Seven times a day they stop what they're doing -- whether sleep or study or manual labor -- to come back here, to this bare beautiful room, to pray the hours of the Divine Office. They're coming now, the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani.

It's as if they're flowing out of some vast medieval darkness. They're in their white Trappist robes and black-hooded scapulars cinctured at the waist with brown leather belts. Some have on leather sandals; some are in Nike athletic shoes. They've come from the cloistered areas of the monastery, where the world isn't allowed.

Each dips his fingers in a font of holy water; traces the sign of the cross on his forehead and chest and tips of his shoulders; moves to the center aisle; bows toward the sanctuary and the Eucharist. There's so little sound, just soft rustling.

It's not quite 3 a.m. Somewhere else bars are closing. Insomniacs must be channel-surfing. Maybe 30,000 feet straight up, a 747 is streaming for the coast. But on this knob of Kentucky earth, inside these consecrated walls, contemplative men, about 70 in number, have risen to volley God's praises across their choir stalls.

"O Lord, open my lips," they begin.

"And my mouth shall declare your praise."

They did it yesterday. They did it last week. They will do it tomorrow.

In a corner of the sanctuary, there's a lighted candle, and its glow is making a wavery pinpoint.

Are they sleepy? Some must be.

They have names like Joshua, Patrick, Timothy, Raphael, Alan. Some are priests, some are brothers. Their average age is 63. Some have been living the monastic life for decades. Some came here after walking pridefully in the world. Until last June, when he died, there was a monk here who was 98. His name was Brother Kevin. Until a few years ago it had been a mark of his honor to be able to get out the abbey mail every day. The entire monastery was pulling for Brother Kevin, born in 1900, to hymn God in the year 2000.

All these men are part of a chain of prayer and community and steadfastness that stretches back nine centuries, which is when their Catholic penitential order -- the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance -- came into being, at a place called Citeaux, in the French wilderness, in 1098.

This is the Kentucky wilderness, 1998. It's true, you can get here by car in about 90 minutes from downtown Louisville. It's true, the Abbey of Gethsemani operates a Web site (www.monks.org). A pretty sophisticated one, too, on which you can do shopping for Gethsemani Farms cheese, fruitcake, bourbon fudge. But that -- the lights of Louisville, home pages -- feels distant as the moon.

"Lift up your hands to the holy place," they're chanting.

"And bless the Lord through the night."

This is the oldest Trappist monastery in the New World -- 150 years old this year, its sesquicentennial. (Trappists are a reform branch of the Cistercian order.) French monks arrived on this spot Dec. 21, 1848. They'd come because of their order's friendship with a French bishop named Flaget who was already in Kentucky and colonizing it to the faith. Those first Gethsemani Trappists, here 13 years before the Civil War, acquired their rolling pastureland and wooded hillside from nuns, the Sisters of Loretto. They built log huts, plowed fields. Eventually they constructed their prayers of permanent stone.

Eventually, the most revered and influential monk in the history of American Catholicism was to live and pray and struggle with his demons behind these walls. His name was Thomas Merton. He's been dead 30 years now. But Christians -- as well as those of other faiths and sometimes those of no faith at all -- make their way to this green rise off Route 247, below Bardstown, in central Kentucky. They're hoping to touch his ghost. They wish to see his grave, walk in the woods where he walked.

Thomas Merton: that bohemian and poet and extreme sensualist, lover of jazz, prolific man, traveler of the new idea. A 20th-century prophet and mystic. Not a theologian so much as a kind of freelance spiritual thinker. Behind these walls, though, he was Father Louis. He'd taken that name, along with his Trappist vows and robes, to proclaim a new life, that he was dead to the secular world. But he wasn't, couldn't be. His mind was too hungry, uncaged. He was too plagued by his humanity. There was ever in him too much need for both deep solitude and the fellowship of man. He wanted stability, and he needed to roam. Among his combinations of contradictions was this essential one: "public monk."

