Kathleen Burke (photo: Kaley C. Jones)

Getting to Gethsemani

A Nun’s Encounter with Merton

My wife Dianna had become friends with Kathleen, a cherubic, pixie-haired eighty-year-old who was a fellow tenant in our New Orleans apartment building. Kathleen knew all the building’s gossip, by virtue of working a few hours per week in the tiny convenience store on the ground floor. When Dianna shared with me the intriguing fact that Kathleen had once been a nun, we decided to invite her up for a glass of wine.

But an invitation wasn’t necessary: when Kathleen appeared unexpectedly at our door one evening with a gift for our cat of canned cat food that her cat would not eat, we more or less yanked her and her walker into our apartment, shoved the glass of wine into her hands, and began throwing out questions. And although I have often since had a tape recorder running when she visits, I can only attempt to reconstruct that initial, unrecorded conversation, which began with me grilling her: “So. We understand you were a nun at one point, but that you had left the church.”

“Yes.”

“But that you were now back in the church.”

“Yes.”

“And what order did you belong to?”

“The Poor Clares. That’s a contemplative order founded by St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi.”

I stood up from our small dining-room table, wine glass in hand, and lit a cigarette. “Dianna and I are both very much interested in St. Francis and the other saints,” I told Kathleen, as Dianna nodded in agreement. “And one of our favorite movies is Brother Sun, Sister Moon. And—of course—we are really into Thomas Merton.”

“Well...I actually met Merton.”

I took a long drag on the cigarette, and noticed Dianna lighting up one of her own. Trappist monk, writer, peace advocate, church reformer, and ambassador to the spiritual traditions of the East, Thomas Merton had been the iconic twentieth-century figure for liberal Catholics like us. And now someone who claimed to have actually met the man was sitting at our dining-room table. So, I asked, had she really met Merton?

She nodded. “Mother Francis Clare and I went to a conference for contemplative nuns that Merton organized at Gethsemani.” There were several other orders represented at the conference, she mentioned: some Carmelites, some Passionist sisters, some Sisters of Loretto.

I quickly countered with my own bona fides of having read most of Merton’s major books, and the six-hundred-page Michael Mott biography as well. But Kathleen was not done lobbing her own bombshells. “I’m pretty sure I’m in that biography,” she said, casually. “I’ve been told that there’s a Sister Kathleen. But I need to get my own copy and go through it.”

How amazing, I thought. Unless Kathleen was spinning a mighty tall tale, we now knew someone who was part of the Merton legend! And how opportune, as well: here was a chance for Dianna and me (she the muse and I the hack) to write a charming little human-interest piece as part of the still-booming Merton industry.

We decided to do it. And then, a few weeks later—on St. Patrick’s Day of 2014—Dianna was diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma of the lungs.

Although I had long been a lapsed Catholic, and although I had long since ceased believing in an anthropomorphic God, I nonetheless had never disavowed Hamlet’s warning that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”; nor, with Joyce as my model, had I ever given up the idea that the veneration accorded the saints—the collective action of millions of souls—might be able to create actual and effective eddies in the matrix of particles of which we are all composed.

I wondered if it was possible—without violence to my intellectual integrity—for me not only to “do” something against the menace that now threatened Dianna, but also to take advantage of the fact that Merton had just come back into my life in the person of Kathleen. I took the step of convening a small evening gathering at which Kathleen, as our guest of honor, had volunteered to offer up a prayer to Merton himself for intercession on Dianna’s behalf. Our other guests would include Dianna’s daughter Monique, her sister Syl, and Syl’s boyfriend, Michael Bellamy—a retired University of St. Thomas English literature professor and great-grandson, no less, of utopian novelist Edward Bellamy.

Our goal, within the outward appearance of a typical wine-and-cheese party, was to place Dianna at the center of a little nuclear reactor of cosmic attention. And it was Kathleen’s down-to-earth warmth and radiance, and her lively intelligence and humor, that made the evening a grand success. As Kathleen offered up her prayer, I attempted to visualize Merton himself: Merton the man, and not the legend; Merton the flesh-and-blood individual who, as she claimed, had welcomed her to Gethsemani, and who might therefore be imagined, even now, concerning himself with the fate of another flesh-and-blood creature. And when our guests had left, Dianna and I made another promise to ourselves: if she were to recover, we would follow through with our Kathleen/Merton writing project.

