A Novice and His Master 6/26/2010 Part One   7 comments

The article being presented at this site grew from a request I received from Roland Merullo, a well-known author of BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA and many other superb books. I had read  this deeply spiritual book and was happy to see his mention of Thomas Merton as one of the writers who  influenced  this work. I wrote him and in his answer he asked for more of what my experiences with Merton were like.

I had been thinking of writing something on my years at Gethsemani and and realized I was growing into old age without having done this. Hence this site. Roland made some suggestions about the piece and graciously edited it for me for which I am deeply grateful.

This site then is not not really a blog. It’s by Randy De Trinis and originally published in The Merton Seasonal, a quarterly of The International Thomas Merton Society. It is a memoir of my life especially focused on my years as a monk at the Cistercian (Trappist) Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky where I was fortunate to have Merton as a spiritual director. This piece includes some previously unpublished notes and letters written by Merton. I would like to hear from you: reactions good or bad or further discussion.

And so to the piece.


Gethsemani Abbey in the 50's

Gethsemani Abbey in the 50’s


Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

It was September 1955. Sitting in the long 19th century chapter room, I watched the monks gradually filling the empty spaces across from me. I was a hefty 17 year old, who had recently arrived at this, the oldest Cistercian (Trappist) monastery in the United States, hoping to make the monastic life my own. As the monks filtered in, many with smiling faces, one of them stood out like a beacon. He was a stocky fellow with his round face exuding joy like a wren in springtime. Though I had never seen him nor a picture of him before, I knew who he was immediately. This was Thomas Merton whose SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN led me to this quiet place in Kentucky at such an early age. It wouldn’t be long before I was able to meet him, speak with him and begin to learn the freedom of the sons of God.

You may well wonder what possessed such a young person to choose the life of a cloistered monk in perhaps the strictest order in the Church at the time. It is a valid question and for me the answer is still shrouded in mystery. I was fifteen when I was given the green light by the Trappist abbot to enter Gethsemani Abbey. I had been raised in a three-story brownstone in Bay Ridge Brooklyn with a supremely dysfunctional family, comprised of my Italian-American father, Irish-Italian-American mother and her sister, my brother and myself, on the third floor of this winner from the 1890’s. The second floor was occupied by my father’s parents from Italy and the ground floor by my father’s sister and her Irish-American husband. This was a lethally potent mix rooted in the antagonisms of the Italians and the Irish. There was hardly a time when a knock-down drag-out fight was not in play. Upstairs my overbearing father would be furiously haranguing my mother for some perceived wrong like her going out and enjoying a drink with her girlfriends. On the middle floor my grandfather was taking my grandmother down for using too much garlic in something, and downstairs my aunt would be tossing plates at my uncle because he stopped by a bar on the way home from work for a snort.

From an early age I was an extremely sensitive, precocious fat kid who spent a lot of time reading rather than playing sports. I was also being taught piano by my Italian grandfather. The males in my father’s family were all musicians and I was hooked on classical music very early in life; I remember listening to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays practically from day one. I did though, have some street friends. My mother told me that when I first started going to St. Anselm’s Church, I would cry when hearing the organ and the singing and this love of music has followed me through my whole life.

I expect the intense friction between members of my immediate family worked on my psyche, urging me to an unconscious decision to get out of that house as soon as possible. But why the religious bent? Why not the army? Why not just take off into the unknown? The pursuit of a religious life began in earnest when I graduated from St. Anselm’s Elementary and started to attend St. Francis Prep, the high school run by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, the first members of a men’s religious order I had encountered. The simple habit of the brothers pointed to something quite different from the everyday world, something spiritual, something of simplicity, poverty and serious commitment. This experience started me on my quest to find answers to the great riddles of life.

I think that already at this age I no longer thought of the Deity as an old man with a white beard sitting on an ornate marble throne surrounded by troops of angels who, along with myriads of other folk who made it to heaven, stood there for century after century happily and ecstatically singing praises to Him. God help us! It did take some years of silent seeking to realize Its essence in the gentle majesty of trees, the innocent beauty of animals, the silence of the evening sky and the peace in distant mountains.

Back at the brownstone, this quest for meaning was bolstered by my Uncle Bernie, who had just finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain and was so taken with it that he recommended it to me, who at the time was probably fourteen years old. I was overwhelmed by this book and could see myself living at Gethsemani and seeking God above all as the only real choice in a world so confusing, querulous and tenuous. There was much more to this decision than just running away. There was a clear call–not clear in words but as an intense sense that this was exactly right for me and that I truly needed to follow this path. There was no denying its imperative.

