James Martin, SJ
"Spots of time is what the poet William Wordsworth called those places that imprint themselves so deeply into our minds that simply remembering them can lift our heartsin other words, holy places. I thought about that phrase as I left Kentucky last month after visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown (actually it’s in Trappist, Ky.), and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville. For me there are a handful of spots that have become such a source of spiritual life that just thinking about them fills me with consolation. The famous grottos at the Marian shrine of Lourdes in southern France is one. The less famous, but no less beautiful, Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, Mass., hard by the Atlantic coast, is another. And though I have visited it only twice, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani is a third.

Not long ago I was invited by the Merton Center to give a little talk as part of the center’s continuing lecture series. A few weeks before my visit, the director of the center, a friendly Englishman and Merton scholar named Paul Pearson, mentioned that a visiting group of Elderhostel students would be touring the monastery the morning of my talk. Did I want to join them?

Who knew that Kentucky in the fall is every bit as beautiful as New England? (I didn’t, that’s for sure.) Our bus ride to the monastery took us through amber and russet trees in the middle of bluegrass country. In just an hour the tall spire of the abbey’s church came into view, like a ship’s mast appearing over the sea. After we parked, I wandered over to Merton’s grave, which stands in the midst of the abbey cemetery, beside the church, and prayed for friends and family.

The monastery has just built a new visitors’ center, in which James Conner, O.C.S.O., (the Father Tarcisius of Merton’s journals) reminisced about his friend, Thomas Merton. How did Merton react to his silencing over the cold war?, I asked. With both obedience and grace, he replied, but also with some creativity. (Merton, as is well known, distributed copies of his writings on the topic to friends with access to mimeograph machines.) On the way to community prayer, I met a gray-haired monk standing outside the church. Brother Patrick Hart, formerly Merton’s secretary, greeted me cheerfully. The next day I would meet Tommie O’Callaghan, who knew Merton when she was still a young mother. She laughed as she told stories about Father Louis (using Merton’s religious name). Having met three of Merton’s companions, I could have gone home satisfied. But there was more to come.

The day after my talk, Paul brought me to the Thomas Merton Center. Located in a series of hushed rooms within the library of Bellarmine University, the center functions as a scholarly research institute housing Merton’s writings and a kind of museum. (It also maintains a Web site at www.merton.org.) Lining its walls are photographs that I had seen dozens of times in books, but never in person. And there was my hero’s typewriter standing atop a tall wooden stand. Can I touch it? Paul laughed and said, Sure. I placed my fingers on the keys and wondered if any writing graces would come through this future relic.

Now I probably shouldn’t be showing you this, said Paul conspiratorially, but follow me. He unlocked a door that led into a room full of bookcases and black metal file cabinets. This, he said, were the center’s archives.

Opening a file cabinet drawer, he reached for a cardboard box. Gingerly, he lifted off its top to reveal an archival bag with something inside. Then he removed a hardbound book and smiled. Are your hands clean? I opened the book and saw lines and lines of neat, familiar handwriting. It’s the journal from the last months of his life, said Paul.

I turned to the final entry, for Dec. 8, 1968, which, though prosaic, I remembered well. Merton was on a long trip, his first as a monk, and was now in Thailand. Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.... I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon. The writing stops mid-page. Two days later, Merton was accidentally electrocuted and died instantly.

Standing there in the quiet room, surrounded by Merton’s writings, holding the same book that he had labored on, rendered me uncharacteristically speechless. I thought of so many things: the suddenness of Merton’s death, the prodigiousness of his work, the holiness of his life and the graces in our own lives that bring us to these remarkable placesthese spots of time that we remember for the rest of our days.

James Martin, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Michael J Weaver, MD | 11/28/2005 - 8:08pm
Having just returned from a "spots of time" experience myself, I found Fr. James Martin's "Of Many Things" column in the December 5, 2005 issue most interesting and enjoyable. This past Autumn, I attended a retreat at New Melleray Abbey near Peosta, IA in the northeastern part of the state. This is a trappist monastery (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance)which has been at this location for over 150 years. I actually think the wooded hillsides of Northeastern Iowa probably rival New England for quiet beauty and tranquility in the fall season as well. To be able to participate in this retreat, attend the complete Liturgy of the Hours, and observe the manner in which these truly holy men (the monks) live their lives is a very humbling, spiritual, and heart lifting experience. I hope to be able to visit one of Fr. Martin's "spots of time" namely, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky sometime in the furute also.

Maureen V Morea | 12/6/2005 - 4:26pm
Dear Father Martin,

I only had to read your letter up to the point of the reference to the Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, MA, to become immersed in the feeling of one of those spots.

I am a former Religious Education Director, teacher, and now step-parent of a 12 year old. I often find myself wondering how did I get here? How did I move from content religious educator to confused step-parent?

Your article did not answer that question for me but rather gave me a moment of deja vu, a moment of peace in an otherwise confused situation. It became for me one of those "spots of time." For this I am very grateful.

