I had not long been at the monastery when one of the seniors stopped me and said, “We’re not really all that interested in Thomas Merton here!” It felt like a rather gratuitous slap in the face. Yes, I was surprised and of course disappointed. But somehow or other it just seemed a bit unnecessary and rather sad.
On the one hand I didn’t consider myself a “Merton-ite”. But on the other, a particular passage in his classic, spiritual autobiography had touched some indefinable part of my being, and transformed a good idea into a destination … Kopua Road.
Towards the end of 1968, I had been out of high school for the best part of a year. I’d already managed to “drop out” of teachers’ training college, tried to join a pacifist bee-keeping community, and then taken a job as a post office clerk to pay back my studentship. During one of my meal breaks, I wandered up the city’s main street and into a major bookshop. I have no recollection of how it happened, or the thought processes involved, but a short time later I walked out in possession of The Seven Storey Mountain.
I read the book immediately, intensely and greedily, and was completely absorbed by the account of the life of the American son of a New Zealand artist. Orphaned in France, Thomas Merton was an intellectual who flirted sincerely with bohemianism and radicalism before coming to faith in Jesus Christ. He then dramatically immolated himself (and his dreams and aspirations) in the “graveyard” of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, USA. There he wrote his life’s story under obedience to his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne. It became a bestseller, thus resurrecting and miraculously fulfilling the youthful, literary aspirations he had “knifed” to join the white-cowled monks and become Father Louis.6
The remarkably brief passage that set my monastic pilgrimage rolling is on page 416. It describes the completely prosaic: Gethsemani’s novices “milling around in the clatter of washbasins … eyes full of soap and water”! Only a few words; no compelling ideas. And yet, flint and stone struck, creating a spark. An interest became a plan. Ablaze with enthusiasm, I charged over the road from my workplace and up a flight of stairs to the dingy “drop-in” centre run by a Franciscan friar with whom I had been whiling away some lunchtimes. He chopped me down in full flight with a startlingly violent denunciation of Merton for being some kind of heretic and propagator of error. I crept back to work, but not before getting this angry son of Francis of Assisi to dig out the address for the nearest Trappist abbey … Our Lady of the Southern Star, a mere few hundred miles away.
At that time in my life, the height and depth of any theology I might have had was, “Lord, save me!”7 The ins and outs of false accusations of syncretism were way over the top of my young head. All I knew was that I had just met someone who seemed to have more than half an idea about how to handle the ideas and ambitions that made my peers look blank and my elders frown. And I wasn’t about to relinquish such a one for even the supposed comfort of a fiercely proposed orthodoxy. In fact, as I sat back down at my clerk’s desk I thought, “I will go to America and find this Trappist monk and talk to him.”
It was not to be. A few days after finishing the book, I read Father Louis’ obituary in TIME magazine. The 20/12/68 edition announced his death in an article headlined, “The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians”. (The renowned Protestant theologian Karl Barth — mentioned by Merton in his own prolific diaries — had died on the same day.) The news story described my new-found and so quickly lost spiritual director as having “worked hermitlike on his writings in the hills of central Kentucky”, where he had generated “a message of love that was ardently Christian”. It reported that while he had given “his life to contemplation”, he had “found in the Word a command to do”.
It took me three more long years to finally reach Kopua Road. I flailed and floundered around wildly during those “waiting” days, lashed mercilessly by the storms and whirlpools of the “flesh, world and devil”. I stayed afloat (only just) by continuing to read some of Merton’s 70 books, by crouching at the back of empty churches, and occasionally driving out to the edge of the city to gaze hopefully south, in the general direction of the Hawke’s Bay.
Forty years later, as I began to learn all over again how to “live to pray”, I dreamt vividly of finally meeting Father Louis in his hermitage in the woods of Gethsemani Abbey. The sun was sinking low and slanting in through a window. I took the top off a bottle of ink on his desk and discovered it contained his blood. As he entered, I hastily put the top back on crookedly, and set it down. He asked what I had been doing. Somewhat apprehensively I told the truth, knowing that any evasion was out of the question. He smiled and we embraced. I could feel underneath his black and white habit some kind of brace for an injured back.