By Sr Eleanor Capper, RSJ
December 10 marked 50 years since the death of the famous Trappist monk and international author Thomas Merton. He died unexpectedly in 1968, at the age of 53, while in Asia on a speaking tour about the renewal of monastic life. He left behind dozens of books, thousands of journal entries, and tens of thousands of letters of correspondence. His father, Owen Merton, and other family members were born in Christchurch and some are buried in the Waimari cemetery. His favourite Aunt, Kit, who was drowned in the Wahine disaster, a few months before his own death, is buried there.
It was fitting then, that members of the Christchurch chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society, gathered at the cemetery to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, to read his letters to family about his aunt’s death and other significant letters to friends. The chapter was privileged to have with them a Sister of Mercy, Sr Marie Fitzgerald (Sr Nivard) who read an original letter written to her by Thomas Merton when she corresponded with him about his Aunt Kit’s death. John Merton, a cousin of Thomas Merton, was unable to be present, but a letter to him from Thomas, was also read. Those present shared memories about this famous monk before prayers were said and the group adjourned to St Mary’s pro-cathedral for supper and an Office of Prayer. This Compline service was the one that the Monks at Gethsemani prayed on the day they heard of Merton’s death. It was a fitting and memorable tribute in prayer to one who had contributed so much to society.
The following quote was read aloud by all present at the graveside: “A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” – Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton was never able to visit New Zealand. Nonetheless, the Christchurch chapter continues to visit and pray at the graves on significant occasions, promote his works wherever possible, and meet regularly to pray communally and study excerpts from his books.