Gifts of Gethsemani: Matthew Kelty, Thomas Merton, and the Lessons of Monasticism By Michael Ford

Father Matthew Kelty was a novice under Thomas Merton and later his confessor. I met him when I visited the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in the tree-covered hills of Kentucky to make a BBC program about Merton’s life. I have never forgotten him. In fact, he was the first monk I met when I arrived at the white-faced abbey. Father Kelty was sitting behind the reception desk in the guest house—and it was hard to believe he was 93.

Born in the same year as the monastery’s most famous resident, Thomas Merton, the priest joined the order in June 1960, completed his novitiate under Merton, and later became his confessor. “Merton’s life was a love affair with God,” he told me. “He was a man of God and he realized how funny God was. He was just an ordinary man. There was nothing special about him. He was a true spiritual guide for the times because, through him, many concluded that there was more than what you see. Merton encouraged people to listen to their inner voice and not imitate the behavior of people around them.”

Merton had lived at Gethsemani when the rigors of monastic living still retained a medieval aroma. “It smelt of incense and wet wool,” said Father Kelty. “You know what a dog smells like when it’s wet? That—and incense combined. They didn’t open the windows all winter and they had very little heat. In the cold, wool gets damp and the dormitory was damp. The monks slept on straw mattresses. That wasn’t too bad. They changed them every few months. Merton needed discipline and, as he figured it was good for him, he accepted it. But he suffered from lack of privacy and couldn’t sleep with others because of the snoring, so he had a little cubicle built over the stairway. It was just a room, a hideaway. He was not favored but, from the beginning, his health was poor. He had a sensitive stomach, so he was given special diets. He kept the regular monastic hours. He was very faithful and went to choir. He got up at quarter to three in the morning—may have been two o’clock then.”

Matthew Kelty explained that Merton would never waste a minute and his zeal would put anyone to shame. He read a lot at different times of the day. The monks didn’t look on him as someone being repentant for his past life. He was humble, gentle, and obedient. He could also be British. “The British have a capacity for cutting you down, but they do it with style. He could do it, not very often, but he could do it. He was witty in a British way—it was a bright humor.” Unsurprisingly, he also found Merton to be “very creative,” with a new idea every month for one project or another. He would go to see the abbot, who would listen patiently as he talked and talked. Then the abbot would turn down his suggestion, so “Merton would dry his tears and try again.”

In the sixties, Thomas Merton tended to overdo things but, during our conversation, Father Kelty also recalled the more relaxed side of the man. “He would go out and picnic, drink beer and sort of show off that he was open to anything. But he became more benign, more human. He was a very honest person who didn’t stand out from the other brothers. You wouldn’t know who he was. He wasn’t special in that sense. The proof of that lay in the fact that the monks made nothing of him because he didn’t make anything of himself. He was not our famous writer and poet—or our holy mystic. He was just one of the boys.”

Merton had the hearing of the superiors who respected his intellectual acumen. He was more learned than most in the monastery and could speak many languages. But he did not like to be interrupted. Novices were told never to bother a monk when he was working. They were instructed to leave him well alone. Father Kelty discovered how demanding Merton could be. “I used to have to type for him because he never had a secretary until the last year of his life. He would give me letters to type. You couldn’t read his writing. He was a devil to work for. He would have his manuscript in one place, then he would add stuff and put it on the back of something else which you wouldn’t see so you had to do it again because you’d miss something. His handwriting was wretched, and he’d have a word like ‘Alberquerque,’ which I couldn’t read. So I would have to go and knock on his door. But he wouldn’t like it. He’d look at you like you were somebody your mother had dropped when you were a baby. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. But basically he was a good person.”

Matthew Kelty described Merton as someone who had grown up “ignorant, pagan, rich and spoiled.” He had suffered a miserable, wandering childhood and had not enjoyed a traditional family life. His mother, father, and brother had all died at young ages. “He had a lot of sadness and you’d see it in his face if you knew when to look. Some of his pictures reveal it. There’s a certain sadness in him at the beginning of his monastic life. But all monks have known suffering. That is where they get their wisdom from.”

The abbey had two hundred monks after the Second World War. If you had been through that experience, it wasn’t possible to return to a frivolous life, said Father Kelty. “The monks here wanted something with meaning. Today in society we don’t have that. Some people don’t have a deep thought. Suffering makes us more compassionate people or else it turns you bitter. That was Merton’s key. He used it to become more Christ-like because Christ pointed to the beauty of the suffering in his own life.

