One of the reasons I came to the Abbey of Genesee was because of a book I’d read by Henri Nouwen: The Genesee Diary. I’m drawn to the diaries of spiritual people, as I try to figure them out, and this one is as extraordinary and honest as Thomas Merton’s were, full of insight and wisdom, but also reality and Nouwen’s own psychological quirks. His spiritual mentor–indeed the major character of that book, besides himself–was a Trappist named Father John Eudes, who amazingly enough, had known and counseled Merton at Gethsemani. An extraordinary man, I thought, to play such a role in the lives of two outstanding writers; and I assumed he had passed on years ago, along with Merton and Nouwen, since he would be in his nineties today. But it turns out Father Eudes is not past tense, but still present; and I had the extraordinary opportunity to sit down and talk with him here at Genesee Abbey.
It was meant to be spiritual direction, so it was a private thing, between him and I. I didn’t seek him out to write about it. But I can write about him. I met him in a little room off the chapel. He sat on a sofa, his walker in front of him: He is quite frail, white hair cut very close to his scalp, a few inches of wispy gray beard, but the eyes behind his spectacles are still sharp, dark, clear. He was not wearing Trappist robes, but an ordinary black shirt and slacks (he confessed later that he had broken his shoulder, and could not manage his habit for a while) He held a small cellphone in his hand, which he glanced down at from time to time, but thankfully it did not go off while I was there. When he took my hand, his grip was strong, and after awhile, I forgot that he was in his nineties. All I could think of was, through this man, my life intersects with those two other extraordinary writers.. Connections, community…
I had my spiritual consultation and recommendations, and they were sound; but he was the one to bring up the guys, Nouwen and Merton. I had been a little afraid to, because sometimes when a person is known for their connection to someone famous…I worried he might be tired of talking about them. He spoke a little about Nouwen, calling him an “interesting, funny” man, a “good sport” who plunged into the less desirable jobs at the abbey’s farm and business. And how he had thought Nouwen would eventually end up at Genesee for good, had he not died—a bit prematurely, from a heart attack—in his fifties. But he talked at length on Merton, his eyes lighting up, and it was clear he still had tremendous affection and regard for him, describing what a personable, lively, friendly man he was, going on about the quality of his writing. And then very downcast, as he described the task of having to identify Merton’s body—“I had to do it, I was the only one who could do it, because I just knew, someone would come along and say it wasn’t really him, that he hadn’t really died…and of course, people did.” I hadn’t heard any of those theories, but of course I had to stamp down the novelist inside me: What a plot that would be, Merton faking his own death!
I decided to gently end the talk just then, because I could see he looked a little fatigued. But I felt full, after leaving him, the same satisfying fullness you might feel after a particularly nourishing and delicious meal. As it happened, I had another chance meeting with him the next night, at the retreatants’ meeting. We sat in a circle around him, but because I arrived late, I had to sit to his extreme right, almost behind him. But do you know, he made the effort to keep craning his head, to look around back at me! I felt very honored to have made the acquaintance of this extraordinary man.