Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Anthony Padovano,

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:04 - Relevance of Merton's "journey" concept in the twentieth century

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Partial Transcript: Tell me why--why Thomas Merton is significant--where--place him in the twentieth century.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano says Merton has achieved a mythic stature, which he says happens when you connect with deep needs in the human psyche. Padovano connects the idea that the twentieth century embraced the idea that life is a journey full of uncertainties to Merton's writing and popularity, especially in "The Seven Storey Mountain." He also thinks that Merton's journey felt authentic to his audiences.

Keywords: Authenticity; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Cistercians; Heidegger, Martin, 1889-1976.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Myth; Religion; Spirituality

00:06:16 - Merton's role in society

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Partial Transcript: I mean, if we're talking countercultural, Thomas Merton and his values, his way of life is very--very countercultural. What--what does--what role does a person like Thomas Merton play in our world, in our society? Or is--or is he just an eccentric irrelevance, really?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano talks about how Merton could both affirm modern culture while recognizing its shortcomings and the need to question it. He says that Merton, as a twentieth-century person, could still witness things outside the culture from his position in the monastery.

Keywords: MLK; Trappist monks

Subjects: Baez, Joan.; Celebrities; Cistercians; Counterculture; Culture; Hermits; King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968.; Liberation; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Music; Newspapers; Prophets; Society; Technology

00:10:01 - How did Merton position himself from the margins?

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Partial Transcript: And in--in a more condensed way, tell me the role that the plays.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano describes his thoughts on Merton's position in society, saying that Merton was not purely in pursuit of good, moral behavior, and was not a scold. Padovano says Merton wanted people to be happy, and human, and thought that people who are happy end up being moral. He describes Merton as having enormous energy, and mentions his famous scene at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. Padovano tells an anecdote about a woman raised in a Catholic environment that was rigid with pessimism about humanity, and how Merton existed in contrast to this.

Keywords: Catholicism; Fourth and Walnut

Subjects: Buddhism; Humanism; Louisville (Ky.); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Sin; St. Augustine

00:13:41 - "The Seven Storey Mountain" and Merton's search for meaning

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Partial Transcript: You told me something interesting the other day about the intensity of Merton's search.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano says that Merton's writings may appear dated, but they still appeal to audiences today, and says John Henry Newman was like this as well. He compares the two men, and says that both were willing to give up everything. Padovano mentions that Merton entered the monastery at 26 and was willing to give up writing and left behind an unfinished PhD at Columbia University. He mentions that Merton was often embarrassed by "The Seven Storey Mountain," but the purity of his desire for authenticity redeemed it for his audience.

Keywords: Catholicism; Ecumenism; John Henry Newman; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Academics; Authors; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Newman, John Henry, Saint, 1801-1890.; Self-sacrifice; Theology

00:17:27 - How would Merton define truth? / Etienne Gilson's book

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Partial Transcript: You've mentioned, a few times, Merton was looking for the truth, and the truth was everything. What was the truth for Thomas Merton?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano describes how he thinks Merton would define the idea of truth, and its relationship with his religious beliefs. Padovano mentions that Merton disliked religious dogma, and preferred Buddhism's dogma-free approach. He also mentions that Etienne Gilson's writing inspired Merton to convert.

Keywords: Definitions

Subjects: Buddhism; Cistercians; Dogma; Gilson, EĢtienne, 1884-1978; God; Meditation; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Peace; Truth; Zen

00:20:45 - Merton's conversion

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Partial Transcript: This is fairly general, but what happens in a conversion? And was Merton's conversion sort of typical, run-of-the-mill conversion?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses the nature of religious conversions, and then discusses Merton's process of conversion. He mentions how conversions often lead to powerful writing.