Fast forward: two years had elapsed since Dianna’s diagnosis, and all traces of the cancer had been eliminated from her lungs. A world of credit was due to her doctors and nurses, and to the majestic innovations of medical science. But even medical science seems at times to have benefited from a mysterious and merciful influence, as with the uncanny series of coincidences that allowed Louis Pasteur and his colleagues to cure, in 1885, a viral disease—rabies—whose causative agent would not be fully understood until well into the following century. We ourselves had perhaps experienced a similarly mysterious and merciful influence. Although not a miracle under the strict Catholic definition, it was an extraordinary beneficence; and one in which we recognized Kathleen as having played an irreplaceable role. But what was that role, exactly? And what did I need to do to shed light on it?

I had already decided to dive into Kathleen’s own story, believing (and hoping) that it might deserve a place within the tapestry of Merton history. Needless to say, Dianna maintained a more than casual interest in the proceedings. And so we were at our table again, and Kathleen once again our guest; but this time, among the plates of crackers and grapes and cheese, there was a quietly spinning cassette recorder. Our inquiries would reveal that Kathleen had in fact been one of only fifteen contemplative nuns to attend an historic conference organized by Merton at Gethsemani in December 1967, almost exactly one year before his tragic death in Bangkok—and that she had indeed been called out by name in Michael Mott’s authoritative Merton biography.

Mary Kathleen Burke entered the Monastery of St. Clare in New Orleans at an extraordinarily young age. The year was 1951, and she was just fourteen. Devout indeed was the family that had allowed its eldest child to set out on this journey. Kathleen and her six brothers and sisters shared an uncle who was a missionary priest in India, and two aunts who were nuns; no less than three of those brothers entered religious life at one point or another—and, remarkably, did stints at Gethsemani.

Of course there is no such thing as a family in which everything happens smoothly. “I didn’t know at fourteen all the implications,” Kathleen told us, “but I knew that it was the right thing for me to do. When I told my mother that I wanted to be a Poor Clare, she laughed and said, ‘They won’t keep you five minutes!’ But the Mother Abbess got hold of my father and told him it was the will of God—which it was—and my father said, ‘What do I know about the will of God?’ So they let me go.”

Significantly, the institution Kathleen entered in 1951 was not a convent—i.e., a domicile for sisters who go out into the world to teach the young or minister to the sick—but rather a monastery, founded on the same thirteenth-century model as the monastery Merton entered ten years earlier. Though one occupied a full city block in fashionable uptown New Orleans, and was for women, and the other stood in the “knobs” and “hollows” of the Kentucky countryside, and was for men, both were places dedicated to the proposition that society could, and should, afford to have a tiny subset of its members engaged in a continuous effort to shut out its own cultural noise and commune with some greater reality.

In the Christian West, this effort has meant a life lived according to the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and—undergirding all of these—stability. The man or woman who entered a monastery in hopes of making solemn and perpetual vows did so with the expectation that he or she would be buried within its walls: the Poor Clares New Orleans compound included a mortuary chapel with niches to receive the bodies of its deceased members.

It’s rare to live a life of total separation from the world and yet be involved in what the world is, also.

One is tempted to dwell on the fascinating details of this life: the arising from bed at midnight to pray and sing in the chapel for two hours; the breakfast of bread and coffee, taken standing up; the cell window from which even looking down onto the street below was discouraged as a risk to sanctity. Yet the timeless quality of these routines belies the crisis in which the monastic life was just then being engulfed, and wherein monasticism itself stood as the canary in the coal mine within the entire Western spiritual tradition.

Unlike the individual in the thirteenth century, who entered a monastery with the certainty that the world outside would remain little changed, Merton and Kathleen, at the time of their historic 1967 conference, confronted a world vastly different from the one they had left behind in 1941 and 1951. When Merton entered Gethsemani, the nuclear genie had not yet been let out of its bottle, nor had the computer as we know it been invented; neither he nor Kathleen had witnessed humanity’s discovery of the genetic code, or its bold leap into outer space. In the thirteenth century, moreover, the idea of changing the social order or abolishing war had been unthinkable, but the October 1945 founding of the United Nations had placed a global stamp of approval on the pursuit of peace and social justice. It became common, in subsequent years, to find priests and nuns participating in protests against war and racial segregation—and yet the men and women of the monasteries were still to do no more than watch and pray. This disparity heightened a very real spiritual and theological dilemma created by being confined within a monastery and seemingly left behind by history.