In a book called "The Seven Storey Mountain," published in 1948, considered one of the great spiritual autobiographies of the century, it took the author 372 pages to get to the part in his life story where he could write: "So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom." And it wasn't true.

"Go on then and educate me in pop music," he once wrote to a 16-year-old correspondent. "I don't know much about pop music. I am a confirmed jazzman, but I need to know more about pop also. Like some of those outfits you have out there that I hear such a lot about -- Grateful Dead and all that."

Gethsemani was his home from December 1941, when he entered under the stone archway as a postulant, to December 1968, when he died -- not here but in Asia, attending an international religious conference, victim of a strange and accidental self-electrocution. It only added to the legend.

He authored close to 60 books -- and was dead by 53. Another 30 or so books and 6,000 or so Merton pages have been posthumously published: articles, sermons, translations, journals, correspondence, meditations. How did he get all his writing done and still live the rigors of monkhood?

While he was alive, some of his poetry appeared in the New Yorker and Partisan Review, and his collected poetic oeuvre (from New Directions Press) now contains more than 1,000 pages. His published journals run to seven volumes. There had been a hold on them for 25 years. The final installment has just come out. But it was Volume 6, published last year, in which a holy man told so openly and painfully and courageously of a woman half his age with whom he'd fallen in love, that astonished the world. Really, it shouldn't have.

"What have I to do with all that has died, all that has belonged to a false life? What I remember most is me and M. hugging each other close for hours in long kisses and saying, Thank God this at least is real!' " he wrote in those journals -- and you hear the cry coming right off the printed page.

Merton didn't end up leaving his priesthood and Trappist vocation in the summer of 1966, but for months his soul was on the rack as he tried to solve the great erotic riddle of his life and to reconcile himself to human love and God's. "Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox," he wrote in a book called "The Sign of Jonas." But this was long before he'd met the student nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Louisville with the coils of coal-dark hair whose name was Margie.

In a journal entry dated June 27, 1949 -- after he'd been a monk seven years, after he'd just been ordained a priest -- the questing man wrote: "That is where the graces are for a Cistercian: in choir with the rest, at the common work, in Chapter, reading with the others. And what about me? I wonder more and more about the whole business. Most of the time my mind is in a jam. I make one movement to think about it and everything clogs and I remain helpless and thoughtless and open my hands and sit with my tongue-tied existence hanging on the inscrutable will of God."

One of the primary things Thomas Merton taught us with his millions of words: You bring it all with you into religious life, your whole history. Where better to try to grasp the truth of that than at Merton's old monastery? Besides, with the sort of madness we've had in the country, maybe a Trappist monastery in the semi-wilds of Kentucky isn't a bad place to hide for a few days at the close of 1998. Maybe it can offer its own small clues. The Operation of Faith

In this layered dark, against this holy gloom, these silhouetted men -- their faces unable to be made out, only their voices heard, each with his own story and history and perhaps surprising contradiction -- must be hanging, too, on the inscrutable will of God.

"I cry aloud to the Lord," they're singing softly.

"He answers from His holy mountain."

This room is long and deep and feels narrow as a coffin. It's their abbey church, center of their prayer life, their monastery life. The walls in here are brick and painted white and rise straight up, so unadorned.

They went to bed last night at 8 o'clock -- and are up for the day now, except for the siesta some will take after the noonday meal. When they rose 15 minutes ago, it wasn't from straw pallets in unheated dormitories. Nor had their abbot required them to sleep fully clothed. Nor will their breakfast (four hours hence, at 7 o'clock, when there is light in the world) consist of spoonfuls of applesauce and a chunk of black bread. Those were the old Trappist ways and, you might say, the inhumane Trappist ways.

