On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton


Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,

Thomas Merton’s hermitage

In Gethsemane, Kentucky,

A stark cinder-block hut

With walls unpainted

Stuck incongruously

At the end of a long muddy path

Covered with stones

And fallen brown leaves

In a bleak December woods.


The journey to Gethsemane was tedious

But grand –

Two hours along twisting roads

Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch

With their stunning landscapes

Of rolling bluegrass hills

And endless farms

Dotted with double-wides

And red brick mansions

With identical Christmas lights

Following the contours of their disparate roofs

And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery

I passed huge black distilleries

of presaging Spirits —

Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.


Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,

A bedroom with a narrow cot

On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed

Of that nurse in Louisville

Who won his heart

And made him human

For the rest of us.

There was a kitchen and bathroom

And a chapel too

With a small square altar

And a wall with the Coptic icons

So dear to that mystic’s soul.


We sat in a circle

Twenty of us

In Father Louis’ living room

On folding chairs

Spotted with rust

Between a smoking fire

And the desk where “Louie”

Used to write.

Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,

We were told,

And MLK would’ve as well

Had not the assassin’s bullet

Aborted his planned pilgrimage

To the Great Man’s feet.


We listened to Brother Paul

Read his poetry –

A gloss on Matthew’s words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

In the winter cold,

Some dozed,

One snored.

But brother Paul was on fire,

His breath’s vapor blending

With the hearth’s smoke.

For the wakeful,

His words lit flames

That made wood fire redundant.


All of us are poor

He said.

None of this is ours

Everything is gift.

Prayer knows the Reality

That is always there

But not perceived.

It is coming to realize

What we already sense

But normally do not recognize.

Prayer is a pause

That shifts the atmosphere

Of the soul.

It is encountering a Christ

Who comes in ways hidden,

But not recognized

For a long time.


Paul quoted Emily Dickinson

“I’m nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too? . . .

How dreary to be somebody!”


Suddenly Paul jumped up.

“It’s time for Vespers,” he said,

And ran off.

The rest of us scurried to follow him

To the monastery chapel.


“I used to live like this,”

I thought as I stared at the monks

In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.

There were perhaps thirty of them

Mostly middle-aged and older

One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.

“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.

I wondered how.

All men, dressed identically,

Praying together seven times each day,

Keeping long silences

Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,

Now and then catching glimpses of women

And wondering about them

Before driving those thoughts from our minds.

I’m  glad I failed at that.


But Brother Paul was right.

It is all gift.

Trying to be somebody

Is quite dreary

Truly I was born without anything .

So were you.

My goal is

To keep most of it

Till I die.

What’s yours?