Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with James Conner,

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


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00:00:00 - Meeting and interacting with Merton

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Partial Transcript: I could get you, give me a, um, a physical description of Thomas Merton when you first saw him

Segment Synopsis: Conner gives a physical description of Thomas Merton when he first met him as well as his personality as he got to know him. He talks about how they worked together over the years. Connor describes a novice master as the person in charge of the formation of new monks and what Merton was trying to teach them, including looking out for whether they were truly there to seek God. Conner says his biggest adjustment to the Monastic life as living with 150 people.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Master of students; Novice masters; Personality traits; Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks

Subjects: Catholic church; Catholics; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Religion.; Trappists; Vegetarianism

00:09:51 - Merton as a teacher

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Partial Transcript: Is it accurate to say, and if it is would you speak for this, that let's say the majority of those novices who Merton is teaching came to him, came here because of him, or else were very much influenced by his writing to come here

Segment Synopsis: Conner thinks a good number of the novices were influenced by Merton's writings to come here. Conner says Merton was well prepared as a teacher, but also had a gift for ad-libbing. He says that Merton hated students trying to imply they knew as much or more than him. He says Merton also wanted people to be real and not have a false self. Conner discusses John Cassian's belief in monasticism as a way to achieve purity of heart. He says the current dog eat dog world is contrary to this way of life.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Catholics; Contemplation in a world of action (Thomas Merton); John Cassian (Monk); Master of students; Novice masters; Rule of Saint Benedict; The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton); Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks

Subjects: Catholic church; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church and education.; Church.; Master and servant.; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Religion.; Religious; Trappists

00:19:49 - Merton's emotions and life as novice master

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Partial Transcript: Going back to Merton the teacher, you mentioned one thing as somebody being something of a showoff, but were there other sorta like hot buttons that you knew that if somebody pursued this or if such a thing happened that Merton might get upset, or--

Segment Synopsis: Conner says sparks might fly if someone said something they knew went against what Merton believed. Conner describes how Merton preferred to not sing louder in choir rather than make his neighbor upset, and that the choir was difficult for Merton. He discusses the importance of the novice master position. Conner describes a program where people could experience monastic life without committing. Conner says Merton was the opposite of a primadonna.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Choir; Master of students; Novice masters; Singing; Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks

Subjects: Catholic church; Catholics; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Conflict; Interpersonal conflict; Master of novices; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Religion.; Teachers; Trappists

00:29:36 - Monastic traditions and purpose

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Partial Transcript: Um, I know it varies from individual to individual, but there's probably some sort of common stresses that are found with most everyone in the monastic life, life, so give me some of the psychological stresses on a person with they die to themselves, when they try to break down the ego, I mean, that's tricky business you're doing.

Segment Synopsis: Conner says the transformation to break down the ego would sometimes lead to a mental breakdown or the person leaving. He says monastic tradition says the best way to die to themselves is through obedience that brings you to a radical surrender of the self to God. Conner says Merton would often clash with Dom James; Dom James fixated on the crucifixion, while Merton was not so tied to one mystery of Christ, but to the person himself. He describes James as adamant that Merton remain in the monastery, partially because he was afraid of Merton's nature.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Deus crucifixus; Dom James; Novice masters; Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks

Subjects: Authors; Catholic church; Catholics; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Communication and education.; Interpersonal communication; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Monks; Religion.; Trappists

00:40:35 - Monastery as amalgamation of Dom James and Merton

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Partial Transcript: Thought pop in my head, and it may be ridiculous and if so, say so, uh, but, here we are in 2006, uh, who has had, who has had the biggest impact on today's gethsemane, is this Dom James', John, Dom James' gethsemane or is this Thomas Merton's Gethsemane?

