On this day in 1968, man named Fr. Louis died of accidental electrocution in Bangkok -- 27 years to the day after he entered religious life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky.
He was better known under his birth name, Thomas Merton, the name which appeared on a startling high number of spiritual books over a 20-year period. Most famous among them was The Seven-Storey Mountain, the best-selling story of his own life and conversion published in 1948.
But the name on his tombstone, the same simple cross afforded to all the monks buried there on the abbey grounds, is Fr. Louis Merton. The grave isn't given any special honor or attention, but I found it the first time I visited Gethsemani on retreat about 15 years ago. I have returned to there almost every year since.
During that very first visit, my friend Greg and I also had the rare opportunity to sit in Merton's hermitage and talk for an hour an half with a woman who was staying there while she discerned a possible vocation as a Trappestine nun.
The Merton house, deep into the woods on the Merton property, isn't open to guests. But we had connections. A friend of ours, Fr. David DeVore, was living at the abbey on sabbatical at the time. He took us for a walk in the woods to see the house; the woman staying there saw us and invited us in.
Now Fr. DeVore is himself buried at Gethsemani as well.
In the middle of the last century, Thomas Merton was one of the major figures of the Catholic Church in the United States. His legacy lives on in more than 60 published volumes of his writings that still have power today. But to be at Gethsemani, where he lived just over half of his life and where his body lies, is to connect with Fr. Louis in a special way that is important to me.