Brother Raphael Prendergast is here this morning. He is 77. He's been a Gethsemani monk since 1954. He is from St. Louis, out of a family of 13, and once he had a tryout as a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. In World War II he trained on Corsairs as a Marine aviator. He is the prior, meaning he is second in charge at the monastery behind the abbot. He has huge ears, with bristles of white hair on his nearly bald pate. He looks a little like Yoda in "Star Wars," except that he is about four heads taller. A few years ago, when his heart got very bad, he came close to dying. Every day now is a blessed bonus. Sometimes in his dreams Brother Raphael can see the numbers and the street names on the trolley cars that carried him as a boy along North Grand Avenue in St. Louis.

He may be a monk but he is also someone who grew up crazy for sports, especially any team connected with St. Louis. Later today, when there is free time, he will lead a guest into the Scriptorium, where the Louisville Courier-Journal has been laid out on a long oaken table. He'll turn to the weather charts on the inside of the metro section. "See, cooler, told ya, just like I thought," he'll say, elbowing the visitor. But he won't be able to get the sports news, because almost always the sports and entertainment pages -- frivolous things -- are removed before the day's edition gets placed in the Scriptorium.

But monks, just like anyone, find their ways, and so do you think for an unholy minute that a St. Louis Cardinals fanatic in a Trappist robe was going to allow himself to miss out on the most exciting home run summer in baseball history? He followed the progress of Mark McGwire. "It's life, old man," he'll say with a little heh-heh when he's pushed for details of his spying on events in the world.

Psalm 7 now. The verses aren't stern in this darkness; they're scary.

Lord God, if my hands have done wrong,

If I have paid back evil for good,

I who saved my unjust oppressor:

Then let my foe pursue me and seize me

Let him trample my life to the ground

And lay my soul in the dust.

Brother John Zuber is singing them. He's 36. He's from Ohio. He believes none of his siblings have ever gotten it: what he's doing leading the Trappist life. He is a short, bearded, bespectacled and intense man. Every day he prays for an answer to a question: Why did all his close friends from high school end up destroying themselves on drugs, and he got delivered to Gethsemani? He doesn't have the answer yet but every once in a while he gets edges and corners on it. He's been praying to know the answer for nine years, which is how long he's been in the monastery.

Later today he will profess this, unflinchingly: "I can say hope. To say I will remain in this monastery, no, I can't say that. As a person, I think you say hope. There's not certitude. It's hope. I think it's hope more than faith. Hope of grace, hope of perseverance. Hope is so big here. It's so essential to living the life. And that's another thing. You have to die to the monastic life. There's a process. It's almost a necessary disillusionment. But as you get older, if you can keep with it, there's also a wisdom."

He'll also say: "There've been moments here when I've almost lost my faith. I felt there wasn't a God. There was so much doubt. I mean, if there wasn't a God, this place wouldn't make any sense at all -- but what would make sense for me?"

This first hour of the Divine Office is nearly finished. In two more hours these monks will be back in this prayer space for Lauds. They'll come again at 7:30 a.m. for Terce. Midday will mean Sext. In the afternoon -- at 2:15 and 5:30 -- they'll be in their choir stalls to sing the hours of None and Vespers. At 7:30 p.m. they'll come for Compline, final hour in the Liturgy of the Hours. And then they'll go to bed. So they can get up at 3 a.m. To glorify God again. They'll be silent for most of this day, speaking when it's necessary. They have not taken a vow of silence -- they're just being obedient to a spirit of silence, listening for an otherly voice.

Whatever else they might be engaged in -- processing Christmas food orders; working in the monastery barns; taking classes on the church fathers -- they'll halt it at the scheduled hours to come here. The bell homing them to this bare beautiful room began tolling 900 years ago on another continent.

"The life of each one in this abbey is part of a mystery," Thomas Merton once wrote. "We all add up to something far beyond ourselves."