Needless to say, my family did not see this in the same light as I did. I could not get my father to allow me to go to the monastery before my eighteenth birthday. I put him through the silent treatment for some months until he finally gave his permission. The first leg of my journey brought me to St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey, run by German Benedictines who taught school and had missions in Africa. Here I was to concentrate on Latin, as required by Dom James Fox, OCSO, the abbot of Gethsemani. The Benedictine enclave, surrounded by thoughtful monks and great fun-loving students, was a perfect place for me. Here I developed a deep love for Gregorian chant just having heard the simple melody of the hymn for the office of Prime, “Jam Lucis Orto Sidere” (Now that the daystar glimmers bright”). Being out of the city, surrounded by trees and mountains, instilled in me a love of rural America, a love that had begun to develop earlier in my yearly trips with my parents to Lake George, NY in an attempt to escape the August heat of Bay Ridge.

Finally, in May of 1955, having reached 17, I took a flight to Louisville, KY to start a new life at the monastery. I remember being shocked at the bus terminal when I found water fountains and bathrooms labeled for whites and blacks. I had never seen anything like this in New York and felt that already on my life’s true quest, I had learned something important: racism was shockingly untenable and deeply unjust–another reason for prayer and solitude for clear thinking.

When you entered a religious order at that time, you were initially a postulant, someone checking out the monastery to see if he would fit in with the life of the place. My Novice Master was a Fr. Walter who, while pleasant enough, pretty much had no personality I could detect. He determined that I needed to study Latin some more, so I was made to go to the scriptorium (like a classroom) every morning when we arose at 2:00 am to try to better my Latin while keeping awake at that ungodly hour. I did this with another fellow in the room, Frater Denis, who was attempting to do likewise. (This Denis has remained a close friend to the present day. He became a priest at Gethsemani sometime in the 60’s, left the monastery, had a stint in the Camaldolese and now abides in Texas as a hermit partially supported by the bishop of the diocese who obviously recognized his spiritual depth and believed in the value of contemplation.) We were not allowed to talk to each other at all except in the presence of an authority with their permission. (To communicate between ourselves we learned the Trappist sign language with which we made up signs for just about everything.) We studied alone. Denis kept awake and I dozed as much as studied. I actually hated this arrangement, and had it gone on for more than a month, I probably would have called it quits. To my great joy Fr. Walter was elected abbot of another monastery and to my undying gratitude, Fr. Louis (Thomas Merton) was appointed Novice Master.

At our first private meeting he pointed out a few lines from the psalms in Latin and asked me to give him a translation. I did. Within a week I was accepted as a novice and became a temporary member of the community, with the name of Frater Sebastian. So instead of staying for a month, I would wind up staying close to four years. This development I lay at Louis’ feet. His honest concern for the individual and his sheer joy made life at Gethsemani, at least initially, one of growth and happiness.

Night Choir in the 50s

The monastery at this time was guided by Trappist usages. We ate no meat, fish, eggs or butter. We never had conversations with peers other than in sign language. No “particular friendships” were allowed wherein one could really commune with one another in a truly meaningful manner (probably because of fears of sexual activity). The day was started at 2:00 am and went through many hours of chanting the Office, meditation, manual labor and some free time for reading. The reading could only be of the “spiritual” kind: novels were banned. We were only told of news from the outside world through the abbot who also told us how to vote in elections. He always preferred the conservatives. As a result I always voted for the other guy. We were allowed to write two letters four times a year on major holy days and were only allowed one three day visit a year from our families. No music was heard other than in the abbey church during our chanting of the office and celebrating the Mass. This was particularly difficult for some of us who were classical music devotees. Still, the organist, Fr. Chrysogonus (who recently passed away), was a fine musician and I experienced some of Bach’s great preludes and fugues there. Gregorian chant became the most beautiful music of all.

The long hours of chanting the office were grinding times, especially from 2:00 a.m. to about 6:00 a.m. with a half hour of meditation in between Matins and Lauds. In that half hour I used up more energy trying to stay awake than trying to meditate. As I grew into the life of the abbey, I discovered that I could find a sheltered nook in the church where I could fall asleep without getting caught. I am not particularly proud of this but so it was. After all I was still a teenager. In a couple of years I did reach the point where I could stay awake and meditate.

