chivalrous, humorous wit – each trying to “outsmart” the other.

One Sunday, Fr. Paphnutius changed his name – who could blame him? It was my duty to announce the change to the Community, so I said: “Our Fr. Paphnutius has received permission to change his name.”

I looked down the line of monks on my right to Fr. Paphnutius. Of course I also saw Fr. Louis. The minute I mentioned Fr. Paphnutius, Fr. Louis was all alert, perhaps wondering to himself, “What’s my sparring partner up to now?”

So I continued, in as serious a judicial voice as I could muster, “Henceforth, he will be known in history as … “ I could see out of the corner of my eye that Fr. Louis was on the edge of his seat. Then I stopped for a few seconds – for effect – and, trying to sound like an astronaut concluding a message to Houston control, barked out: "ROGER!”

With that, Fr. Louis burst into laughter, clapped his hands on his knees, and almost rolled off onto the floor. Fr. Louis’ laughter was ebullient – bubbling over. He looked at his neighbor, the erstwhile Paphnutius. Paphnutius, smiling wryly, looked back at Fr. Louis as if to say: “I put one over on you that time.”
(from “Thomas Merton, Monk – a monastic tribute”, edited by Brother Patrick Hart, pp. 143-144)

(Note: Abbott Dom James and Fr. Louis are buried side by side in the cemetery at Gethsemani.)


  1. That's wonderful, Beth.
    Thank you so much!!!!

    I'm sure Fr. Louie would have been very sharp and usually ahead of the curve. In a way,that is what spirituality is about -- seeing through things to get many dimensions of them, rather than just accepting them. Life is a multi-layered joke, just by virtue of being multi-layered. Different layers are bound to crash into each other, as with the little boy who, when he first learned the Haily Mary said "Blessed art thou a monk swimming."


  2. Beth, thanks for posting that quote, I had forgotten it. I enjoy the blog, it's nice to see how Tom has impacted other peoples lives. I noticed in your profile that you enjoyed "The God of small things", I just gave it to my daughter for Christmas. I haven't read her books but have listened to her on NPR and love her viewpoints.

    Best wishes for the new year!

  3. Well, Talker, this thread on humor is just for you! :-) ... "Blessed art thou a monk swimming" should be the mantra for this blog!

    Thanks for your visit and comment, John. I am sure that your daughter will love "God of Small Things". Arundhati Roy is a very talented and special writer, and is able to see and speak clearly during these very confusing times.

  4. Great story Beth. This is one of my favorite Merton stories!




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