Keywords: Religious conversion; Saint Paul

Subjects: Cistercians; Conversion; Enlightenment; Love; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; St. Augustine

00:24:53 - Merton's four mystical life experiences

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Partial Transcript: Let me know if you can speak to this, or care to. When I say, "I'm in love with my wife," I describe her features, her elements, what attracts me. What did Merton's love look like, what was his image of God?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano talks about how Merton's concept of God changed. He says Merton had four mystical experiences in his life. Padovano describes Merton claims of seeing his dead father in a hotel room in Rome, an ecstatic experience during a recitation of the Nicene Creed in Cuba, a revelation at Fourth and Walnut, and another in the week of his death in Sri Lanka, where he believed he had seen into the very heart of God and did not need to live any more. He discusses how this fit with Merton's thoughts on Buddhism.

Keywords: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Thomas Merton); Ecstatic experience; Fourth and Walnut; John Henry Newman

Subjects: Conversion; Cuba; Dogma; God; Italy; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Mysticism; Priests; Rome (Italy); Sin; Sri Lanka

00:30:50 - Merton's concept of the mystical experience

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Partial Transcript: One of the points you make in "The Human Journey" here, is Merton wrote that mysticism was for everyone, not just for the professionally religious.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses Merton's thoughts on mysticism. He says that Merton was committed to shattering the notion that leaving the world behind does not solve problems and that, for Merton, the mystical was not miraculous, but exists in small moments when everything comes together and makes sense. Padovano says that Merton thought this experience is for everyone, and is part of being human.

Keywords: Catholicism; The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century (Anthony Padovano)

Subjects: Christianity; Churches; Clement, of Alexandria, Saint, approximately 150-approximately 215; Humanism; Incarnation; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Monks; Mysticism; Nuns

00:38:39 - Is Merton's work still relevant today?

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Partial Transcript: He--his main writing was in the '50s and '60s, is he just a--a relic of the '50s or '60s or is his work still relevant?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton's work remains relevant because it's so open-ended, and compares Merton's writing to Shakespeare, saying it's not dated but also not fully understandable. He also thinks that Merton's later writing reached universal human themes that never get dated.

Keywords: Catholicism; Second Vatican Council; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton); Vatican II

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Cistercians; Shakespeare; Trappist (Ky.); Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

00:41:08 - Merton did not have writers' angst

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Partial Transcript: Something about his journals, he's very open about his feelings, you know, he's pissy about this, or this or that. But I don't get much writers' angst from him, you know?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks half of Merton's books didn't have to be written and the environment of the monastery may have intensified his writing by confining him. He also thinks the writing was connected to his spiritual life, and that Merton did not care if the writing was successful, he was just desperate to communicate. Padovano thinks that because Merton wasn't writing for a living or for self-definition, he was freer to say what he wanted.

Keywords: Books

Subjects: Authors; Literature; Monasteries; Monastic and spiritual life; Spirituality; Writing

00:43:53 - The importance of penance for Merton

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Partial Transcript: Let's talk about the--the notion of penance and the centrality of it in the Trappist life.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano says that Merton joined the Trappists with a sense of punishment that he felt he needed to endure, and mentions that in one of his early books, Merton rejoices in the immense suffering of Cistercian Saint Mother Mary Berchmans. Padovano discusses the background of the book, and how it reflected the theology of the time. He says that Merton later understood that punishment doesn't serve any purpose, and believed that the point of spiritual striving is love.

Keywords: Exile Ends in Glory: The Life of a Trappistine Mother M. Berchmans (book); Mother M. Berchmans; Mother Mary Berchmans

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Christianity; Christology; Cistercians; Crucifixion; God; Jesus; Louisville (Ky.); Newman, John Henry, Saint, 1801-1890.; Penance; Punishment; Sin; Spirituality; Theology; Trappist (Ky.)

00:49:52 - Merton's view of dying to self

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Partial Transcript: Throughout his spiritual journey, even as he became less of a flagellant, let's say, and more of an open person, he always talked about dying to self.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses Merton's philosophy on "dying to self."

