In the spring of 2015, John Smelcer “discovered” the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, one of the most influential figures of the Twentieth Century. Writer, intellectual, philosopher, poet, mystic and social rights and peace activist, Merton was the most famous monk in the world when he died in December 1968. Merton was the author of dozens of books, including his iconic The Seven Storey Mountain, widely considered one of the most inspiring coming-to-faith auto-biographies in history, alongside St. Augustine’s Confessions. His poetry book The Tears of the Blind Lions was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950. Merton influenced the Civil Rights Movement, helping to inform Martin Luther King Jr. on the nature of nonviolent protest. With fellow priests, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, and refugee Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton was one of the most vocal critics of the war in Vietnam. His last book, Faith and Violence, published just before his death, was extremely critical of America’s war-mongering in Southeast Asia. Weeks before his mysterious death, Merton met with a then-young Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India (see photo below).
John Smelcer’s discovery was a “treasure trove” of Mertonalia. While numerous archives hold letters, notes, book drafts, etc., few of Merton’s personal belongings were known previously to exist. Merton was, after all, a Trappist monk, and therefore poor of earthly possessions by choice. The trove included all the clothing Merton was wearing in photographs from the last years of his life: photos of him in his white monk’s habit and black hooded cowl (worn in the photo with the Dalai Lama below); photos of him in his iconic denim jackets, shirts, jeans, and sailor cap (see photo at Frazier Museum). The collection included such sacred objects as his rosary, his flagellant whip, and his personal Trappist Psalter. It also included notes, photos, letters, and audiotapes of him talking. The objects had been protected by close friends of Merton’s—a fellow brother monk and a nun from a nearby convent. Upon learning of Merton’s death, the Abbot of Gethsemani ordered the fellow monk to collect Merton’s possessions and to get rid of them (he was worried about devotees descending on the monastery in search of Merton relics). Shortly thereafter, and on Merton’s advice, the monk and the nun left their respective religious orders and married. They moved to Louisville, Kentucky for years, and eventually to Kansas City. For almost half a century they safeguarded their friend’s belongings. The former monk died in 2009. In her mid-eighties, the former nun (Sister Mary Pius), worried about what would happen to the collection if she passed away. For years, she had been praying to Thomas Merton to send someone to help her.
And then John Smelcer came along.
One day, a friend casually mentioned to John that he knew of a nun who twenty years earlier had told him that she had all this stuff that used to belong to Thomas Merton. Coincidentally, at the time, John was writing The Gospel of Simon, the first-person account of Simon of Cyrene, the man who the Bible says was compelled by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. The interfaith story of Jesus’s gospel of love, compassion, and mercy–at once faithful yet at times thoroughly modern–was inspired by Thomas Merton. Written over twenty years, the book is dedicated to Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Francis. Recognizing the significance that if what the friend said was true and if the nun still had the collection, it wasn’t long before John was standing at the nun’s doorstep–the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Despite that the nun was fighting cancer, the two worked together over the next year to donate every object to museums, including the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.
(author John Smelcer at Merton’s grave, July 2015)
Merton helped inform Martin Luther King, Jr.’s practice of non-violent protest that was the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, the two friends had planned a weeklong spiritual retreat at Merton’s hermitage near Bardstown, Kentucky, but King was assassinated a month before the scheduled event. Thomas Merton and Coretta Scott King corresponded about the tragedy. Merton himself died under mysterious circumstance in Thailand eight months later. Both men exemplified the Christian obligation to seek peace, relieve suffering, and correct injustice. In his address to the U. S. Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis praised Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr. as being among the greatest Americans, alongside Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Smelcer has been interviewed about the “discovery” on NPR, and articles about it have appeared in numerous magazines. Dr. Smelcer is currently writing a book about the experience and the unexpected spiritual pilgrimage.
(Former Sister Mary Pius and John Smelcer at Frazier Museum in Louisville, KY, January 2016. Photo by Dan Johnson used with permission.)