“Merton’s life was something like a transfiguration, and he was very grateful to God. If he’d stayed in New York, he’d have been a dreadful person. He would have been a typical Briton in the worst sense—snobbish, smart, wealthy, intelligent and quick-lipped, the worldly type.

“But Merton did not pretend. He tried to see the meaning of what the life here was about. He was real, and his suffering made it real for him. Many people have found God because of him.”

A keen observer of Merton, Father Kelty was an impressive individual in his own right, a renowned spiritual teacher, priest, and counselor. In his nineties, he was still seeking to grow deeper every day in his relationship with Christ, “an ongoing love affair without parallel this side of eternity.” I felt a spiritual connection with Father Kelty and found him to be a totally authentic human being. So I began exploring his monastic journey as well—and I was in for some surprises.

Father Kelty believed that the purpose of monastic life was to discover reality, which removed from your vision anything that was false and fraudulent, artificial and constructed. That was most people’s goal, so monks were not freaks for trying. The Gethsemani community might not have been the group he would have chosen as friends, but they were there as brothers to love. Like him, they were all flawed. You practice love and after a decade or two you get fairly good at it, he said. When you enter the order, you don’t know the landscape of your own heart. Like marriage, it is an adventure of faith, and love is the only quality that makes it workable.

Although he did not deny that monastic living was a serious business, Father Kelty could nonetheless testify to its madness. He said he inhabited a mad house, full of mad men. What could be madder, he asked, than going off into the wilderness, putting up a wall, staying behind it, and keeping the world out? What was even more bizarre was getting up at two in the morning, putting on great cowls and cloaks and spending hours every day singing songs to God in a forgotten tongue and melody. What could be more strange, he went on, than being celibate and virginal, never marrying, drinking beer, or watching TV, yet subject to authority whose whim or wish, order or command is law, binding not only in the practical order but also in in the realm of soul?

“The people who do these things must be out of their minds—or else they are in love,” he said. “They do mad things because people who are in love do mad things. There is no other way that love can speak. This is the language of love. It is not necessary. It is not reasonable. It is not in accord with common sense. It is simply the way of people who are in love.” 

Perceptive and candid, Matthew Kelty looked beyond the theatricality of monastic life. Being a monk was not just his daily performance. In every cowled figure, there was something real and immortal, touched with and possessed by the divine. The monk was wrapped in God’s presence. But yet a monk was also someone shrouded in darkness and within whom strange forces were at war. A monk was a person tossed by moods and emotions, tainted with despair and envy, tempted by pride and power. Such forces could lie dormant until aroused. Only after years of righteous living within the scrupulous eye of a loving community could a monk’s passions be brought into control and his moral life called to order. Then a new aspect of the monk would be illumined, the other side of his being. Having learned how poor he really was, he could rejoice in the love of God and his redemption through Christ: “The experience of God’s love becomes very real indeed and a great sense of compassion for others begins to grow into significant dimensions,” Kelty said. “An experience of compassion comes from having drunk deeply of human misery in your own heart. It is no great trick to accept others once you have accepted yourself. But to accept others without having done the same act of mercy to your own self is simply impossible. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Some likened Matthew Kelty’s style to that of a Celtic monk of early Christianity. He chuckled at the allusion because he had Irish roots himself. His family came to America in the 1840s after the Great Famine and settled in “the Irish hills” of Detroit. Born in 1915, he grew up in Milton, Massachusetts. He developed a love of poetry at school but classes in medieval history stimulated an emerging monastic inclination. He later joined an enterprising and dynamic missionary order, the Divine Word Society. Ordained a priest in 1946, he was sent to New Guinea where he made trips into the bush, gave instruction, offered mass and dispensed medicine. It was a hard, lonely existence for a natural introvert. Returning to the United States to edit the order’s magazine, he found himself drawn to the cloistered life. When publication was suspended because of an office fire, he seized the day and made a retreat at Gethsemani, later entering the community in February 1960.

Over the years, Father Kelty took on a range of roles, from monastery cobbler to director of vocations. But feeling drawn to a deeper solitude, a hermit’s world beckoned. After experimenting with different forms of community life away from the monastery, he received permission to return to Papua New Guinea—as a solitary. He left New York by ship on November 19, 1973, and arrived at his destination on Christmas Eve. For a while he lived in a mission station but eventually had a house on stilts built.