Keywords: Dying to self; Pride

Subjects: Self; Sin

00:55:03 - Merton's relationship with Abbot Frederic Dunne

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Partial Transcript: Merton wrote volumes about this, but, you know, just in a few sentences, give me a sense of his tensions with his abbot, and just characterize it, if you would.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses the relationship between Merton and the three abbots he had during his time at the abbey. He talks about how Dunne was like a surrogate father, and told Merton to write an autobiography--something that had never been done before in a Cistercian monastery. Padovano tells a story about Dunne bringing Merton a copy of "The Seven Storey Mountain" when it was first published.

Keywords: Dom Flavian Burns; Dom Frederic Dunne; Dom James Fox; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Abbots; Autobiographies; Cistercians; Holiness; Trappist (Ky.)

00:57:57 - Merton's relationship with Abbot James Fox

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Partial Transcript: The next abbot was light years different from Merton in character and temperament.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano describes James Fox, Merton's second abbot, as having a different temperament from Merton, and maintained his business mindset when he entered the monastery. Padovano mentions that Gethsemani was in poor financial condition at the time, and how Fox brought in cheesecakes and assembly lines, which was antithetical to Merton. Padovano posits that Fox may have envied Merton and the monastery's association with him, and says that Fox's spirituality was very conservative and that he did not understand Merton's writing, a practice he tried to stop. Padovano thinks that Merton as a monk, however, was valuable to Fox and he went to him for confession because he believed him to be the best, making their relationship complicated. Padovano relates several conversations he had with Fox about Merton, and says he thinks Fox helped Merton by preventing him from traveling because it made him a deeper writer.

Keywords: Dom Frederic Dunne; Dom James Fox

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Authors; Business; Cistercians; Contemplation; Poetry; Spirituality; Trappist (Ky.); Travel; Writing

01:03:24 - Merton's relationship with Abbot Flavian Burns

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Partial Transcript: And then the last one, who was only there a short time, I interviewed him too, Flavian Burns, who just died recently.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano mentions that Merton went to Burns for confession, and they had a very interesting relationship. He discusses how Merton had trained Burns as a novice, and that Merton had then been a fellow candidate to replace Fox as abbot when Fox retired and became a hermit. Padovano says that he thinks Merton sabotaged his own election, and provides examples. He goes on to discuss Burns relationship and memory of Merton.

Keywords: Dom Flavian Burns; Margie Smith

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Asia; Cistercians; Hermits; Mysticism; Trappist (Ky.); Travel

01:08:44 - Merton's emotional fragility

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Partial Transcript: Though you have not been a monk yourself, can you give me a sense of some of the stresses of the monastic life?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton was near a nervous breakdown in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as he was incredibly cynical and negative about everything. He cites Merton's only novel, "My Escape from the Nazis," as an example of a very disturbed person, and thinks Catholicism rescued him from that. Padovano says that Merton did still experience a nervous breakdown early in his monastic life, while writing "The Ascent to Truth," which Padovano thinks is one of his worst books because he's trying to fit his experience into scholastic theology categories where they don't fit. He mentions Merton was a fragile person, and had a lot of illnesses and hospital stays that were probably caused by stress.

Keywords: Catholicism; Journal of My Escape From the Nazis (Thomas Merton); My Argument with the Gestapo (Thomas Merton); Scholastic theology; The Ascent to Truth (Thomas Merton)

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Cistercians; Emotional health; Health; Illnesses; Journals (Diaries); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monastic and spiritual life; Monks; Peace; Scholasticism; Theology; Trappist (Ky.)

01:11:22 - The stresses of the monastic life

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Partial Transcript: The monastery brings, like every human experience, benefits and liabilities, you know?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano says that Merton struggled living in close quarters with people he did not choose, and that the feeling was magnified in a monastery because there is no escape from it. He mentions other stressors that can happen in a monastery, from theological and emotional differences to the human limitations of abbots. Padovano discusses how monasteries are not a refuge, but a demanding and difficult form of life and how Merton wondered, at the end of his life, if the monastic life was too artificial.