“It takes a special person to be able to do that,” Kathleen said. “It’s rare to live a life of total separation from the world and yet be involved in what the world is, also.” How to live a life of separation and then somehow go out and share the fruits of your contemplation with the rest of the world? “Merton certainly did it through his books,” she said.

So there is a hint here, with Merton as the example, of what a potential solution to that crisis of stability might look like. Our story continues, however, not with a focus on the specifics of a solution, but on the tiny gathering for which this question had been the centerpiece: the 1967 conference at Gethsemani, and its larger historic setting.

A common view of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) is that it was convened by Pope John XXIII “out of the blue,” ushering in a new age of openness within the church and a new focus on peace and ecumenism. There is, however, an alternative picture: namely, that Pope John was merely ripping the top off a vessel that was already about to explode, and that once the contents of that vessel had been exposed and acknowledged, thousands of priests and nuns felt freed to follow a path other than that which had been set out for them by the church.

According to a story related to us by Kathleen, John’s supposedly conservative predecessor, Pope Pius XII, had in fact played a critical role in making the Vatican II era possible, and did so by offering himself as a lightning rod in respect to the eternal sanctity of solemn vows. “You could never be released from solemn vows,” she recalled. “But a Dominican priest asked Pius XII to be released. All the cardinals said, ‘you can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘I just did it.’”

Strictly speaking, of course, priests could be released from their vows. It was, however, extremely rare—thus, the popular impression that it had never been done before.

Thomas Merton himself was not above questioning the ancient rules under which the contemplative life was governed, or his own fitness to conform to them; in fact, he was something of a poster boy for the idea of monastic renewal. Plagued by an active and questioning mind, and—as the world’s most famous monk—beset with a constant stream of offers to leave his own order and take up residence at one or another monastery where he might find relief from the regimentation that was often passed off as the via dolorosa of the spiritual life, Merton seemed constantly on the verge of jumping ship during the latter half of his career as a Trappist.

And now the gasoline of Vatican II was being pumped onto the smoldering fire of the mid-twentieth-century church, and Merton could well think of himself as being one of those having a grip on the pump handle. At the institutional level, his interest in ecumenism had clearly helped set the tone for the council; and at a more personal level, he could point to a long-distance friendship with Pope John himself, who in admiration had once sent him a gift of one of his own papal stoles.

In the midst of this turmoil, it is to Thomas Merton’s eternal credit that he remained on a path from which others less gifted might have deviated. When he died, on December 10, 1968, while attending an international gathering of monks in far-off Bangkok, he remained a loyal member of the Gethsemani community. It was from that community that he had set out on his final journey; it was to that community that his body was returned, to be buried within its walls.

Let me, however, back up almost precisely one year from Merton’s death to the happier time of December 3, 1967, on which date—a Sunday—Merton and Sister Elaine Bane of the Allegany Franciscans welcomed to Gethsemani a group of her fellow contemplative nuns for a three-day conference to discuss the growing crisis of stability within their orders. Vatican II had been adjourned almost exactly two years earlier, and in the new spirit of independence Merton and the nuns had convened their conference without having sought permission from church authorities. Although most of the nuns were in fact the prioresses of their respective communities, it was still a daring step.

This was far from Merton’s first Gethsemani conference. There had been periodic conferences of his own order to discuss Trappist business; ecumenically oriented conferences with the likes of Vanderbilt divinity students; and politically oriented conferences on such topics as nonviolence. Nor does Merton himself seem to have expected anything special from the December 1967 conference. To be sure, he would be serving in an almost purely pastoral capacity—i.e., as a spiritual leader. To the extent that there was an agenda and a constituency to be addressed, it involved the most central and spiritual of his concerns: the contemplative life.

We might think of the Gethsemani conference as our own wine-and-cheese-and-prayer-party writ large

Although a member of the New Orleans Poor Clares for more than sixteen years by now, Kathleen was only thirty—a vibrant young woman with an irrepressible smile, if we can judge from the few photos of her to have emerged from within the cloisters. And so the question arises as to why she was selected to accompany her abbess, Mother Mary Francis Clare, to the conference instead of a more senior member of the community. The answer lies with an aqua-green Chrysler station wagon owned by the monastery, a huge boat of an automobile, big enough to carry eight people in a pinch—whose designated driver was none other than our youthful and adept Kathleen. That station wagon was to bring not only Kathleen and Mother Francis Clare to Kentucky; arrangements had been made to stop in Jackson, Mississippi, to pick up two members of that city’s Carmelite community.