Something else he wrote. He put it in a private letter to his abbot, on Passion Sunday 1954. The abbot of Gethsemani then was a man named Dom James Fox. He is dead now. It is important to know that nearly the whole time he was a monk, Father Louis struggled terribly with Dom James over issues of obedience and control. Theirs was a hugely complicated father-son relationship. But the monk, who was so famous by then, wrote this letter, which until now has never been published. It was found by a reporter in the abbey archives:

"I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself. . . . Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly. I do not openly allow myself -- not consciously -- to sin in this regard. But I am in the habit of letting my resentment find every possible outlet and it is such a habit. . . . I am not kidding about how deep it is. It is DEEP."

Wasn't he only proving again his humanity? Lighting the Way

There's a saying among people in religious life: "The habit hides a multitude of sins." It has several meanings, but the central one is this: Priests and nuns and brothers and monks are just people. They have the same obsessions and torments and dreams and doubts and vanities and petulances and seething angers and momentary kindnesses and large failures and half triumphs. Sometimes they have a lot more frailties that the rest of us. Why should we persist in thinking them different, in imagining them to be something more or less than they are? It's foolish to think that goodness -- or evil, for that matter -- comes any more naturally to their lives. Most priests and nuns and monks and brothers would say of themselves pretty quickly that they're ordinary human beings trying to work out their salvation -- whatever the word means, precisely -- within the context of a celibate life and providential grace and a calling that they feel comes from above. You can think of that as misguided. But for us to try to put them on either a pedestal or a lower plane is to demean their humanity in subtly cruel ways.

This year has been a commemorative one for Trappists throughout the world, but nowhere more so than at the Abbey of Gethsemani. To help celebrate the cluster of anniversaries that 1998 represents, the monastery has co-produced a beautifully illustrated history, "The Abbey of Gethsemani." The text is by a Kentucky journalist named Dianne Aprile. Her apt subtitle: "Place of Peace and Paradox." The author chronicles the story of how a party of 44 French monks from a 12th-century monastery in the Loire Valley started out on foot and landed here after months of hardship. (The word "Trappist" takes its name from the Abbey of La Trappe in France, which mounted a movement in the 17th century for a more strict observance within the Cistercian order.)

It's odd to think that this placid corner of Kentucky holds what is possibly the second most famous piece of Catholic real estate in America, maybe second only to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Merton, of course, had a lot to do with putting Nelson County on the map of Christendom.

"The Seven Storey Mountain" sold 600,000 copies in its first year. Americans proved surprisingly hungry to know about lives behind monastery walls. On one day alone, 10,000 orders came into the New York offices of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The publisher had wondered whether the book could break even. One of the people pushing hardest for its publication was a junior editor at the firm named Robert Giroux. He and "Tom" had been classmates in the '30s at Columbia University. It was at Columbia that a hedonistic young man -- who'd grown up in Europe, the child of artists -- had converted to his faith. A few years later he had entered Gethsemani.

When "Mountain" came out and began to stagger booksellers with its sales, the New York Times refused to put it on its bestseller list. It was a religious book.

It isn't quite accurate to say that Merton's life story, which still sells in copious numbers, led America to discover monasticism. Really, World War II did. Gethsemani was already beginning to overflow when Merton's book was published: GIs returning from carnage had been provided the necessary hints from beyond.

(Merton, in his journal, writing of this postwar rage to go off and become a monk: "Physically, the monastery is in a splendid solitude. There is nothing to complain about from the point of view of geography. One or two houses a mile and a half away and the woods and pastures and bottoms and cornfields and hills for miles and miles. And we huddle together in the midst of it and jostle one another like a subway crowd and deafen ourselves with our own typewriters and tractors.")

There have been a lot of Merton biographies over the years, but the best is still Michael Mott's 654-page chronicle, published in 1984. It's titled "The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton." Mott, a retired English professor who lives in Williamsburg, says all he could do was provide the "best evidence" on a paradoxical life. "My God," Mott says, "the man remained an enigma to himself."

Mott says it's the monk's humanity and ability to be honest that so touches people -- "but also there's a real immediacy about him. I'll read a Merton book, for example. Boy, this is the key. He's talking just to me. We're talking together as I read this. He's spot-on.' Then I'll come on another book. And I think that's the key."

