Thomas Merton’s death recalled 50 years later

A mural made of sand — called a mandala — was created last week in the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University by the Buddhist monks from the Drepung Gomang monastery in St. Matthews. A monk, known as Jenpa, right, used a chakpur to precisely create symbols in the outer ring on Dec. 6. The mandala, crafted from millions of grains of sand, is a Buddhist religious teaching tool. As a reminder of the impermanence of all things it was dismantled during a closing ceremony Dec. 10. The mandala was part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death. (Record Photo by Paul Hohman)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Fifty years after his death, Thomas Merton — the influential Trappist monk who lived and wrote from the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. — is still helping to draw others nearer to Christ through his writings and the communities they tend to create, said Cistercian Father Lawrence Morey.

Father Morey, a fellow Trappist, gave the homily during a Mass of Remembrance honoring Merton on Dec. 10 at the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz presided.

Merton died Dec. 10, 1968, near Bangkok, Thailand, where he was attending a conference for monks from the Order of Cistercians and the Order of St. Benedict.

Father Morey said that the support of a community is essential in finding Christ and most of Merton’s writings show how important community was to him.

Father Morey shared with his listeners that the burial of a brother monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani is a “community affair.” All the monks take part by singing and praying. Six are chosen as pallbearers with the responsibility of lowering the body into the ground.

“We all participate at this point by holding our breath,” said Father Morey. “What if one of the brothers slip and loses his grip? But we’ve always managed to get our brother to his final resting place without any major accident.”

The paralyzed man from the Gospel of Luke, whose friends lower him through the roof so he could see Jesus, is somewhat like “our deceased brother,” said Father Morey. He needed the support of his friends and a community to reach Christ.

Like the paralyzed man in the Gospel, “We all need community in order to find Jesus,” Father Morey explained.

Community, however, is often missing in today’s world, he said, noting that people often use their differences to separate themselves from others.

Though he sometimes had “problems with his community, Merton was a good community member” who recognized its value, said Father Morey. He was conscientious and obedient, though sometimes murmuring about it, “the community provided him with the opportunity to write, gave him a solid perspective  from which to see the world and eventually constructed his hermitage for him.”

During his years at Gethsemani, Merton also formed a larger community through correspondence with people from around the world — people of different religious backgrounds, said Father Morey.

While Merton’s community helped him find Christ, in return, Merton has touched many through his writings, said Father Morey. “He’s helped many people to see their own true face.”

He went on to explain that in one of Merton’s “most famous pieces, he described seeing ordinary people going about their business on an ordinary day as ‘walking around shining like the sun.’ He said ‘It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation.’ He saw himself and others as they truly were, fellow members of race in which ‘God himself became incarnate.’ ”

This has been Merton’s gift to many, said Father Morey — “to show them who they truly are. To show them the face of Christ in themselves and others.”

Those who’ve been touched by Merton often want to share their experience, added Father Morey.

“He makes people seek others out to form various kinds of communities. We’ve only to look around this very church to see this,” he said, referring to the group of young, old and middle-aged people who’d gathered to remember Merton half a century after his death.

The Mass was one of several events sponsored by Bellarmine University to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death. One such event was the building of a Tibetan Sacred Sand Mandala inside the Merton Center on Bellarmine’s campus, the week of Dec.3 by the monks of the Drepung Gomang Monastery. The sand mural is a Buddhist religious teaching tool, according to information from the monks. It was dismantled during a ceremony Dec. 10.

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