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Thomas Merton and Louisville's Search for a Hometown Hero

Kentucky may name a new bridge after Muhammad Ali. Or it could go with a Trappist monk.

Hulton Archive/Getty

When Thomas Merton entered the Trappist monastery in the rolling hills of Kentucky's bourbon country in December 1941, his literary-minded friends back in New York City—and there were many of them—assumed they'd never hear from him again. "He's leaving the world," his former teacher at Columbia, Mark Van Doren, told a mutual friend. "An extraordinary young man. I always expected him to become a writer." 

The 26-year-old Merton did quickly sink into his new, cloistered life, and by 1949 he had taken permanent vows as a Cistercian monk and been ordained a Catholic priest. He remained rooted at the Abbey of Gethsemani until 1968, when he began a long journey to the East from which he would never return. Shortly after the last in a series of three long audiences with the Dalai Lama, he died of accidental electrocution in Thailand on Dec. 10, 27 years to the day after entering the abbey.  

Now, four Catholic members of the Louisville city council have begun a campaign to convince Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to name the city's new Ohio River bridge—part of the city's largest public works project ever—after Merton. It won't be easy: There's a strong sense that Beshear could name the span for Louisville native Muhammad Ali—among the most famous people in the world, all but universally loved—before his second and final term ends next month. He could also punt and leave it for the legislature or his successor. (A state spokesman confirmed that in the absence of legislation, naming a bridge is formally the transportation secretary's call—but noted that in Kentucky, the secretary works for the governor.)

But Merton's moment has been coming for many years, long before Pope Francis surprised nearly everyone during his September address to the joint session of Congress by placing Merton in his pantheon of "four representatives of the American people." Along with the French-born monk, Francis named Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day, the Catholic writer and social worker with whom Merton had shared a long correspondence.  

In naming Merton, Francis noted that he had been born a century ago into a Europe in the midst of "the pointless slaughter" of World War I. Quoting from Merton's best-known book, the 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Francis said to the gathered lawmakers, “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.” 

By choosing to quote from the opening lines of Merton's best-known (and one of his earliest) works, Francis was pointing to a dichotomy that persisted within Merton's work and spiritual journey all his too-short life.  

Almost since the moment he arrived in Kentucky, Merton had set about unconsciously to prove Van Doren spectacularly wrong. In this, he had the ardent support of his abbot, Dom Frederick Dunne, who insisted that Merton's writing could be holy, and could be Merton's way of serving God, his church, and the order. Merton himself worried that by pursuing his writing he was surrendering to the same ego that he had sought to diminish by coming to the abbey in the first place.  

Dom Frederick's instincts proved right, as Merton's autobiography would become a best-seller and in time sell over one million copies. Merton would go on to write more than 50 works, about half of which have been published since his death.  

But the conflict between the engagement with the world his writing invited, and the solace of solitude he constantly sought, would never end for Merton. The abbot who ruled Gethsemani for most of Merton's stay there would conclude that his famous charge suffered from a neurotic need for celebrity. In his book Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down: The Long Encounter of Thomas Merton and His Abbott, James Fox, writer Roger Lipsey revealed that Fox would insist on obedience from a fuming Merton, as he both limited Merton's exposure to the outside world and, for a time, forbade him from keeping a journal.  

This conflict played out in a dozen other ways, both between Merton and his superiors in Kentucky and in Rome, and between the writer and his adopted country, where his pacifism in the face of World War II, Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam left many conservative Catholics and others nonplussed.   

Like the four council members who seek to name Louisville's new bridge after Merton, I am a product of that city's flourishing Catholic school system. I, too, have been fascinated by Merton and his work for most of my life. It's hard not to be when even a cursory study brings one face to face with a man of such powerful contradictions. There is a profound gap between the image of Merton in his monk's cowl, meditating about silence and the search for God's voice, and the riotous, often rebellious, and yet ultimately obedient Merton who surfaces in hundreds of pages of diaries, letters, and other intimate writings published since his death.  

When Merton entered Gethsemani, he sensed he was leaving behind the busy and violent world. But through his writings, he spent the next three decades of his life reaching right back out into the world to emerge as a forceful, if sometimes disconnected, champion of peace, nonviolence, and racial harmony.  

All this was on display in the final years of his life, and a trilogy of national tragedies helps explain how.  

In November, 1963, he was left "bewildered and slightly sick" by the "absurd assassination" of John F. Kennedy. "Sick for the madness, ferocity, stupidity, aimless cruelty that is the mark of so great a part of this country," he wrote. "Essentially the same blind, idiot destructiveness and hate that killed Medgar Evers in Jackson, the Negro children of Birmingham. I do not know what was the motive behind this absurd assassination—whether it was over the race question or not, or just fanaticism. The country is full of madness, and we are going to know this more and more."  

