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