This is not to say that we who entered were not aware of how difficult this life would be. I chose it because I wanted to be an example like Leon Bloy, described by Raissa Maritain as “The Pilgrim of the Absolute”; I adopted the title (substituting “A” for “The”) as a description of myself. Bloy wanted to go to the nth degree to seek the Divinity and so did I. I wanted to experience God as a one on One and firmly believed that the utmost discipline was necessary to do this. In many ways the Trappist regime did lead to this kind of intimacy if you didn’t fall into the snares of being told what to do every minute of the day and automatically accepted everything the abbot said as gospel truth. The life provided seclusion and austerity. It made the seeking easier because of the utter lack of diversions which might make one stray from the path to unity with the Other. This life was right for me at the time and I have always been glad that I followed this path.

Merton addressed the difficulties of the Trappist monastic life at this time in one of the last letters he wrote, at Easter, 1968, which I received as a mimeographed copy.

We who entered cloistered orders ten, fifteen and twenty-five years ago were certainly    chilled by the sense that there was something warped and inhumane about it. We were not totally blind and stupid. We knew we were getting into something hard, even unreasonably hard. But we also knew that this counted for very little in comparison something else which in our case was decisive. We believed that we were really called by God to do this. . . . It is true that we were told absurd things, made to behave with a stupid and artificial formality, and put through routines that now, as we look back, seem utterly incredible. How did we ever stomach such atrocious nonsense?
It must be even be admitted that the climate of Catholic spirituality, perhaps especially in contemplative life has proved for many to be unhealthy, both physically and mentally. We carry deep wounds which will prevent us from ever forgetting it….
Thomas Merton

The most wonderful part of my experience at Gethsemani was having Louis as a spiritual advisor. We each met with him individually quite frequently and he gave us all the time we needed to let out our frustrations and desires and to seek help with meditation and monastic tensions. In my case I found that we laughed a lot and the conversations strayed to many non spiritual areas. We often spoke of NYC, me being a Brooklynite and he a sometime resident. (Some of the novices signed me that they used to sit around near Louie’s office just to hear the laughter when we were having our time together.)

Abbey church in the 50s

During one session he told me that Charles De Gaulle had written him begging him to come to France to become part of his government. At another time he told me how concerned he was about Boris Pasternak’s tortuous life in Stalinist Russia. But within all the superficial chat, one learned much about how prayer, meditation and solitude led to a healthier mental outlook and brought us closer to the Ineffable. None of this instruction in prayer, meditation and monastic living was proffered by Fr. Louis in a direct way. He never openly instructed a novice in a “how to” mode regarding prayer, silence and monastic living in general. His teaching was subtle completely centered and novice hardly knew how very excellent his spiritual guidance was.

Fr. Louis had a quite distinctive walk. He could often be seen with three or four books under his arm, heading for a quiet spot in the woods. He sort of bounced when he walked and the novices had many good laughs imitating his hop. (He was affectionately known as Uncle Louie to some of the monks in later years.) When you were sitting outside his office and the door was open you could hear how fast he was reading a new book from France by how quickly he cut through the folios when the pages had not been cut at the factory. Zip, zip, zip! Phenomenal speed.

Fr. Louis’ personality was outgoing, warm and full of humor. When you were speaking with him you felt as if you were the most important person in his life and that his honesty and good will sprang from the depths of his soul. His temperament was perfect for the cenobitic life. In that life getting along with others was perhaps the most important factor, given the many grades of animus which could arise from the silliest of infractions. Though as he progressed spiritually and had for years taken the cenobitic insensitivities and frequent pettiness in stride, his love of solitude led him to seek the life of a hermit on the monastery grounds. He was, toward the last years of his short life, given permission for this new undertaking.

Having left the bottomless cornucopia of Brooklyn where I was sated by the amazing array of ethnic foods, I discovered to my chagrin that the monastery provided little in this area. Their incredible cheese melted on boiled potatoes was my favorite dish and their brown bread was luxurious; still I no longer had the pastas and cannellini of my Calabrese grandmother nor the fresh bagels of the nearby deli. My weight went down precipitously, so much so that Fr. Louis saw to it that I received food supplements: an egg or two and perhaps some extra cheese– I hardly remember now. (He himself never ate in the main refectory with the rest of the monks but in an adjacent smaller dining room provided for those who could not eat the normal fare. I believe he had digestive problems.)