Segment Synopsis: Conner says the current monastery is both Dom James and Merton’s Gethsemane. Conner talks about how economically, it's Dom James, who managed to turn the monastery around from bankruptcy, but spiritually the flavor of the community depends on Merton. He says that before Merton it had been spiritually based on Therese of Lisieux. Conner describes how Merton saw contemplative life as not just locking oneself in an enclosure, but trying to live life with a focus on contemplative prayer in god.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin; Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face; The Little Flower; Therese of Lisieux (Saint); Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks

Subjects: Catholic Church; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Contemplation; Lectio Divina; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monasteries; Religion.; Thérèse, de Lisieux, Saint, 1873-1897.; Trappists

00:46:29 - Limited mail at the monastery

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Partial Transcript: Give me uh, an, idea, or the viewer an idea, of what of how, how you just didn't get mail in the 50s and 60s, and how the whole censorship was set up

Segment Synopsis: Conner discusses the limitation of correspondence at the monastery, including the fact that their mail was read before being sent out or given to them. He says they could only receive mail or send out mail a few times a year. Conner discusses how they dealt with Merton's mail as Dom James feared his mail could inject new ideas into their community, and they wanted to limit some of what Merton was saying with regard to his positions of being anti-war and anti-nuclear armaments.

Keywords: Anti-war movement; Antiwar Movement; Dom James; Vietnam War

Subjects: Censorship; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Correspondence; Fan mail; France; Letters; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Nuclear weapons; Religion.; Social interaction; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

00:53:58 - Confessors / Merton's feeling different / Merton's love of nature

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Partial Transcript: Some of, again, uh, the important role of asking someone to be your confessor, I assume you asked someone, they weren't assigned to you, and how, Dom James going to Merton, what that signified

Segment Synopsis: Conner says novices were assigned confessors, but everyone else chose their own and that Dom James picking Merton shows his respect for Merton, including for his theological positions and search for contemplative life. Conner discusses Merton calling himself "duck in a chicken coop," because he was different spiritually, intellectually, and socially. Conner discusses Merton's love of nature, which helped him with contemplation and which he shared with students.

Keywords: Anti-war movements; Antiwar movements; Catholic monks; Catholicism; Dom James; Language learning; Languages; Learning languages; Multilingual; Polyglots; Trappist monks; War hawks

Subjects: Catholic Church; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Confession; Confessors; Contemplation; Linguistics; Meditation; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Peace movements; Race relations; Racism; Religion.; Solitude; Trappists

01:05:26 - Merton's journals / Merton becoming a hermit

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned his journals briefly, um, are the very, um, openness of his journals, the frankness, the, as somebody I interviewed once said, the only bad things we know about Merton he tells us himself, are those an embarrassment to the community, to the order, to, to the monastic way?

Segment Synopsis: Conner describes Merton's openness as a tribute to himself. Conner says Merton had a compulsion to journal as a way to express himself, and his venting was through his journals. Conner discusses Merton asking to be a hermit and contrasts it with the traditional communal ways of the monastery, and how Dom James made Merton come back to the community for at least one hot meal a day.

Keywords: Catholic monks; Catholicism; Cenobitic monasticism; Community; Interpersonal communication; Interpersonal relations; Rule of Saint Benedict; Social interaction; The Sign of Jonas (Thomas Merton); Trappist monasteries; Trappist monks; Venting

Subjects: Catholic Church; Cenobites; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Cistercians; Communication in education.; Hermits; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks; Religion.; Trappists

01:14:04 - Merton's death / Merton being a "handful"

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Partial Transcript: If you could describe how you heard that he had died and then the impact that had on the community.

Segment Synopsis: Conner describes how he learned of Merton's death and how everyone felt the shock of the loss. He discusses Merton's falling in love with Margie. Conner felt like this experience convinced Merton that he was loveable and that he could love someone. He discusses Merton being a "handful" and how Dom James handled him pretty well. Conner mentions that Merton wrote against collectivism and felt that monasticism wasn't collective.

Keywords: Affairs; Brainwashing; Burials; Catholic monks; Catholicism; Christ; Community; Dom James; Funerals; Monastic life; Trappist monks

Subjects: Abbots; Catholic Church; Christian teachers.; Christianity.; Church.; Collectivism; Communism; Individualism; Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968.; Monks; Religion.; Totalitarianism; Trappists