It was 70 years ago today — December 10, 1941 — that Thomas Merton arrived at the gatehouse of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky (pictured above much the way it looked then). He wrote about that moment in “The Seven Storey Mountain”:
“The Bardstown bus was half full, and I found a somewhat dilapidated seat, and we rode out into the wintry country, the last lap of my journey into the desert…I could not get my bearings until some low, jagged, wooded hills appeared ahead of us, to the left of the road, and we made a turn that took us into rolling, wooded land.
I rang the bell at the gate. It let fall a dull, unresonant note inside the empty court…Nobody came. I could hear somebody moving around inside the Gatehouse. I did not ring again. Presently, the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars, with his clear eyes and greying beard.‘Hullo, Brother,’ I said.
He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase and said: ‘This time have you come to stay?’
‘Yes, Brother, if you’ll pray for me,’ I said.
Brother nodded, and raised his hand to close the window.
‘That’s what I’ve been doing,’ he said, ‘praying for you.’…
…So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”
This particular date on the calendar looms large in Merton’s story. Ironically, and tragically, it was exactly 27 years later — December 10, 1968 — that he died in an electrical accident while attending an interfaith conference in Thailand. He was 53. He’s buried in the abbey cemetery.