On today's centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the vastly influential Roman Catholic monk and author, it's worth remembering that he didn't just write classic books and think provocative thoughts. He also kept remarkable company. Amazingly so, for a cloistered monk who spent his last years as a hermit -- if you can call him that for all the visitors that came and went from his little hut in the Kentucky woods.
In fact, you can make a strong case that more than anyone else, you can tell the story of 20th century intellectual and cultural life through the story of Thomas Merton.
The list of his contacts is encyclopedic. In fact you can look them up in the Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, a book that really exists and that is deserved by Merton as it is by few other authors.
Among Merton's contacts: French philosopher Jacques Maritain, with whom he corresponded and whom he hosted at his hermitage, spending some of the time listening to a Bob Dylan album; Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, with whom he corresponded across the Iron Curtain; Islamic Sufis such as Abdul Aziz; Buddhist luminaries such as D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh; and even folk singer Joan Baez, who visited him at the hermitage and with whom he hopefully didn't discuss Bob Dylan.
Wanting to learn photography, Merton drew on the help and darkroom expertise of the remarkable photographer John Howard Griffin -- whose life story is one of the most amazing even in that century of amazing biographies, only partly due to his "Black Like Me" Odyssey. Griffin took some of the best portraits of Merton, and developed and printed many of the monks' own meditative photos, including one of Merton's last, overlooking a Bangkok harbor, in a scene resembling Merton's description of a dream of his impending death.
And as if a friendship with one remarkable photographer were enough, Merton also had a close one with Ralph Eugene Meatyard, about whom a poignant play has been written and who took many remarkable Merton portraits. Among the photos is one of Merton hosting a poetry reading at his hermitage with poets Denise Levertov and a young Wendell Berry, who has more than inherited Merton's mantle with his literary/social critiques nourished in the Kentucky soil.
You could call Merton the Zelig or Forest Gump of the 20th century religious world, but the difference is that these fictional characters had no clue about all the impressive people they were interacting with. Merton knew, and engaged deeply with them.
Here's another measure. At the end of the 20th century, the public-broadcasting show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly had an expert panel select the 25 religious figures who most influenced America in the 20th century, Merton was on the list, one of only six Catholics in total and one of only two American Catholics.
But what's more remarkable is how many others on the list he interacted with.
The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day was one of his early inspirations and a longtime correspondent. Later on, Merton corresponded with and hosted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a figure of titanic influence in articulating Judaism's bond of spirituality and socially prophetic voice. Heschel had been working behind the scenes with Catholics drafting the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which opened a warmer era of Catholic-Jewish ties. But there were challenges from bishops who wanted the document to insert language reaffirming the longstanding Catholic goal of converting Jews to Christianity. Merton, after meeting with Heschel, wrote to the cardinal drafting the document, encouraging him to stay with the more inclusive version, which ultimately was approved by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
Another figure on that list was the Dalai Lama, with whom Merton met in India and formed a deep bond just weeks before Merton's accidental death in Bangkok.
"I always considered him a strong bridge between Buddhism and Christianity," the Dalai Lama said years later in a visit to Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani. "His sudden death was a great loss."
Merton also wrote to another person on the PBS list, Pope John XXIII, encouraging his reforms. Scholars have speculated whether Merton influenced John's landmark peace encyclical, "Pacem in terris," but both John and later Pope John Paul II (also on the list) are known to have been familiar with Merton's works.
A mutual friend was also working on arranging a visit by the Rev. Martin Luther King (also on the list) and Coretta Scott King to the hermitage in early 1968. Plans didn't materialize, but they hoped to arrange a meeting later. Neither would survive that traumatic year. Their legacies are still unfolding.