One time he was off to the hospital in Louisville for some time and upon his return I saw him sort of creeping along in the novitiate and was overjoyed to see him back with us all. He greeted me with a big hug and told me “Sebastian, if you ever develop piles, keep ‘em”.

When my family visited, I was able to see them a couple of times a day over a three-day period and could go out with them in their car. We would find a comfortable site in the woods or along the side of the driveway up to the monastery entrance under the magnificent sweetgum trees, sit around on folding chairs and talk. There I could eat some of the food they had brought like mixed nuts, chocolate, and my Nonna’s wonderful Italian meatballs. What a treat. On one visit Fr. Louis met us in the woods with a sweaty straw hat full of blackberries he had picked on the way. I introduced him to the family and he stayed a few minutes chatting with them. He was never one for small talk.

Merton’s talks to the novices are legendary. He covered many topics not always in the Trappist canon: Buddhism, Sufism, racism, Native Americans, the Cold War, yoga (even having us do many of the positions from a list he typed out for us–you should have seen him standing on his head!), literature even Faulkner, etc. He must worked hours on these meetings and his presentation was always flawless and as always jeweled in humor.

At one point, I had been able to contact the Smithsonian to ask for some books on the music of the Native Americans. How I did this, since we were not to send letters without permission, I cannot recall. I was never much of a rule–breaker but on occasion I could break a rule and not suffer any kind of regret. In any case I made contact and they sent me several books gratis. That prompted this note from Fr. Louis.

Abbey Gate in the 50s

Dear Fr. Sebastian,
Now dearie [the abbot’s normal address to young monks] I want you to sit down
and read this carefully before we all get thrown in jail. Your own bank robberies I leave to your own seared conscience, but what I am concerned with are the felonies into which you and I have entered as accomplices, to wit the procuring of library books under false pretenses by impersonating a librarian. Now this is the point. With the Louisville library there is hardly a problem since Josie Johnson is our passive instrument and utterly subservient to our felonious wiles. She loves me madly. But all normal libraries which have not yet been brought under the sway of our hidden power, demand that books on interlibrary loan be asked for by the librarian. Well, all right. I know what you are going to say [that neither was he the official librarian], but DON’T SAY IT, THE WALLS HAVE EARS. For all intents and purposes, in several reputable libraries I am know as the librarian, and requests coming from me are respected and put through our secret agents. But now what will be the consternation when one morning the agents wake up and discover that there are two librarians, one of whom is the dastardly sebastian (written deliberately with a small “s”). So here is the point, (Alcuin [a novice] is beating on the door with inarticulate sobs) what we gotta do is get organized and if you want books from any place except the Smithsonian where you are now the recognized librarian of O L of Geth., better get them through me, even in Louisville, so that the quota is kept down to reasonable limits and everything is under control. Alcuin is here, he is seated before me and the place is flooded with tears. Good bye for now, dearie. The Sioux books are all in the hands of Ivanov.
Respectfully yours,

I made a few appearances in Merton’s journal from those days:
April 29, 1958. . . .
Fr. Sebastian is in the hospital for a nose operation. He has assured us that he wanted to have it. He suffers continually with an allergy. And with philosophy. Is a touchingly good and simple person, and another one of those for whom there appears to be no special place anywhere and who nevertheless stay. I hope. What he loves: birds, the garden, the brethren, chant. What he hates: philosophy, Trappist spirituality, all spirituality, probably some of the brethren. But I doubt if he could hate a person.

As a result of the operation for a deviated septum, I had to go to Louisville for monthly checkups. One time I went with Fr. Louis who often went to town to see his doctor as well as see to tend to the publication of his many writings. We each went to take care of business and would meet at the Louisville library where our driver would pick us up to return to the abbey. Once we were able to dally there for a bit of fun.

May 18, 1958
Had bad luck [in the Louisville library] with the record music piped up from the cellar–Couldn’t get Hopis and Navajos as I wished–but a little Art Tatum (yes) and later, with Fr. Sebastian, some Villa-Lobos and Fr. S. who is exceedingly sensitive to music, liked it.

One day on the return to Gethsemani, he said that we had some money left and why shouldn’t we have a beer at the Blue Bird Inn in New Haven (a little town close to the monastery). We did so, and I, not used to alcohol at that time, felt it strongly. We rushed back so that we would not be late for Vespers. He and I, on opposite sides of the choir were turning the pages of the huge books in front of us which contained the office we were chanting. I occasionally looked over toward him and he to me and we both had a bit of a suppressed laughing fit each time our eyes met. That was the last time we drank together.

