Oct 19, 2009

Bishop Duhart, the Death of Merton and the Vietnam War.

It's rather strange and mysterious how these postings take on a life of their own. Terence Weldon of Queering the Church responded to an earlier post of mine yesterday on the death of Thomas Merton by quoting from The Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, the autobiography of Rembert Weakland, who was present at the Bangkok conference where Merton died (And William Lindsey of Bilgrimage started the whole discussion by an email remark). This brought me back in time to my very early youth when as a young aspirant for the Catholic priesthood I made my way to Thailand in 1970 to teach in the village schools of Northeastern Thailand. This was only two years after Merton's death in Bangkok and the shock of it was still fresh in the minds of Catholics in the country and churchmen in particular, who felt a particular remorse over the incident (as if personally responsible for the faulty electric fan), though Merton was not regarded fondly by said churchmen both because of his ecumenism and his stance against the Vietnam War.

Bishop Duhart, the first bishop of the diocese of Udon Thani, Thailand, lived in a simple ramshackle, wooden house on a dirt lane in the northern part of the city about a mile from the Cathedral of St. Mary's. This photo of a northern Thai house is far more elegant and sturdy looking that the Bishop's residence, which looked as if it had jumped out of the pages of Charles Dickens. The house literally tilted to one side, staircase and all, and appeared ready to collapse, but the good bishop only laughed when I first visited and, pounding the walls, said cheerily, 'it's all perfectly safe."  Clarence J. Duhart was a good man of deep spirituality, ascetic ways, conservative views, strong opinions and a surprising open mindedness and capacity for change. He lived alone in his residence, no assistant, no hovering attendant priest or monsignor, because he didn't have any. All the priests of his diocese were Redemptorists (as was he) and lived within their own communities.  The Bishop lived alone with a mangy dog and a few adopted cats. His office looked like the  dinghy sitting room of one's dotty old Aunt Martha, the eccentric relative we have all heard about who never throws anything away. Papers and books were stacked to the ceiling in every corner and it was difficult to find any place to sit down. The Bishop had no car or limousine, but puttered about town on an old Vespa, and for the required forays into the villages he used a landrover parked at the Cathedral. For his food, he made a simple breakfast in his 'kitchen' and for other meals ate frequently at the street side foodstalls. He was a model of simplicity, poverty of spirit and holy dedication.

I was sharing a beer with him late one night in his residence when Bishop Duhart talked of the death of Thomas Merton.  He explained that there were anomalies surrounding the death that had never been adequately explained, including the rumors of voices coming from Merton's room prior to the body being discovered (which has been reduced to 'a shout' in the official version). The Thai police being as they were at the time, incompetent and easily corruptible,  conducted no formal forensic investigation and it seemed expedient at the time that the issue be resolved as quickly and neatly as possible. But doubts had lingered in the air and the good Bishop had heard  disturbing rumors. I should point out that Bishop Duhart's diocese of Udonthani contained the largest US military airbase outside of Vietnam itself and an enormous (and notorious) underground intelligence bunker the length of three football fields, the technology of which could smell out a waterbuffalo from hundreds of miles away (or so said the boast) and relay this information to pilots in the air. "We can shoot anything that moves, anything that sweats." The bishop was in touch with numerous military and intelligence personnel, and something about the death of Merton, of whom he was not fond,  did not sit well with him. 

Just for the record, I have no personal emotional investment in the issue of Merton's death (unlike some deeply felt convictions about JPI). I just find it an interesting sign of the times that we could even consider such thoughts, and the memory of those times brings back to me just how radical Merton was in so many ways. Bishop Duhart felt Merton had made himself a prime target by his criticism of the Vietnam war and "Bangkok is not Yonkers," as he liked to say. The idea of an assassination, rigged to look like an accident,  is not at all that far fetched, even though the natural explanation of a faulty fan is less improbable.

