Wednesday, May 27, 2009

spring picnics

In the month of May 1966, Thomas Merton and Margie Smith fell deeply in love.

Thomas and Margie met when he was recovering, in April, from back surgery. Margie, a student nurse, took care of him and they became very close. Merton’s journal from this timeframe expresses his love for Margie while he wrestles with his duties and calling as a priest. All the rules both had to follow.

Margie did not have a car. She had to keep a very rigorous schedule as a nursing student on the wards while studying for examinations. In order to exchange letters, Margie and Thomas marked their mail with “Conscience Matter” on the envelope in the bottom left corner, distinctively. This alerted the monastery mail room to handle the correspondence with care and in confidence. The abbot routinely read other people’s mail, if it was not marked this way, and this was just part of the rules, expected.

Merton called Margie frequently during the months of May and June. He called either from the monastery’s gate house or from the abbot’s clerk’s office, usually during evening meal times when everyone gathered. Margie must have waited by the phone in anticipation. They both wrote frequently.

On a few occasions, they met on the grounds of the monastery. Margie would ride with Thomas’ friends. One day stands out in his journal and he repeatedly refers to the picnic on May 7th with great fondness. We can read what Thomas Merton wrote and see what he deleted since it’s apparent he edited his journal a bit in retrospect.

They had to stop seeing one another, writing, and speaking when a brother alerted the abbot to Thomas’ calls and subsequently when the abbot intercepted a few of Margie’s letters. Neither Thomas nor Margie broke things off based on their own decision. The break in communication, rather than being sudden, actually dwindled over the summer as Margie and Thomas continued to correspond, call, and write using the “Conscience Matter” cloak via trusted friends.

We cannot read what Margie wrote about this wonderful time. Merton burned her letters in the spring of 1968 before he traveled to the Far East. Margie has never spoken publicly about her love for Thomas. She spoke to Merton’s biographer on the phone for a short time.

Merton died in Bangkok in Oct 68 when he emerged from the bath, adjusted a fan, and received a strong electric shock. The world concentrates mainly upon Merton in this story, but Margie’s story must be so wonderful too. She must have his letters still.


  1. What a bittersweet story about inconvenient love. Love sometimes is, you know. When we were looking for something else, love surprises us. When we are too harried or too focused on other aspects of our life, it steals in, quietly challenging us to make decisions we're often not ready to make.

  2. Without a doubt, Margie has cherished those letters, and re-reads them occasionally... real love persists, even when those we love are no longer within reach.