As a hermit on a Pacific island, Matthew Kelty learned the need to listen to the God “hidden in the quiet of your own abandoned heart.” But that could be difficult, even in such an exotic wilderness, because what emerged from the heart was not always good company. “Come into the shambles of my heart, dear Lord; come into the shanty I call home,” he would pray at the time of Holy Communion when he asked God for mercy and grace to heal him. It was not possible for him to tidy up his heart on his own, but it was vital that he came to know it so he could “live in the truth.”

He washed the few clothes he had by hauling water and scrubbing on a board. Fenced in by pineapple plants and banana groves, he stuck to a diet of rice, cheese, fish, and soda crackers (he called them “sea biscuits”) and drew spiritual energy from the wonders of the natural world—suns rising and setting, the sea, wind, stars and woods. There was little else to divert him, and that was the point of being separated from everyone else. So much noise in contemporary living drowned out the inner capacity for dialogue with God. Matthew Kelty concluded that people are by nature contemplatives.

At the time, Papua New Guinea was one of two remaining United Nations’ trust territories, administered by Australia. A year after the monk’s arrival, it achieved independence and self-government. A population of 2.6 million comprised of a thousand different tribes divided into hundreds of language groups. Letters from a Hermit tells the story of his journey into solitude with a flute and a set of books by Carl Jung among his meager possessions. Although he was the only monk on New Guinea, his correspondence from those years reveals he was totally at home with the islanders—real people, “in touch with their heart” and “such a contrast to head-centered Westerners. . . . The whole primitive style was one foot on earth, one foot in the world of the spirit—in everything. What Western man offers them is pretty one-footed on earth and that’s it. Even in religion there is little opening for the mystic dimension, very little.”

The hermit discovered that the people themselves were “of a mind with the monks” and he had come to say to them: “I am with you.” They were spiritual people and everyday life was permeated with religion. In striking contrast to western civilization, whatever the natives did involved contact with the other world, a relationship with the spirits. “They know they have a soul and they live as if the soul mattered.” Papua New Guinea and its “primitive life” actually opened him up to the contemplative life which was natural on the island. He felt he was where he belonged. Nights were superb, dawns elegant, sundown rich. But under the “noonday demon,” everything seemed flat and spiritless, killed and drenched in white heat and light.

Matthew Kelty would spend hours alone on the shore or in his house praying and reading. He thought the need for time and space was a birthright that should always be protected. Everyone required such peace to ponder and dwell, to let things be. Solitude was an opportunity to put the tools down, close the mouth, turn the lights out and the music off, and listen—to the wind, your own breathing, the divine presence in the soul. For him, life was a total gift. We respond by living to the ultimate, he maintained.

After almost a decade, Father Kelty returned permanently to the community in Kentucky, bringing with him the experience of solitude and all that it had taught him. There was something captivating about him and I still think of him. He struck me as such a natural human being and not in any sense artificial; there was nothing remotely institutional about him. His life was a love affair with God. In one of his addresses, he told retreatants: “We’re in this together, honey. It’s a communal endeavor. You’re not going to heaven alone.”

This surely is the secret of Christian living. We have to travel together, helping one another to carry the luggage. I think that, more than anything, what this monk taught me is that to be known and loved by God is all that ultimately matters. He prayed to God that, before he died, he would make at least one act of pure love for Him. He said he kept practicing but believed there was no finer thing to do this side of eternity.

Shortly after noon on Friday February 18, 2011, Matthew Kelty died peacefully in his infirmary room at the abbey following a return from hospital. After Thomas Merton and Patrick Hart, he was one of the monastery’s most famous inhabitants, with his sermons published in several volumes, while DVDs of his life and his chapter talks are on sale in the monastery shop. Yet as he reflected: “We all want to be significant but the contemplative life says that, well we are significant, but that is not really what counts—being famous, well-known or even remembered. To spend a lifetime learning the art of love, and particularly the art of the love of God, is a worthy life.”

Dr. Michael Ford lives in England, where for many years he was a broadcaster with BBC Religion and Ethics. An author of spiritual books and a retreat leader, he specializes in the life and ministry of Henri J. Nouwen. He maintains the website Hermitage Within.

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