December 10, 1941: “I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom…”

December 10, 1941: “I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom…” December 10, 2011

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.

Then I saw that high familiar spire.

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.


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8 responses to “December 10, 1941: “I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom…””

  1. Thank you for this post! Merton is such a remarkable 20th century American Catholic. Seven Story Mountain accompanied many of us in our self-reflection and steps in discipleship. Merton continued to guide us in the paths of prayer, to life-giving places that would have been too abstract or historically removed had not an enclosed monk encouraged us. Thank you, brother Thomas.

  2. “enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”
    I don’t know why, but Merton’s words always seem to draw me in.

  3. Given Merton’s passionate opposition to the fighting in Vietnam – and war in general – he might have appreciated the irony of his body arriving from Bangkok on a SAC aircraft, within a military-issue coffin.

  4. This is the date on which the EPiscopal Church commemorates Thomas Merton (even though he lapsed from Anglicanism for the RC Church). This is the collect for his commemoration

    Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

  5. I had not read the posts in a couple of days and did not know that December 10th was the anniversary.

    Today, I read this, then went to get a cup of coffee. I had to use my Abbey of Gethsemane coffee cup – it was only proper.

  6. I wonder what the other brothers really thought of him. He sounds like he must have been a terrible pain in the posterior.

  7. Daisy:
    Perhaps, you can get a copy of “Thomas Merton Monk, A Monastic Tribute” edited by Brother Patrick Hart. You may see a fuller picture of his relationships with his fellow brothers. In the prologue Brother Hart tells of the last Mass he and two other brothers shared with Merton before he left for his Asian Journey (p. 15-17).

    “This was my last sight of the man of God, who was to me a Father, a Brother and a faithful friend.”

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