Keywords: Monasticism

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Abbots; Cistercians; Emotional health; Jesus; Monasteries; Monastic and spiritual life; Monks; Theology; Trappist (Ky.)

01:14:50 - Merton sensed that the dilemmas of a century lay in himself

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Partial Transcript: Quote--quoting from your book, "Merton had a sense that the answers to the dilemmas of a century lay in himself. 'I am the incarnation of everybody.'"

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses his thoughts on Merton's view of himself in the world, and how Merton believed he was crossing boundaries no one else was, both sectarian and interreligious. Padovano thinks that Nobel Peace Prize winners probably feel something similar.

Keywords: Catholicism; Ecumenism; Nobel Peace Prize; Second Vatican Council; Vale of tears; Vatican II

Subjects: Judaism; Prayer; Protestantism; Secularism; Vatican II (Council) (1962-1965 : Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano)

01:21:21 - Merton was a symbol of the twentieth century because he crossed boundaries.

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Partial Transcript: And you call him a symbol of the century. Now, you've given us background there, so just in a few sentences, how was he the symbol of the century?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses his thoughts on the twentieth century, and the evolution of its politics and ideas. He talks about how Merton was symbolic of that era because he consistently crossed boundaries.

Keywords: 20th century

Subjects: Gandhi, 1869-1948; Gender; Identity; Identity politics; Religion; Sexuality; Twentieth century; World

01:26:20 - The role of the hermitage in Merton's life

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Partial Transcript: Was the--the hermitage a cop-out, or is that a legitimate part of his journey?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton would have committed suicide had he not entered the monastery. He mentions that the hermitage represented Merton's goal to be a Carthusian monk, a group of monks that gather only once a week. Padovano describes the differences between eremetical and cenobitical monasticism. He says that Merton joined the Cistercians, who are cenobitical, because there were no eremetical monasteries in the United States at the time. Padovano describes how, when the Carthusians created monasteries in the United States, Merton tried to join one and was stopped by Rome and his own abbot, and that Abbot Fox tried to solve the problem by making Merton a forester. Padovano thinks that the hermitage was not discontinuous with his previous life, and that everything Merton became he had intended from the beginning. He says this does not mean that Merton was suited to be a hermit, as it did not fully solve his problems.

Keywords: Dom James Fox

Subjects: Carthusians; Cenobites; Cistercians; Emotional health; Eremitic life; Hermitages; Hermits; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Rome (Italy); Suicide

01:30:04 - Merton's relationship with Margaret Smith

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Partial Transcript: Speaking of inviting people to the hermitage--or that aspect of his life--give me sort of a--a sketch of the romantic relationship with Margaret, and is it just sort of a titillating little sidebar in his life, or is it significant in his growth?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton's relationship with Smith late in his life is difficult to judge from the outside. Padovano believes that had Merton resigned and married Smith, it would have been a disaster for both. He thinks that it was inspiring that Merton could open himself to love, and his reachability was also inspiring. Padovano says he had a conversation with Fox about this, and that Fox was against the relationship, but it did not alter his overall positive opinion of Merton.

Keywords: Dom James Fox; Eremitic life; Margaret Smith; Margie Smith

Subjects: Buddhism; Catholicism; Hermits; Love; Monasteries; Monastic and religious life; Monks; Relationships

01:34:09 - Padovano's discovery of Merton's romantic relationship

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Partial Transcript: This is a nice aspect, where you were one of the first people to be given access to these journals and to come up with this information.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano mentions that, while writing his book "The Human Journey" in the early 1970s, he came across mention of Smith in Merton's journals during a time when knowledge of this romantic relationship was not available to the public. He says this forced him to re-evaluate his categorization of Merton and his spiritual journey. Padovano spoke to both Merton's abbots to evaluate whether or not the story was true and both Abbot Fox and Abbot Burns did not consider the relationship a liability.

