So, I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something...
These were my last words, spoken during my lecture before Christian and non-Christian monastics in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10, 1968, the date of my death.
I was very tried. Some yowling cats had kept me up late the night before.
The monastics that day took lots of notes: nuns in white habits, a Jesuit in a black cassock... the heat was awful, stifling and intensely tropical. Imagine the simple pleasures of a cold Coke! That's what I was thinking. Not about a beer or a whisky and water, such as I had on the plane traveling to this place.
I left the conference, avoiding some nuns who wanted to speak to me. I went to my cottage, disrobed and stepped into the shower where I lost myself in the falling water. The heat of Bangkok dissipated. .
Funny how I then felt a strange presence on the other side of the shower curtain.. ..I wondered if somebody had entered my room. I lifted the shower curtain to see but nobody was there. There was only the ugly, oversized stand- up fan, placed at an odd angle to the bathroom door. The fan looked as if it had been moved.
In the shower I thought of Margie Smith, the Louisville nurse. These thoughts returned with a vengeance and I felt an incredible sadness. What was I thinking when I started this love affair? I cannot blame anyone but myself, certainly not Joan Baez, a frequent visitor to the hermitage who urged me to elope with Margie and change my life. "Your one chance to be happy," she said, "It seems you love her."
Yes, I love her I said but I am first and foremost a monk and I cannot elope. Joan suggested I was behaving in a cowardly manner, leading the poor girl on, etc. What did I hope to gain with Margie; what was behind my pursuing her all those months, telephoning her behind the backs of my brother monks, whispering to her behind cereal boxes in the refractory and sneaking out of the hermitage late at night to phone her again as the casasavasa hummed .... I took it all too far, even getting Brother M to drive me to Louisville so Margie and I could drink champagne in a friend's office.
Afterwards I experienced an awful sinking feeling... I was a wrecked man and a false monk.......
Journal entries, 1966:
The trouble is that with M and me it is not a game.
Humanly speaking the situation is impossible.
We are planning to spend the day together Thursday (Ascension)
We walked off into the woods at the foot of Vineyard Knobs
We ate herring and ham and drank our wine and read poems
And always in the end there is this enormous, unthinkable problem of my vow
God will take care of it
Called her again Sunday morning
One of the monks reports my many calls to Margie to the Abbott
Will we ever see each other again?
It is over.
"Heal my passions, O Lord." How many times did I pray this prayer? I had become as unruly as I was before I wrote The Seven Story Mountain though that autobiography was a lie because the censors removed references to my really serious sins.
For instance, I remember how on November 19th, 1963, some three years before meeting Margie, I was stirred by a beatnik female visitor who claimed to be a relative of mine but who gave me a wild time - a real spiritual battle, at times physical, and finally when I got away alive and with most of my virtue intact (I hope, dear Lord) I felt shaken, sick and scared but mostly shaken because I had thrown in the towel and changed course.....it was the beginning, the awful opening....of what was to come with Margie....
Thank God, by the time I had stepped out of the shower I had shaken off these thoughts. When I reached for the towel I was preparing on what I would say when I returned to the conference. I had an announcement to make to my fellow monastics.
It would not be easy but it would be an ecumenical gesture...a radical spiritual act on a par with the Berrgian's activist blood pouring. I would announce that I had come to terms with the fact that all religions are one. I would proclaim that we should strive for universality in the spiritual field. Yes....Christianity is but one path among many because, my dear brothers and sisters, pagan Asia is clear, pure, complete...it needs nothing. I would even announce that I felt more rapport with Buddhists than with Roman Catholics and that it was my wish to find a Tibetan guru and go for Nyingmapa Tantric initiation. I would remind the assembly that the equality of all faiths is what Christ meant when He said that they may all be one. Then I would announce that I was leaving the Trappists but not for the Carthusians in Vermont but to the ecumenical monk hood of Thich Nhat Hanah where I would help usher in, along with Matthew Fox, the era of the Cosmic Christ...
After thinking these things it happened that I lost my footing by the wet bathroom door. I leaned into the fan which was making furious noises.... then I felt something push me into it.... . Whatever pushed me was a real presence with weight and pressure and it forced me hard...I felt a stinging sensation that seemed to send me flying and when I came to I was able to see myself on the floor with the fan over my body, the blades running and cutting and the cold Coke still untouched by the bed.
Who or what had pushed me? Had I been murdered?
