Brother Patrick Hart and the Back Seat
Thomas Merton was fascinated by what he termed the “special modality” of the Jesuits: “supernatural teamwork yet ability to freelance as a commando.” In a 1965 letter to Brendan Connelly SJ at Boston College, Merton confessed to having a “romantic notion of the Jesuits” resulting from what he thought was their defining mission: being “a flexible instrument in the hand of God … sometimes a terrible vocation.” (The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal, Harvest/HBJ, 1990, p. 271)
Merton then concedes the point that all members of a religious order, including his own, are in the same kind of band and “in some way instruments. And we all have to be virtuosos at taking a back seat when necessary, way back.”
This letter is in a collection that was selected and edited by Merton’s former secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO, who died on February 22, 2019 at the age of 93. He was expert at taking a back seat, a seat he occupied for the first time in 1968 when he was asked to serve as Merton’s secretary in what would be the final months of Merton’s life.
Until his recent death, Brother Patrick has been central to the dissemination of all things Merton. Open any of edition of Merton’s journals or letters and Brother Patrick’s name will be on the cover. Open any book about Merton, his life, his thoughts, his influence, his mysticism, and on and on, and the chances are that the introduction or foreword will be written by Brother Patrick Hart.
The current edition of The Merton Seasonal, a publication of the International Thomas Merton Society, which Brother Patrick co-founded in 1987, contains many reflections on his life and work, and unfailing generosity. Over and over again he is described as a valued, respected, wise, funny, and thoughtful member of a very dispersed family of readers, the people who follow these kinds of “bands” with great attention. It is through the work of Patrick Hart that we get to Thomas Merton, and it is through the work of Merton that we discover an incredible network of innumerable writers, thinkers, mystics, and saints. Book leads to book, leads to book. And on it goes. Open the cover, turn the page, and you’ve entered the library of the communion of literary saints.
On the only occasion that I drove him, on a cold afternoon in November 2000, Brother Patrick was not in the back but the passenger seat as we drove in the direction of Merton’s hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani. He was fascinated by the car’s GPS system. “Monk’s Road,” he read on the screen. “We’re ‘here’,” he said, pointing to the screen. “We’re ‘here,” he said pointing to the road we were driving along. “And we’re ‘here’!” he said, arms in full “Let us pray” mode. “Wonderful!” he concluded.
Jonathan Montaldo worked extensively with Brother Patrick on multiple volumes of Merton’s journals. I’ll leave the last words to him. “The father of our best years, he rests awhile in our hearts, always only passing through, leaving behind his gifts of joy and peace, urging us to do more and better work.”