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Searching for traces of Thomas Merton on Long Island

16:10 11/23/14

Last week, I finally took Ma on the Thomas Merton tour which we discussed weeks ago.  For those of you not aware of who Thomas Merton was, in brief he was a poet, a catholic mystic and an influential writer, his most popular book was perhaps his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain which described his life and how converted to Catholicism and became a Trappist monk.  Later he became interested and studied Buddhism and wrote leading books on this subject.
Our tour was not that bad.  To my surprise Ma sat in the front seat when I drove.  She has a fear of driving as a passenger.  I wrongfully assumed she’d sit in the back seat.  Little insight for you, before marrying my father, my mother was involved in a horrible accident which tragically took the life of one of the passengers in the car.  She was in the hospital for weeks and to this day one leg has the scars from the injuries which she sustained.  So, you can all understand her trepidations.
The first stop was locating the house which Merton lived on off on for years in Douglaston, NY.   It belonged to grandparents.  His mother’s parents.  The house is off of 25A, technically it is on Long Island but it’s in Queens.  With the white paint and black borders, it appears much the same way it did back when Merton lived there.  Well, most of the house is the same except for one noticeable change the trees which caught the wind and was depicted in Seven Storey Mountain were missing.  A young Merton’s memory had been cut down to the stump.  I assumed this was on account of Sandy.  There is still a stone wall which I assumed was there when Merton was a child as well as cement steps which were off the sidewalk.  There is not a marker on the house or on the street to mention Merton lived there.  The neighborhood is scattered with the new style of mansions which are built on small bits of property.  The broad mansions clash with the pristine suburban setting.  They are plastic castles.  Yet, within the neighborhood were other historic and original homes like the one we came to see and I imagined a young Merton climbing some of the old evergreen trees, perhaps even visiting some of the homes where his friends lived within the neighborhood.  We walked around the house and Ma took a few steps up almost into the back yard after I said Merton probably climbed up these same steps. 
Our next stop was Zion Episcopal where Merton’s father once played the organ during Sunday services.   We couldn’t gain access to the church, but walked around and went inside the hall where folding chairs were set up in rows in front of a small stage.  We went back outside and saw a woman approaching and Ma asked me if I thought she worked in the church.  No, I said.  But after we watched the woman walk into the church, I was proved wrong and Ma went up to the door where the woman entered and Ma knocked.  The woman came to the door.  I tried to protest.  “Oh, what’s the harm; we are here and may not be back.” Ma explained to the woman what we were doing (Merton tour) and if possible can we go inside the sanctuary?  The woman apologized and explained she does not have the key.  And I heard Ma say, “But if you did have the key, you’d let us in?”  Of course, the woman responded.  There were head stones surrounding the church.  We wondered if his mother was buried on the grounds…since she passed when Merton was only seven years old.
It was just as well we did not gain access.  I had the tour timed to last a few hours and wanted to get Ma back home before it was dark at five o’clock.  We had time for the last stop which is Corpus Christi church in Manhattan.  It is located at 529 West 121st Street.  This is where Merton was christened while attending Columbia and where he held private masses back in the early sixties when he came back to New York.  Ironically it was the 76th anniversary to the day when Merton was baptized into the catholic faith.  I only found this out earlier in the day and knew there would be an event that day at the church to discuss Merton.   
We crossed over Throgs Neck Bridge, with a view of the bay as well as King’s Point and we discussed Dad who graduated from New York Maritime.  The Cross Bronx Expressway was not too busy and we exited off the last stop in New York, took the Henry Hudson down to 125th and found the small church.  At the end of the street was Union Theological.  The church was open.  We walked up the stairs and I blessed myself with the holy water and we heard the lecture from outside the door.  We weren’t sure what to do, but we stepped inside and took a seat in the last pew and listened.  I grew inpatient since I wanted to get there and see the baptismal font where Merton was christened.  I looked around and noticed the black gate which led to the small room and knew the font was there.  I got up and checked it out.  Sure enough I found it.  I went back and asked Ma if she wanted to stay.  She said it was up to me.  I was thirsty and hungry and said I was ready to leave, but I wanted her to see the font.  We went into the small room.  There is a cross on the wall, confessional booths to the left and there was the font.  Ma was excited and we touched it.  I took some pictures and we quietly moved out from the church and made our way outside.  Mission accomplished, I said out loud. 
It’s difficult to pull my parents out of the house, taking them away from their familiar and comfortable settings.  I respect my mother for taking the trip and being gracious enough to thank me for suggesting the idea and acting on it.  She said, it will be a day she will never forget.     
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Merton’s birth.  I expect there will be others who would take this pilgrimage.  Next year there will be events held at Columbia which I hope to bring Ma to.  Perhaps we can gain more insight into the man and monk and for some an inspiration to follow their calling.

Thank you for reading this.

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