During Chapter one morning the Abbot raved on about fiction and classical music.
January 2, 1959
For Rev. Fr., incidentally, all novels are “love-stories,” and that is that….However I did spend some fruitful hours this Summer sitting in the straw and reading DR. ZHIVAGO. I know Fr. Sebastian is enthusiastic about Sigrid Undset and he looked a bit disgusted.

The novitiate is normally a period of two years and led to simple vows. I took my vows in December of 1957. As a prelude to such a serious decision you were given time for a retreat in which you were exempt from certain duties so that you could go off into the woods or wherever to meditate on the ramifications of such a decision. At the beginning of my retreat Fr. Louis asked me if I would look at his manuscript of Thoughts in Solitude while walking in the woods. This was quite exciting for me and having read it, I told him that it was wonderful and I meant every word of it. I was never a fan of any of his more theological books. This one was different, more down to earth and kind of hands-on.

My aversion to philosophy and theology was boundless. My deep love of the monastic life at that time was not in reading explanations of how prayer worked, nor the foundations of Church doctrine nor half-assed explanations of what godhood was theologically, not how many spirits could dance on the head of a pin. (Nor was my life enhanced by the spiritual aphorisms which were painted on walls just below the ceilings of many of the monastic gathering places–as though one could not allow one’s mind to be empty of spiritual propaganda every minute of the day. God forbid your mind would be empty of all thought and just soaking up the silence of the spiritual.) All empirical knowledge meant little to me in reference to the truth of living and love of whatever you want to call the Source of creation. I found simple joys in everyday living in the monastery: walking in the woods, loving the chant and being part of the schola cantorum, working in the novitiate garden, getting in the hay, planting tomatoes, working in the woodshed to provide heat for the abbey and really just being in a place which seemed sacred and blessedly steeped in silence.

I remember that during one of my spiritual direction encounters he bemoaned having written SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, a book so very important to so many Catholics especially those brought to Trappist monasteries because of it. He said he had been a self-righteous prig at the time and that his view had changed greatly since then. He didn’t want to be remembered as author of that book alone. He would then be too narrowly defined, too conservative. As I see it, he had grown more and more into wisdom and humanity culminating in his great revelation while walking down a street in Louisville where he suddenly realized that monastic contemplatives were not in any way above the common man, that we were like all of humanity. We are all in this life together and the monk’s responsibility was to help everyone toward a greater awareness of the love surrounding us. No one was better because they locked themselves away in monasteries. They just had taken a different path from others. In many ways I agreed with him that his autobiography was flawed but it still is a powerful book, and that his life story has brought joy and enlightenment to so many people trying to make sense of life.

7 responses to “A Novice and His Master 6/26/2010 Part One

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  1. Thank you for making sense of Thomas Merton for me and for adding to my understanding of monastic life. My husband and I have a tiny publishing company. We are printing his book The Turning Year: a memorate, which is a profoundly Catholic story of his conversion to Christianity but also a profoundly contemporary understanding of the movement of God in our times and by no means just within the institutional church. We are no longer “practicing” Catholics or churchgoers for various reasons. Our walk with God, also into the countryside, led me through one of our son’s schizophrenia to learn how to heal mental illness with music and to provide the neurological explanation for how the ear controls behavior. I came to your beautiful site from a comment you made about the lack of Catholic writing in our time at another site. If you would like, I will send you gratis a copy of Richard’s book when they come from the printer at the end of the month. Blessings, Laurna

  2. I loved the trip home from Louisville and saying let’s stop in for a beer! and the letter re 2librarians at O.L of Geth, a hoot!

    Frank O'Sullivan
    • Living with Fr Louis for those good years was always refreshing. He was full of joy and humor. The two incidents you cite were most memorable and indicate why. Glad you experienced his freewheeling attitudes and love for a good joke.

  3. Your description of life in the monastery and your interaction with Thomas Merton has truly touched my heart. What an incredible experience you had – thank you for sharing it with us!

  4. Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I would love to hear “the rest of your story” – how you decided to leave the monastery, how you struggled with your spirituality and if you found peace in the world, and so on.

  5. It is wonderful to read someone who was so close to such important spiritual history. No historian could give us these small details, and this larger sense of a great man. Thank you!

  6. This is a wonderful blog. Seven Storey Mountain played a very big role in my life, and being with Fr. Louis must have been a kind of heaven. How much we need today his spirituality, simplicity, and humor.

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