Right around this time sixty-five years ago, Thomas Merton’s brother John Paul died at sea after his warplane crashed. I read of his death in Seven-Storey Mountain, the memoir of Merton’s early life. Thomas read about it in a telegram after his Lenten cloister ended at the abbey.
I knew someone died in Seven-Storey Mountain because I had flipped to the end and seen evidence of “his death”; I didn’t, however, discover the antecedent for “his” until much later. I was sad to read of it, because John Paul was, in the writing of his brother at least, innocent.
I have never lost a loved one to war, and I’ve never witnessed war close up. That’s not the case for many in my country, those who came here to escape war, those whose loved ones engage in military service, those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose that technically I have grieved for them on days in which we commemorate our war dead or on days when I’ve heard a compelling report of the suffering of the innocents. But I have never grieved the loss of a loved one to violence over which someone somewhere had some degree of control. I’ve never felt the direct sting of the struggle of nations. I am, I suppose you could say, a different kind of innocent—the kind that’s more naive than guiltless.
Before Merton recounted the death of his brother, he recounted his brother’s baptism, hinting that he had an inkling that the occasion of John Paul’s impromptu baptism might be their last moments together. I’m told that soldiers sometimes make serious, life-altering commitments just before shipping out, and John Paul made two: he married a girl, and he converted to Christ. Thomas wrote of the baptism with the kind of nervous excitement you imagine an older brother bringing to such an occasion for his younger brother. He crammed a years-long catechism into a couple of days. He advocated for his brother’s baptism to his superiors. He geeked out over the things that were particularly important to him though not particularly relevant to baptism. You can picture the barely-contained zeal to convert, set against the shucksy simplicity of a wet-behind-the-ears younger sibling. These two were no strangers to the vicissitudes of life, and in a real sense—judging at least from Thomas’s memoir—they didn’t have much of a life together, but in the end they acted to type as adult brothers often act: enthused, endeared, mildly paternalistic, oddly clingy.
And then John Paul was gone, only the latest loved one whom Thomas lost. I often wonder as I read this book why it created such a stir in its day—it’s so Catholic, so East Coast, so personalized, so, so, so. But even as I wonder such things I find myself envisioning the Kentucky winter that melts into spring, speaking my peace in conversations about faith, grieving the loss of a mother, a father, a brother.
Over the course of writing Deliver Us from Me-Ville I’ve taken to thinking of Thomas Merton as one of two patron saints of the Greatest Generation, the generation that persevered through World War II. Merton is the one who survived; Bonhoeffer is the one who did not. In reading Merton’s memoir I think I better understand—despite all the uniquenesses that distinguish his story from any other—my grandparents and the world they bequeathed to us.