In that entry, there was a kind of naiveté—there was never to be any link between the racists he was decrying and Kennedy's murder—and a degree of venom that contrasts with the sincere search for God that shines through The Seven Storey Mountain and much of his subsequent writings.  

Five months later, Merton was in Lexington with a friend, the Protestant theologian Donald Allchin, and stopped for dinner. Watching the news over a couple of Danish beers, images of tanks in Vietnam were interrupted by news out of Memphis.  

"The murder of Martin Luther King lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse," he would write the next day about the ride back to the monastery. "It finally confirmed all of the apprehensions—the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year, that things are finally and inexorably spelling themselves out."

Two months later, carrying his laundry from his hermitage to the abbey, he saw a flag flying at half-staff. "I asked someone if Robert Kennedy was dead. Of course he was," he wrote in his diary.  

It wasn't just the evilness of the times that had him down. Merton had also been struggling all that previous year over his place at the monastery. In October of 1967, he wrote of his doubts with a kind of bluntness that would characterize much of the work published after his death.  

"The ambiguities at work here: The pretend 'roots' at Gethsemani, where I am alien and where most everyone else is alien too," he wrote on Oct. 2. "Yet, paradoxically, to many people I am completely identified with this strange place I can't firmly believe in. Where all these people with vows of stability are so obviously on the point of taking flight (and don't know it) or else simply staying by force of repression.  

"Even the ones who are at home here remain alien though they don't realize it. … Certainly their deep investment in the place is so complete that they are inseparable from it. And all the dead whom no one remembers. … Yet there is no where else I want to go." 

Even that last sentiment—of having no place he would rather be—began to fade by 1968. A trip to California's redwoods and to an isolated retreat in the central California mountains had left him restless.  

"In our monasteries we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple, undisturbed and thoughtful life," he wrote in May of his final year. "This is certainly good, but is it enough? I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure. There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation."  

Merton caught a break of sorts later that year when his abbot gave him permission to attend a conference in Bangkok, where he would exchange views with many leading figures in Eastern religions, including Buddhist and Hindu sages. As the trip neared, Merton began to realize how big a step this trip was for him, he who had been confined to his abbey for so much of his life.  

"In eight weeks, I am to leave here," he wrote on July 29, 1968. "Who knows, I may not come back. Not that I expect anything to go wrong—though it might. … In any case, I don't expect to be back for a few months." 

By late summer, the sense of change had taken stronger root. In September, he wrote, "It is hard to believe that this is my last night at Gethsemani for some time—at least for several months. … I go with a completely open mind. I hope without special illusions. My hope is simply to enjoy the long journey, profit by it, learn, change."  

Much has been made of Merton's trip East. Over the next two-and-half months, he would tour the slums of Calcutta, meet with Hindu mystics, and climb the long mountain steps to Tibetan temples. He met three times with the Dalai Lama, enough so that he would write in his journal that he was convinced he had made a lifelong friend. (For his part, the Dalai Lama has honored that prediction by traveling to the abbey and sending monks on other occasions to chant in Louisville and for the monks.)  

As Governor Beshear considers the Louisville leaders' request to honor Merton with a bridge that will run parallel to one named for John F. Kennedy, it's worth noting that it's far from clear whether Merton intended to return to Kentucky had his journey not been cut short. But it's clear from his journals that even amid the euphoria he felt in making contact with the Eastern mystics, his thoughts turned back not just to his own Catholic faith, but to his humble shack placed among the pines on the abbey's 2,000 acres.  

We'll never know what the future held for Merton, but what makes him such a fitting choice for the new Ohio River bridge is that even from such a remote place as inside a Cistercian abbey, he spent his life trying to build bridges of his own. He tried to bridge the traditional and modern tendencies in his own church, a stance that made him a radical in his day, but which has at long last found favor in the words of the Pope.  

He also tried to bridge a dialogue still sadly needed between starkly different faiths in the world, and between believers and non-believers. In his writings, he cautioned against contempt for atheists. The righteousness of the faithful, he warned, may have been precisely what caused the nonbeliever to lose faith in the first place.  

And finally, Merton spent his life testing the distance between the forces within each of us, seeking to bridge the gap between our own search for that which is permanent and of lasting value and the press of the world about us, with all its interminable claims on our time, our hearts, and our minds.  

Today is Election Day in Kentucky, leaving Beshear a month more to decide whether to honor Merton, Ali, or some other figure with a name for the nearly complete bridge. Once it's open to traffic, motorists will be paying a toll to cross the river, and in that sense a name like Merton's will go a long way to remind travelers of the same contradictory impulses that the late monk spent his life grappling with. Life is a struggle between paying the tolls required of us and finding space to leave something of ourselves behind for those who are here when we are gone.