You see back long ago, I was simply the very young niece of a very wonderful New England Jesuit, my beloved uncle, Richard J. Wolf, SJ. I can so very clearly remember one Saturday evening when my family had traveled the distance from Rockville Center, NY to Gloucester, MA to go to dinner with Uncle Dick. He was a seminarian then and it was a huge event just to be able to visit. And visit we did! I was about 4, but I do so remember the wonderful fish restaurant on the dock, the boats moored nearby, my grandfather and my uncle having a "wee bit o' the bubbly," maybe a wee bit too much, but it all went to the experience. The family was together, the weather was gorgeous, and everything was larger than life. And so, though I did not find Thomas Merton in this "spot of time," I did find a wonderful memory....one that will last a lifetime, a true blessing to me for Advent. A moment that makes me know that God has broken through the day to day to touch my heart.

Thank you so very much......

May God bless you as you continue the mission you were called to.

Sincerely, Maureen V. Morea A Jesuit's niece.......

Lorane Coffin, O.S.B. | 2/21/2007 - 2:25pm
Reading about the Abbey of Gethsemani in Of Many Things (12/5) by James Martin, S.J., brought back memories of my chance meeting with Thomas Merton in 1963 while another sister from my community and I were attending Ursuline College in Louisville. She received permission to visit a relative, a monk at Gethsemani, on Ascension Thursday, and a student offered to drive us to the abbey for a visit after their late-morning Mass. On the previous day the college had entertained the U.S. secretary of the treasury at the time, Kathryn Granahan. Little did we suspect that she also had an invitation to visit the monks.

You guessed it: we arrived at the abbey before the honored guest. As we parked the car, to our surprise a procession of monks, led by the abbot, approached and greeted our driver. Laughter rippled through the group as the abbot learned who we were and quickly dispatched us in the direction of the church. There the front steps were filled with monks awaiting the dignitary’s arrival. We were later told this was the first time that the entire community was on hand to greet a woman.

As we sat in the church balcony before Mass, the sound of jingling coin bracelets announced the arrival of Mrs. Granahan. And because of their special guest, the monks brought Communion to the balcony during the Mass instead of having us receive Communion in the vestibule after Mass, which was the usual procedure for guests.

Humble nuns that we were, we decided to wait quietly upstairs after Mass to avoid interfering with the reception for Mrs. Granahan. Soon, however, a monk appeared and said, “Have you met Thomas Merton? You might as well come down and meet him, too.” Father Louis was at the door and greeted each of us. To our comment, “We have a lot of your books in our library,” Merton dryly replied, “But do you read them?”

Later, in the gift shop, Merton came in, looking for people he was scheduled to meet. This was my chance to get his autograph, which he obligingly signed on a holy card.

Maureen V Morea | 12/6/2005 - 4:26pm
Dear Father Martin,

I only had to read your letter up to the point of the reference to the Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, MA, to become immersed in the feeling of one of those spots.

I am a former Religious Education Director, teacher, and now step-parent of a 12 year old. I often find myself wondering how did I get here? How did I move from content religious educator to confused step-parent?

Your article did not answer that question for me but rather gave me a moment of deja vu, a moment of peace in an otherwise confused situation. It became for me one of those "spots of time." For this I am very grateful.

You see back long ago, I was simply the very young niece of a very wonderful New England Jesuit, my beloved uncle, Richard J. Wolf, SJ. I can so very clearly remember one Saturday evening when my family had traveled the distance from Rockville Center, NY to Gloucester, MA to go to dinner with Uncle Dick. He was a seminarian then and it was a huge event just to be able to visit. And visit we did! I was about 4, but I do so remember the wonderful fish restaurant on the dock, the boats moored nearby, my grandfather and my uncle having a "wee bit o' the bubbly," maybe a wee bit too much, but it all went to the experience. The family was together, the weather was gorgeous, and everything was larger than life. And so, though I did not find Thomas Merton in this "spot of time," I did find a wonderful memory....one that will last a lifetime, a true blessing to me for Advent. A moment that makes me know that God has broken through the day to day to touch my heart.

Thank you so very much......

May God bless you as you continue the mission you were called to.

Sincerely, Maureen V. Morea A Jesuit's niece.......

Michael J Weaver, MD | 11/28/2005 - 8:08pm
Having just returned from a "spots of time" experience myself, I found Fr. James Martin's "Of Many Things" column in the December 5, 2005 issue most interesting and enjoyable. This past Autumn, I attended a retreat at New Melleray Abbey near Peosta, IA in the northeastern part of the state. This is a trappist monastery (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance)which has been at this location for over 150 years. I actually think the wooded hillsides of Northeastern Iowa probably rival New England for quiet beauty and tranquility in the fall season as well. To be able to participate in this retreat, attend the complete Liturgy of the Hours, and observe the manner in which these truly holy men (the monks) live their lives is a very humbling, spiritual, and heart lifting experience. I hope to be able to visit one of Fr. Martin's "spots of time" namely, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky sometime in the furute also.

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