I am preparing for some lectures that will come soon enough. The main focus is on Thomas Merton, the very well known Trappist monk who died very tragically in 1968. As I have proclaimed before, I think it could be argued that Merton was the most famous Roman Catholic of last century. I am sure some would argue that Pope John Paul II would edge out Merton as the most famous one. That would be an interesting discussion since John Paul had such a long and distinguished tenure as Pope (1978-2005). And of course, so many people today still fondly remember him. Since Merton died nearly a half century ago, not that many people remember him.
I never met Merton. But I do know a couple of the older monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk, who joined the monastery when Merton was the novice master. Since they knew the Merton of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this was the Thomas Merton who had grown so much spiritually and in so many other ways.
The later Merton was a man very much involved in the ecumenical movement within Christian circles. He had lauded the work of Vatican II (now celebrating it 50th anniversary). Vatican II had opened the Catholic Church to the outside, non-Catholic world. There still are repercussions from this bold conciliar conference headed by another beloved pope, Pope John XXIII. One result of this was the encounter of non-Catholics with the whole monastic movement.
It accounts for how I, a Quaker farm boy from Indiana, could ultimately wind up a Benedictine oblate---that is, a lay Benedictine monk. Who would have thought it! And this brings me to my story. I was friends of a Quaker couple who also met and had become friends with Merton. They were probably Merton’s age, but they did not die an untimely young death, so I got to know them in the later part of the 20th century.
Douglas and Dorothy Steere were “big names” in Quaker circles. Douglas was a long-time philosophy professor at Haverford College near Philadelphia. The Steeres had been invited to be official observers at Vatican II. So we have a number of communications from Douglas and his time in Rome during that amazing gathering. The Steeres were very interested in the mystical tradition. And that led them to some people in the monastic world, especially those monks from the more contemplative tradition. It is clear there is some common ground between the spiritual tradition that focuses on contemplation and Quaker spirituality. That certainly is what drew me to my interactions with Douglas and Dorothy Steere. In some ways they were spiritual heroes for a budding young Quaker teacher, scholar and just human.
It was with real interest, then, when I hit the following passage in one of Merton’s many journals. It is an entry dated February 5, 1962. I was still a high school kid, doubtlessly more focused on basketball than on theological basics! But it soon would connect more deeply with my life. In retrospect, I can only wish I had been present that morning Merton met this Quaker couple. But we do have Merton’s words.
Merton writes that “Douglas Steere and his wife were here this morning and I had a pleasant chat with them.” Merton had not yet been granted permission to move to his hermitage, so he would have met Douglas and Dorothy somewhere on the monastic grounds. However, it is what follows that so intrigues me. Merton continues to note, “I liked them both and she especially struck me as a very spiritual person and a very typical Quaker, or what one imagines to be so. Very simple, direct, earnest, completely good.”
Douglas was the famous guy---professor, author, etc. Yet it was the spirit of Dorothy that captured Merton. And that was Dorothy, as I knew her. I would like to think she was “a very typical Quaker,” but that is probably to give all of us Quakers too much credit! I love the descriptive words Merton uses of Dorothy Steere (and hopefully of all Quakers). She was very simple. Of course this is not a reference to her intellect.
She was direct. Dorothy was engaging and deep. She had a compelling spirit that drew you into a sacred orbit that simplified you, too. She had a centering effect on people. She was earnest. This does not mean she was some kind of sourpuss. In fact she had twinkling eyes and a ready smile. But is was not syrupy, superficial crap! She was authentic.
Completely good is hard to fathom. Did that mean she never sinned? I hardly think so. To be completely good suggests to me a pure heart with matching intentionality to be good and to work for the good. If she were to fail, she would to make that good and move on.
I would like to become this kind of typical Quaker. I hope all the Catholics and Methodists and, even, atheists can also strive to become typically that kind of human being. The world will become such an amazing good place then. At that point we all will be friends.