Consider another extraordinary circumstance: the several opportunities that had already been placed in Kathleen’s path for a more intimate connection with Gethsemani and its holy man. They include the story of Sister Marie Pius, the only African American nun among the New Orleans Poor Clares. A former entertainer and self-described member of the demimonde, Sister Marie Pius had been admitted to the monastery in the late 1950s and died not long after of cancer—but not before having endeared herself to Kathleen and the rest of the community. “We were all so crazy about her, she was so much fun,” Kathleen recalled. “She was having mystical experiences, so she wrote to Merton—and he wrote back. He told her that he would rather correspond with her than cardinals and archbishops—so they had a correspondence. She really profited by his direction. But we never really knew what he said or anything—it was very private between them.”

More central to the Kathleen/Gethsemani/Merton axis was James Fox, the abbot at Gethsemani. On those occasions when Fox traveled on monastery business to New Orleans, he was put up at the Poor Clares monastery; and with Abbot Fox in town, the nuns strained their ears for any mention of the great Thomas Merton. It was Kathleen, of course, who would chauffeur Fox around the city—and such occasions would not have been without lively conversation. “He didn’t talk about Merton that much, honey,” Kathleen confided to us. “When we first met Dom James we said, ‘Tell us about Merton, tell us about Merton!’, and he said, ‘Well, he says he writes out of obedience, but I cahn’t stop him’—he’s from Boston, so he says ‘cahn’t.’  They had a love-hate relationship—they loved each other and they didn’t. Merton was a handful. He was sheer genius, and he had ideas galore. But Dom James was running a monastery with two hundred men. He had to keep some control.”

Abbot Fox, in turn, had been the key to the most remarkable of Kathleen’s prior links to Gethsemani. Her first abbess, Mother Margaret Mary, had written to him with the request that Kathleen’s younger brother, Mike, be admitted to Gethsemani as a lay brother. The request was granted. Mike then convinced their still younger brother, Jerry, to join him, and the two of them subsequently recruited their even younger brother, Dennis. Though none ended up staying permanently, Merton and the rest of the monastery would have been very familiar with the Burkes of New Orleans.

Nuns still wore their black and white habits in 1967, and one marvels to imagine the sight of four of them speeding north through Mississippi in an aqua-green Chrysler station wagon—and one marvels, as well, to imagine their excitement. Travel was for them a rare experience to begin with, but here they were, a station wagon of nuns from two separate but allied communities, setting their own itinerary while sharing torrents of church gossip. And at the end of their journey, the great Thomas Merton himself was to welcome them to the legendary Gethsemani!

“When we got to Gethsemani, it was in the afternoon,” Kathleen explained. “We stayed in the women’s guest house, which was walkable to the monastery. The lady in charge of that, she and her husband—he was in charge of the men’s retreat and she was in charge of the women’s—had a nice little house that Dom James had built for them, and we had all our meals there. We had the first conference with Merton that evening, and then we had two or three conferences every day, and Mass every morning.”

Inasmuch as those conferences were tape recorded and eventually published as a book (The Springs of Contemplation), there seems to be little point in attempting to reconstruct any part of them from Kathleen’s fifty-year-old memories; and at any rate, it was Merton’s person that made the greatest impression on her, albeit in a quite down-to-earth way.

“I know the second day I was there, when he found out who I was—he remembered my brothers quite well,” Kathleen emphasized. “I was in the gift shop and here comes Dom James, and I was so glad to see him, and I hugged him and I hugged him. Just then Merton came by, and Dom James said, ‘You know who this is.’ And Merton said, ‘Yeah, I just found out.’”

As for Merton’s own take on the conference, we again have the luxury of a written account, and in fact Merton’s own words from the last volume of his published journals (The Other Side of the Mountain)—and suffice it to say that he had been profoundly and unexpectedly affected. His journal entry for December 7, the Thursday of the nuns’ departure, begins with these words—“The last four or five days have been quite fantastic: among the most unusual in my life. I hardly know how to write about them”—he then goes on for another six hundred words in a most extraordinary and exuberant fashion.