The ordeal was fast but in my new form, a floating consciousness without a body, I seemed to drift among the monastics, the nuns with their pens and tablets, the brother clergy, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist monks. I moved outside and noticed that the faces of the stone Buddhas had lost all their seriousness...they had become meaningless boardwalk trinkets. I felt some pain at the realization that all my old plans were dashed.... a Tibetan meditation center in America and a Trappist monastery open to Buddhism.
Whoever pushed me changed everything. I was not happy. To my dismay I saw Dom James, Abbott of Gethsemane who had censored my works and prohibited me from accepting invitations to speak at international conferences. "You are in love with your own celebrity," he told me many times, but now he was reaching out like a guide, someone helpful. I took his hand-- it was the only thing I could do. He handed me a note. He said I would know when to open it. He then quoted lines from my diary, written in 1947 right after I became a Trappist.
"And as for me, oh my God, I don't care about anything; all I know is that I want to love You. I want my will to disappear in Your will. I want to be one spirit with You. I want to become all Your desires and thoughts."
Dom James led me to the precipice of a mountain that slopped gradually downward in a series of steps. The landscape was barren. I traveled downward at considerable speed, descending until I came to the bottom where, of all things, I recognized my desk and some of my books, an icon, a small bed, exactly as it had been arranged at Gethsemane only the setting seemed to be arranged inside a cave.
I was alone at the base of the mountain where there was minimal comfort and where the solitude was somehow too total. Immediately I knew this was the place where I was to live and work, so I set about examining things... I found an old wooden door and when I opened it I saw fields of bright green grass and a barn bordering a fence, a red wheelbarrow and a shed filled with chicken feed. I sensed the presence of others but didn't see anyone... then the wooden door shut and with that there was no more sunlight. I was locked away in this place of mild melancholy.
On my small cot I saw The New York Times and the front page announcement of my death. There was a notice that Karl Barth had died on the same day. Many people were quoted in the piece, some saying I was a modern saint like Dorothy Day, a Saint Augustine of the modern era since there were references to my life in Greenwich Village, Margie Smith, my conflicts with Dom James, and my fascination with Near Eastern religions. Others tried to predict when I would be canonized in Rome. I could only wonder where I was now...what was this not so happy holding zone, this isolated place built into the mountain and making me a prisoner because I could see I was locked in on all sides...I could not leave...I could not climb back up the mountain steps but was confined here as if in a cell.
A cell in a cave on the side of a mountain that contained other caves and cells that I could not see.
It hit me that this was Purgatory or Hades but not Ghenna and certainly not Paradise. I became aware that this place reflected my state of mine when I died...it was a transitional place... not quite with the Lord but somewhere near.... waiting... split off from the Body of Christ just as I had split off from the Trappists when entertaining thoughts of Tantric meditation and thrilling future readers of The New York Review of Books with poems and new theories of spirituality along the lines of the theological avant garde and Hans Kung.
The depth of my foolishness hit me hard and I prayed to be forgiven even as I sensed my brother monks at Gethsemane mourning my loss. I felt their pain; I saw them wring their hands and prepare my grave. I was with my friend Joan Baez, observing her weep, I saw all of them. Some prayed for me and these prayers gave me a small upward lift, a sense of buoyancy and optimism. Yet it was not enough. Most it seemed had assumed that I was already in Paradise because of who I was, Thomas Merton, monk and poet, holy man and prophet, only this was not the case. So they did not pray for me the way they would have prayed for a normal sinner but they assumed that I was fine. They mourned and wept and did everything but pray even as others assumed that I was now ready to intercede for them... but how wrong they were. I needed their intercession, their prayers but only a few were praying.
How was I to tell them what I needed? I knew their prayers would enable me to ascend the mountain where I could continue my journey. And so with full force I did all that I could to send signs and thoughts to old friends, like Joan, who I could see was still weeping, never suspecting that I needed prayers and not tears.
Then came the mania about my supposed saintliness: Monks writing me into modern icons while others naming this or that foundation after me, or writing books and pamphlets about my life, enshrining my face into the center of halos and even suggesting to Pope Francis that he mention me in major talks...most of them assuming that I was lost in the ethereal bliss of heaven...
When at last I opened Dom James' note, I was shocked to read his confession that it was he who had pushed me into the fan although he made it clear that he did so only at the command of an angel who had insisted that the act was a merciful one, an act that would save me from myself and ultimately bring me back to Our Lord.