Gethsemani houses about 50 Trappist monks. One of my hosts, Brother Patrick, had been a monk for 60 years. He told me that my godfather was the most marvelous teacher, and he showed me a picture of Fr. Danny, Thomas Merton, and Jacques Maritain talking under the trees at the monastery. Then he took me to my godfather's grave, where I said a prayer.
Thomas Merton, who lived at Gethsemani for almost 30 years, attributes his conversion to Catholicism to Fr. Danny in his wonderful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I was in awe to find myself in the place that Merton called "the center of America" and to see where he had walked, prayed, written, and welcomed the leaders of many world faiths.
Brother Patrick told me that some Catholics thought Merton was in hell, because he had reached out to people of other faiths. Baptists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists including the Dalai Lama had visited Merton at Gethsemani. He believed that although there was only one God, there were many different ways to reach Him.
Brother Patrick had been Merton's last secretary, whereas my grandmother, Ann Skakel, had been his first. Merton would send her drafts of his books and she would type them up. She painstakingly made four carbon copies, sending back two for the Trappist and Archdiocese censors to correct. They were quite strict. For example, Merton could write about peace, but not about war. When Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical "Pacem in Terris," Merton dryly commented, "Lucky he didn't have to submit it to the Trappist censors."
My grandmother kept the original typescripts and had them carefully bound. When she died, she left them to the monastery, and there they stayed for years. The monks eventually changed their minds about keeping them there when they realized that many scholars would want to read them and that most of the scholars were women. Uncomfortable with the idea of women spending so much time with them, they gave the papers to a library in Louisville, where they've formed the basis of the more than 200 Ph.D. theses that have been written about Merton.
Occasional women visitors are welcome at Gethsemani, and in fact there were three of us this time. Phyllis Schiff, the mother of a friend of my daughter, had offered to come with me, saying it would be "a good education for a Jewish girl from New Jersey who grew up keeping kosher." And she had brought a close friend of hers who was Catholic. Phyllis was struck by the signs that were posted in the halls and the cafeteria and throughout the garden: Silence is spoken here. "That's so unlike Judaism; we talk all the time," she said to us. "The whole culture is devoted to noise, to discussion, debate, poking holes in your opponent's positions, even in your own."
"And Jacob argued with God," I recalled. How different from Gethsemani, where the monks tried to find God in peace, contemplation, and obedience.