Keywords: Dom Flavian Burns; Dom James Fox; Margaret Smith; Margie Smith; The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century (Anthony Padovano)

Subjects: Journals (Diaries); Love; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Relationships; Spirituality

01:38:02 - Merton wanted his negative stories told

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Partial Transcript: An interesting thing happened, the summer when I was finally writing this book, I was teaching at the University of San Francisco.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano discusses the Margie Smith revelation with a fellow faculty member at the University of San Francisco who said the story only raised his respect for Merton's life. Padovano included Smith in his book because so many religious figures have romantic relationships and think it makes them second-rate Christians, but he thinks those people need to feel validated. Padovano thinks the greatest hallmark of Merton's spirituality was that he himself recorded the most negative stories of his life and wanted them to be published, mentioning that it was the trustees that stopped the publication of his romantic poetry to Smith as an example.

Keywords: Margaret Smith; Margie Smith; Publishing; The Merton Legacy Trust

Subjects: Catholicism; Christianity; Journals (Diaries); Love; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Relationships; University of San Francisco

01:41:32 - The rumors that surrounded Merton's death

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to jump ahead to his death.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano describes Merton's death at a contemplative meeting of Buddhists and Christians in Bangkok. He mentions that there are many theories about that, but Padovano discounts them. He does not think it's likely the CIA was involved, or that Merton was not that important to the Vietnam War protests. He thinks suicide also doesn't make sense since he had already bought film to shoot the next day. Padovano says he asked the monks at Gethsemani about Merton's death and Patrick Hart said that Merton was unbelievably klutzy, and all the monks were amazed he didn't accidentally kill himself at the monastery so the scenario makes sense to them.

Keywords: Klutzes; Vietnam War protests

Subjects: Abbey of Gethsemani (Trappist, Ky.); Bangkok (Thailand); Buddhism; CIA; Christianity; Conspiracies; Death; Hart, Patrick; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Peace movements; Photography; Protests; Suicide; War

01:44:34 - The timing of Merton's death contributed to his legacy

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Partial Transcript: And they say--you know, the good die young or sometimes if you're talking about a--a legacy or good P.R., his timing--I mean, his death was well timed, if I could be that crude.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano talks about the sudden nature of Merton's death, and what he feels is symbolic about his death. Padovano says Merton's writing feels like a finished body of work. He compares Merton's death with Abraham Lincoln's.

Keywords: Ecumenism

Subjects: Asia; Buddhism; Death; Lincoln, Abraham, 1744-1786; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Symbolism

01:48:15 - Merton's legacy

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Partial Transcript: What is his legacy? In your book, you sometimes equate him with Whitman--or, I mean, is that too grandiose?

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton and Dorothy Day will be seen as the St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila of their day. He also explains why he thinks that some of Merton's best work could be read for centuries, and that, of all the saints and mystics, he is the one whose humanness is the most appealing.

Keywords: Apostle Paul; Books; Saint Paul; Saint Teresa; St. Paul

Subjects: Day, Dorothy; John of the Cross, Saint, 1542-1591; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Mysticism; Plato; Religious life; Spirituality; St. Augustine; Teresa, of Avila, Saint, 1515-1582.; Theology

01:52:08 - The importance of honesty in Merton's journals

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Partial Transcript: Last question, I'd like you to introduce the journals and just characterize them.

Segment Synopsis: Padovano thinks Merton's journals were his way of saying that every life is a sacred journey, and the story of any life is sacred history. Padovano says that the journal is very human, a sense of what Merton's life was like for him personally. He discusses how Merton focused on negative aspects of himself, but wanted his spiritual life to be honest, which is a very twentieth century idea.

Keywords: Negativity

Subjects: Forgiveness; Honesty; Humanism; Journals (Diaries); Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Spiritual life; Spirituality