November 1st, 2006

Thomas Merton OCSO

Personal/Theological Notebook: This old black notebook.../Merton and Gethsemani Trip October 1995

I just finished writing up my notes and lesson plan for today's session of Introduction to Theology. For today they read the second half of Book VIII of The Confessions of Augustine: the conversion scene. Lots to talk about regarding the will, psychology in general, the interaction of grace and nature, and so forth.

But right now I'm just thinking, "I've been lugging this notebook around for quite awhile." I bought this old black notebook eleven years ago. The first pages are a journal from my Fall Break trip in October 1995 with Erik to the Abbey of Gethsemani, which was my first time there. We had just completed the Fall Break mini-tour in Chicago which was memorable for lots of reasons: my first time really hanging out at length with Folkheads; my utterly embarrassing myself by catching my foot on my serape and flipping over a fence I was vaulting, which embarrassment was gleefully captured on film by Erik and would become the emblematic headspiece of my then-new homepage; my first solo with the Folk Choir; and (of retroactive note) I think it was probably the first time I ever talked to Jen Sushinsky, who I vaguely remember hanging out with J.P. on the trip. Come to think of it, I also met Julie Vlaming that trip, too, who was hanging out with Erik, but who I didn't know at all, since she was a recently-graduated Folkhead, but it wasn't until the following Triduum that we met one another to make enough of an impression to start dating for a while.

But then the stay down in Kentucky – the first of many – was part of the early cementing of my sudden, unexpected and powerful friendship with Erik. We had debated also going out to Arches National Park in Utah, staying around Moab, and soaking in a reading of the Desert Fathers while camping in, and enjoying, the "magnificent desolation." But Gethsemani was the better choice for him since he was able to arrange an interview with Patrick Collins, O.C.S.O., Thomas Merton's former secretary, as he was researching his senior thesis on the True Self/False Self distinction in Merton's thought and spirituality. I had just begun reading Merton myself, as I was re-editing Merton's private journals from 1952-1960 for Larry Cunningham, whose graduate assistant I was that year. Larry had been working on the journals for two years and "could no longer see the mistakes," and so he handed over the lot to me to re-work, which turned out to be an amazing experience, for which I could never thank him enough. So the chance to talk with Brother Patrick was a real opportunity for me, too, although I certainly let Erik take the lead. The trip was also a treasure because it was my first time to meet and visit with Chrysogonus Waddell, O.C.S.O., the monk and composer of whom all the Folkhead/Freek lot were great fans.

So the black notebook's early pages are filled with an account of these days at Gethsemani, of entering into the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time, of reading and talking Merton, of silence, and of late-night, quiet soul-bearing talks with Erik over hot chocolate in the guests' dining room. Pages then give way to Christmas-gift notes on my sister-in-laws clothing sizes, sets of lyrics and lyrics ideas, notes for papers from the first few years of doctoral studies, and finally to its rear being filled with this year's lesson plans. I'm just struck by it this morning as one of those small treasures or artifacts that we carry through our lives, without thought, but which, when we really look at it, bears more precious history than we might ever imagine. I'm sure you have the like.