I was sorry to hear the news of the passing of Brother Patrick Hart, who was the last secretary to fellow Trappist monk Thomas Merton and who went on to edit and write works by and about Merton.
I had a handful of encounters with Brother Patrick over the years and always knew him as a gracious, welcoming presence at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
The following is adapted from an unpublished reflection I wrote after attending a conference at Gethsemani in 1996 between prominent Catholic and Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama, who had befriended Merton shortly before the latter's sudden death on a trip to Asia in 1968. The following is written in the present tense as of 1996:
Throughout the week, groups of us went out to visit Merton's hermitage in the woods, receiving a guided tour by Brother Patrick Hart, who served as Merton's last secretary and who was then involved in the mammoth effort to edit seven volumes of Merton's journals.
Even the sparse furnishings of the hermitage, which remains largely as Merton left it, testify to the man's extraordinarily eclectic vision. There was one noteworthy difference: "It wasn't as neat as this," said Brother Patrick. "He wasn't a very good housekeeper. That wasn't his charism."
Merton had a simple bed, and in his kitchen, wall hangings included a picture of the Shaker tree of life and a framed Latin blessing from the pope. His living room had a fireplace, a woodstove, a Shaker-style desk made by a friend, and a small bookshelf whose contents included a work on Celtic monasticism and a book titled, Philo Kalia. The tiny chapel where Merton said Mass every day included several icons, a Navajo rug given by a friend, and a ceramic crucifix made by his friend Ernesto Cardenal.
[Note: Cardenal left the monastery and went on to join the Sandinista government in his native Nicaragua; that got him suspended by Pope John Paul II after a dramatic airport tarmac confrontation between the leftist priest and the anti-communist pope (google the photo). Just in the past few days, Pope Francis lifted that suspension on the now elderly Cardenal.]
"When did he (Merton) find time to write?" someone asked. Merton's output of books and articles is mind-boggling considering the amount of time spent in scholarship, prayer, chores and even a relationship with a nurse he met during a hospitalization.
"We think he wrote in his sleep," said Brother Patrick on a tour of the hermitage. "He used to walk for hours in the woods and then come back and bang them out."
Patrick told us his fondest memory was the last day before Merton's trip, when he said Mass for five monks in the hermitage. Afterward, the group polished off the remainder of the communion wine bottle. "He said, we can't leave half a bottle of communion wine till I come back in six months," Patrick said.
Merton never came back, and though there was no leftover bottle, there was enough leftover business from Merton's literary legacy to occupy Brother Patrick for much of the rest of his lift.