My wife and I watched the BBC documentary on Pope John Paul II and the female philosopher.
His long intellectual and emotional friendship reminded us of a Sunday picnic at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1971.
The most famous member of that abbey, Thomas Merton, had died nearly three years earlier, in Bangkok, on his journey outward from the rolling hills and cheese production and long silences, but he was still a presence, the reason we were there.
A few members of the Merton society, new friends who had welcomed us to Louisville, invited us to visit the abbey on Sunday, when the Monks, Merton’s peers, were allowed to speak, to meet visitors.
We were not prepared for the rush of energy from five monks, who mingled with us on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon.
They were polite to me, eager to talk to my wife, who had packed a picnic basket.
“They wanted to talk to me, not formally, just ‘It’s my turn now.’” Marianne recalls. “I probably spent 10-15 minutes alone with each of them, one on one.”
I remember being escorted on a tour of the abbey – the sparse rooms, perhaps a chapel, the rooms where they made cheese. They kept me busy. I understood.
“They all said how much they missed talking with women,” my wife remembers. “They said they laughed differently with women than with men. They talked about their mothers and their sisters. One man said he felt sad that he would never be a father and wanted to know what it was like to raise children.”
Four decades later, she fondly remembers these men acknowledging the gap in their lives, the part they had given up for their spiritual mission.
Merton was the man in the room who wasn’t there. He was the worldly member, born in the Catalan corner of southwest France, shuttled around Europe, studied at Columbia University in New York City, lived, explored, thought, wrote, was refused the priesthood because of his worldly past, so he became a monk, seeking peace and quiet.
He became a celebrity through his writings, met the Dalai Lama, and then, quite apparently, while recuperating in a hospital in Louisville, had a brief affair with a young nurse. He was in Bangkok, when he died, electrocuted by faulty wiring on a fan, as he left the shower, far from the quiet abbey in central Kentucky.
There is no moral to this, no talk of sin or weakness, no screed against celibacy, against monasticism. Merton needed to speak out against war, against injustice.
The former Karol Wojtyla from Krakow expressed himself in a complicated relationship with a worldly married woman, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who lived in America. The documentary said there is no reason to believe they had a physical relationship, and I believe that, from my impressions of him, up close. He was a strong man, in every sense.
I first saw John Paul II in person at a dude ranch outside Mexico City in 1979, on his first journey as Pope. He told us we should regard journalism as a vocation, a calling. I have never forgotten that. He was a force, even when I did not agree with his politics.
I saw him up close again in the fall of 1979 when he was striding across a heritage farm in Iowa, greeting Lutherans. As he moved across the turf, his strength, his stride, his jutting jaw, reminded me of a linebacker stalking a quarterback. (That’s when the security guard elbowed me, said I was getting too close.)
I believe that Karol Wojtyla was quite capable of being Pope and dear friend at the same time, although it sounds as if his friend had other ideas.
The documentary showed their letters and also his sturdy face, even in old age and illness, visibly happy whenever he saw his friend. He reminded me of the monks at the abbey, who told my wife they missed women.
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