Bishop Duhart himself was conflicted about the war and we used to have many spirited discussions about it. He gave me a book to read, The Cross and the Bow Tree, a Vatican initiated examination of the Church in Vietnam written by Italian priest, Piero Gheddo, which contained so many lurid tales of Communist atrocities in North Vietnam, almost all of which were later discredited. When I expressed my opinion about the shoddy scholarship of the book, and the evident bias, ignoring any and all evidence of slaughter and atrocities by US and South Vietnamese forces, he would shake his head sadly in acknowledgment. Then he would tell me of the incidents of communist infiltration into his own Catholic villages and the deep psychological suffering and conflict this was causing the villagers.  His people were experiencing the realities of communist oppression first hand. And yet the horrendous nature of the US conduct of the war seemed impossible for him to excuse on simple just war principles of proportionate means. At times he would pound the table and say, "These people need to be told!" referring to antiwar protesters. Then he would add with disarming candor, "But I'm not quite sure what to tell them." He was in an anguishing situation for a pastor, ministering to hundreds, if not thousands of young Catholic servicemen from the airbase, some of whom would admit to him the practice of dumping bombs indiscriminately out in the countryside on the way back from a bombing mission. "How the hell can that be ethical?" he would ask in anger and in distress. This is why the outspoken criticisms of Thomas Merton goaded him so, pricking his own conscience, but exasperating him as well, because Merton was not in the thick of it like the good Bishop of Udonthani. A part of him, I suspected, felt Merton got what he deserved for opening his big mouth. But the more fair-minded, decent side of him felt we hadn't done enough to investigate the true cause of death. Instead, Merton was tidied up and flown home on an air force plane in the company of soldiers killed in the war.

Bishop Duhart died in 1998 at the age of 86, having spent 50 years of his religious life as a missionary in Thailand. In the last two years of his life, he went totally blind, a trial from his Divine Master he accepted with equanimity and joy. His successor, Bishop George Phimphisan, tore down the ramshackle old house and, quite sensibly, built a modern new residence adjacent to the Cathedral. Bishop George also bought himself a car. Modernity had arrived to the diocese of Udonthani, as indeed it should have, but a mist of nostalgia wafts its way over the bustling city of the Northeast, a longing for the simpler days of Bishop Clarence J. Duhart.

I'll end this post with a very moving, sane and balanced account of Merton's last days, taken from the website devoted to Merton, Louie, Louie.

On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Merton made his last journal entry, and said Mass at St. Louis Church in Bangkok. Merton had been invited to the Bangkok conference of Benedictine and Trappist Abbots. He left for Samutprakarn, 29 miles south of Bangkok, for the Sawant Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center, arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two.

On the 2nd day of the conference (December 10th), Merton presented his paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspective”. The paper had been on his mind for many weeks, and he was somewhat nervous by a Dutch television crew that had turned up to film his lecture. (His abbot had ordered him to avoid the press.) Merton’s paper dealt with the role of the monk in a world of revolution …

“to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until evening, and concluded with the words:

“So I will disappear.”

He suggested everyone have a coke.

At around 3 PM Father Francois de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door, but there was no response. At 4PM, Father de Grunne, worried that something was wrong, looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. The door was forced open.

There was the smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. The fan was still electrically volatile.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of his head. [see footnote]

The priests gave Merton absolution and extreme unction.

Merton’s body was dressed and laid out, and the abbots attending the conference maintained a constant vigil for him.

“In death Father Louis’ face was set in a great and deep peace, and it was obvious that he had found Him Whom he had searched for so diligently.” (Letter from the abbots attending the Bangkok to the Abbot of Gethsemani)

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam.


beth said...

I agree that there is still some question surrounding the death of Thomas Merton. After all, this was 1968, the year of the assassinations of RFK and MLK. Merton was becoming more popular and more outspoken against the war. Whoever (whatever?) considered RFK and MLK a threat, could have easily seen Merton in the same light.