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A Conversation With Thomas Merton

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Author's note: My 90th birthday will be June 8, 2013. Should I call it a lifetime experience? I'm in pretty good shape. A retired Episcopal priest (ordained in 1955) I remain very active, spending quality timel offering spiritual direction to a fine mix of people and continuing my lifetime of writing. My ears perked up when the thought surfaced that I might write quite personally about a few crucial American religious moments in which I'd particiipated.

Certain individuals usher us into great moments in our lives. These can range from family members to neighbors, schoolteachers to public figures, creative artists to spiritual exemplars.

I was a guest speaker at a nearby Kentucky campus in the early 1960s. To my surprise I received an invitation to visit one of the world's renowned religious leaders, Thomas Merton, who lived nearby in a monastic community. So I remember trudging up a muddy path at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemany at the appointed hour and knocking at the door of his quarters. When he opened the door he was smiling. Everything about him suggested openness, outreach, warmth -- the direct oppopsite of withdrawal, mystery, remoteness or separateness. His writings had uniquely touched millions of people in every part of the world in deeply personal ways.

He welcomed me to his home, a large, silmple room in the monastic community. Books and LPs were stacked everywhere, including my book of prayers, "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" Ours quickly became a torrent of conversation. We know our time together was limited. So we talked about virtually everything. War. Peace. Race. Prayer. Literature. He explained that he did not see films because his was an isolated rural life. Yet he included French cinema director Jean-Luc Godard in our conversation.

We gossiped! We dissed both the Vatican and the Episcopal Church! Both religious institutions clearly stood in need of a sense of humor, particularly in relation to themselves. So our conversation covered glaring faiilures of organized religion as well as scintillating reflections of hopefull signs for a future. I was struck by his alert humor, easy grace and gentle openness. He was a unique sort of holy person, totally human, devoid of posturing. His life was clearly not a scripted one. Thomas Merton was not playing a role. I found him a pure delight because, as much as I cherish theatre, I prefer to keep it on a stage. In my view all the world's not a stage at all. So I was delighted simply to meet a kindred soul.

What struck me with considerable force was an instant awareness that we weren't meeting as two persons in an instititutional setting, religious or otherwise. In other words, we weren't locked into "ecumenical" or "interfaith" recognized categories. We carried no religious passports. No so-called allegiance to any religious institution defined us or in any way limited our freedom to be ourselves. I guess one could say that we un-self-consciously celebrated the peculiar and wonderful freedom of faith.