Yes, I have come to the time when the ongoing challenge of acquisition and relinquishment has tipped, permanently, I hunch, in the direction of relinquishment.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Judith Hardcastle bought some spanking new packing boxes. She brought them over so that I could fill them with my Thomas Merton collection. I have been collecting books by and about Merton since 1972, when, just before starting grad school, I decided I would focus my grad studies on Merton. I got the idea to do this when, in a Roman Catholic bookstore in Spokane, Washington, I ran across a crazy little book called The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Life and Hard Times of Thomas Merton, written by Merton’s Columbia University friend, Ed Rice. It does have some crazy stuff in it, but there was also enough good stuff in it to make me realize that in the reconstruction of Christian spirituality which the times were requiring of us, Merton’s contribution would be critically important.
Why? Because he combined work on personal spirituality with a very clear parallel focus on social spirituality–justice, peace and the integrity of creation. He stands on the boundary between Christianity’s past and its future (we all do, come to think of it, but he engaged it in a very creative way) and on the boundary between Christianity and the other major faith-traditions, Buddhism in particular. He was a holistic thinker and writer of astonishing creativity and productivity. He published some 60 titles before he died (in 1968) and has had published 40 more (with a little help from his friends) since he died. When Pope Francis spoke to the US congress in 2015, he listed Merton along with Dorothy Day, MLK Jr, and Abraham Lincoln as four great Americans worthy of the emulation of all.
So then I went to Toronto, found that a course on Merton was being taught at St Michael’s, and I was launched. I did my master’s and PhD on Merton, and started publishing my own contributions to the great pile of secondary literature about him that was quickly accumulating. When it was formed in 1989, I joined the International Thomas Merton Society, serving as president (the first non-American) in 2007-09. And–tremendous fun–I started leading or co-leading pilgrimages of a decidedly Chaucerian type to places associated with him: his birthplace in Prades, France; Rome, where he had an initial spiritual awakening in 1933, aged 18; Alaska, where he went to lead some retreats in 1968; his home abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (just learned a month ago that Gethsemani is the French spelling of the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested: the abbey was founded by a French community); and New York, where he became a Roman Catholic and where, at Columbia, he discovered his enormous capacity for work.
Which brings me to the packing boxes. A few years I sent an initial batch of Merton books which I seldom used to the Thomas Merton Reading Room at the Vancouver School of Theology, in its genesis a project of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. That left me with about 200 books, which with the help of friends, I packed up and put them all in Judith’s boxes. After doing so, it felt somewhat “rash, unadvised and sudden” (somewhere in Shakespeare), and so I retrieved four books: Seeds of Contemplation, in its hopsacking binding, the first Merton book I looked at, in the Dunbar Library when I was 15; The Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography, first edition, falling apart until I recently had it rebound by Vancouver Island hermit, Charles Brandt; Thomas Merton’s French Poems, because it is rare and valuable; and my most recent Merton book, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camaldoli Correspondence (which I recently learned will be translated into Italian).
So there they sat for a few days in their boxes in my living room, staring at me somewhat reproachfully, and giving me little vibrations of abandonment. Then, the second coming of Judith, and off they went. She is having them catalogued and their value estimated. After that they will go to the TMRR. The librarians will decide which ones they need for their collection, and the remainder will go to the Regent College bookstore, for sale, or if not saleable, for free distribution to students.
For a day or two the emptiness where they had sat loomed large in my awareness. I confess to more than one pang as I saw them being wheeled away on the dolly, because they represented 45 years of reflection and writing, a huge chunk of my life in both temporal and intellectual terms. I’m trusting they will all find good homes.
Merton and I have become good friends over those 45 years. He regularly turns his readers into friends. I would also say that he became my spiritual director in absentia, helping me find my way forward on the spiritual journey in this confusing time of history.
So thanks, Tom. It’s been great.
At least you’ll never lose the meaning Merton has given your life, Don…so I salute you for taking the time & care to share the book collection, which you’ll not have enough time to re-read! I take heart from your painful but wise letting-go!!! Thanks, friend.
Don, this is a wonderful reflection – and an act of generosity and self-emptying. Your final lines especially moved me: “He regularly turns his readers into friends. I would also say that he became my spiritual director in absentia, helping me find my way forward on the spiritual journey in this confusing time of history.” And your term as president coincided with a time of growth and development for our Chicago ITMS Chapter – we had a robust turnout of our members at Memphis and Rochester during your time as president, and it gave us confidence to propose Chicago for the 2011 conference. So I thank you for your leadership and inspiration.
Letting go indeed…or sending them forth…a ritual all its own. Tom is in communion with you…laughing heartily at the books on departing cart image and perhaps encouraging you on and with you in the sadness and the curiosity in the work of letting go of life…
Donald, I felt a pang. Die before you die. You beautifully captured what we all must do as we face the “reality of our mortality”.
I also felt envy. You have had such a life well lived with your brother Tom. When I was in the living school with James Finley ( a novice under Merton) he asked us to pick our teacher/mentor and fully follow that teacher.
I picked Merton. I started with your book on the “…Noon Day Demon”, which has led me to the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, where I have began a oblate postulancy. Thank you for being a friend and a teacher to me.
James Finley tells a story of a woman on her “approaching” death bed surrounded by her daughters. She has her collection of jewelry that she wants to relinquish to her daughters. As her daughters choose and reminisce with her about the various pieces, one of her daughters points to a bracelet that she would love to own. Her Mother says “No, I’m not giving that a way, I just bought it!”. Letting go is hard work.
Don I sending you peace and loving thoughts on your continuing spiritual journey- su compadre Miguel