Two days later Merton was still thinking about the conference. In his Saturday journal entry, he records a quiet walk and a stop for meditation by the lake at Gethsemani: “springlike sun. No one around. I needed the silence.” On his way back, he notices “the small footprints of my nuns still in the mud of the road by the sheep barn,” and he then concludes with these two sentences, which were reproduced verbatim in the Mott biography: “I remember the Sisters leaving on Thursday—one car after the other and finally the green station wagon from New Orleans roaring off with Sister Kathleen at the wheel. Last I saw of her she was barreling down the middle of the highway.” Thus did Kathleen find her way into Merton’s official life story.

Everett Collection Inc/ Alamy Stock Photo

From a man whose life was filled with extraordinary experiences, these journal entries can be considered evidence of a profound spiritual experience, and one we must take at face value if we are to claim some insight into Thomas Merton as man and potential saint. And if we are to take this experience at face value, we might think of the Gethsemani conference as our own wine-and-cheese-and-prayer-party writ large: instead of our one Kathleen, Merton had walked into a reactor with fifteen women whose innate warmth, energy, and intelligence had been sharpened by a life of prayer and contemplation. And if there is one quality in his depiction of all of this that marks Merton as both a candidate for sainthood and as one of the great ambassadors between East and West, it is his willingness to “be still, and know that I am God.” These passages reverberate with Merton’s happiness at simply being in the presence of “my nuns.”

Yes, Merton’s immediate preoccupation had been with the boost given to the contemplative life—and the system, to be sure, needed reform. But if these women had come out of it with the decency and energy and wit that had been on display at the conference, there could be no doubt that there was something in that system worth preserving.

Merton, however, was also certainly aware that life within the cloister could have served only to amplify something already present in these women—and here we also find the original significance of Kathleen’s presence in our own lives. As the central figure of our gathering around the dining-room table, she had provided for Dianna an irreplaceable moment of dignity and recollection—and for the rest of us an opportunity to honor Dianna’s grace and courage in the face of affliction—that existed entirely independent of her eventual cure. We had witnessed, in short, two miracles: on the one hand, a dramatic recovery; but on the other, the everyday miracle of people living their lives with courage and composure—and coming to each other’s support when there was no real hope of a payoff.

Kathleen’s compassion had thus been one of the everyday virtues, the recognition and celebration of which, in the person of the Virgin Mary, has been one of the glories of the Roman Catholic Church, represented in the great Renaissance and Baroque paintings in which the Virgin is surrounded by an adoring multitude as she is assumed into heaven.

Is there not in Merton’s journal entries—and indeed in his willingness to serve as the host of an all-female conference—a note that is entirely new, and yet somehow complementary? These nuns were upholding the traditional virtues, to be sure, but they were also members of the 1960s Catholic avant-garde—Merton uses the word “revolution”!—and as such were claiming a role they have continued, in our own era, to pursue with a vengeance. So can we not add “champion of women’s rights” to the list of Merton’s many honorifics? Here is a somewhat new take on Merton, but one that emerges forcefully and inevitably from the story of the Gethsemani conference: amid the social and political chaos of the 1960s, the great spiritual figure of modern Catholicism welcomes to his remote Kentucky monastery a courageous band of women religious intent on preserving their own communities; they represent several different orders, allied in theory but in fact separated by formidable barriers; they travel without the permission of their superiors, and under less than ideal circumstances; and the conference ends on a note Merton describes as one of the high points of his own spiritual journey.

In his journal, Merton had taken leave of Kathleen as she was “barreling down the middle of the highway.” And so it is fitting that Kathleen’s own strongest reaction to the conference had come while she was still behind the wheel on the way home, during a hastily arranged side trip to the community of Poor Clares in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

Kathleen recalled the adventure, finishing off her story for Dianna and me: “we had to go through the Smoky Mountains, and the Mother Abbess was like, ‘I don’t want to go up through the Smoky Mountains at night.’ We kept saying, ‘Come on, Mother, come on!’  And finally she said ‘OK.’ So we drove through the Smoky Mountains for a long time.” Kathleen smiled, remembering. “I felt so...high. I knew I had a oneness with everything in the universe—I felt that oneness with the car, with the wheels. I knew we would have no accident. I felt at one with the road. And I knew that I had been in the presence of a holy man.”

Published in the June 1, 2018 issue: 

G. W. Smith is a software engineer turned kinetic sculptor and techno-art theorist; the creator of the BLAST (blocked asynchronous transmission) data communications protocol; and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems.

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