Another part of the appeal, according to Mott, is that "he's always revising his ideas. It's the endless search: Who am I? Why are we here?' People relate to that. He's rehashing his whole life, which he does about every 10 minutes in his journals. The notion of obedience and what it really means, for instance. He's not ashamed to say, I wrote that book when I didn't know anything.' "

Robert Toth is the executive director of the Thomas Merton Center Foundation at Bellarmine College in Louisville, the main repository of Mertoniana. A visitor can see there, in glass cases, the monk's silky habit and his blue denim pearl-snap-button monastery work shirt, with his laundry tag on it. His laundry number was 127.

Toth says he's astonished at the numbers of people still interested in the monk. Maybe it's the millennium. "Maybe the notion of popular spirituality fits in. People in the world seem interested in crystals and all sorts of things. They're looking around for something to grab in these weird times. When they land on Merton, they discover something really substantial. It clicks. We can see our way out of it -- the whole mess -- when we read Merton."

Maybe we can't see out of it as much as we sense there's someone there ahead of us with a flashlight and courage.

Some of those who've made pilgrimages to Kentucky this fall have probably stood at the corner of the busiest street corner in downtown Louisville to read a plaque. "A Revelation" is the heading. It tells of a "Trappist monk, poet, social critic and spiritual writer" who had an epiphany on the spot on March 18, 1958. In his book "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander," Merton described what happened:

"In Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holi ness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream." The Spirit of the Desert

The abbot wears penny loafers. The abbot grew up the son of a lighthouse keeper and is rather laconic. The abbot has a big laugh and is very likable. The abbot has been known to take a spin around the monastery on Rollerblades. The abbot is also known to be a sound businessman who has his institution in very good financial shape. The abbot, who is Canadian, came here in 1958, after college, having read nearly all of Merton. Merton then was the master of novices, one of the most important jobs in the monastery.

The head of Gethsemani is in his spare, woody, quiet office inside the cloister. It feels like a bishop's office, except that this man isn't presiding like a bishop. What Abbot Timothy Kelly is impressing a visitor most with right now is his honesty and directness and humility. In oblique and direct ways, this must bear on the life of Father Louis.

"Well, there was that fabulous mind of his, always with insights," says Kelly. One of the things he remembers vividly from his time as a novice studying under Merton was the freedom to say he might want to leave. "No way was he trying to sell the life. He wasn't trying to make anyone who'd gotten here think they had to stay."

He says that Gethsemani's 31-room guest house is always booked up a year in advance. "It's an encouragement for us." He is working his fingers along the edges of his chair. "It makes us feel better."

The visitor is a little surprised. Feel better?

"Well, you know, that our life has a certain broader meaning. That this is not just some selfish self-absorbed kind of thing."

But doesn't he know that on his own? Don't they all know it?

"I'm not so sure. You do have doubts from time to time. I guess we need to be reminded like anybody else." He laughs. "Wouldn't it be terrible if we were all so sure of ourselves?"

It's part of the 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict -- from which Trappists formulate their lives -- that the stranger at the door is always welcome. He may be Christ himself. Trappists never turn away any visitor.

Vocations of late have been "very poor," he says. "It's troubling. We've always had people knocking at the door who want to come and live the life, not as visitors, as postulants. About a year and a half ago, it just seemed to begin drying up. It's not really a life you can advertise."

Sometimes he wonders now: "Have we fallen from our pristine beauty?" And just when he wonders it, he remembers this: "There was certainly a lack of humaneness. There was a lot of psychic sickness in that old Trappist life. Modern Trappist life is a simple life, an austere life. It's rigorous, but it's not closed. There's more light in it. We're trying to live the spirit of a desert existence -- maybe you could say that."

The big laugh again, coming from this small, laconic man. "We have all the human needs. Please try to say that about us." The Woman

To study pictures of Merton in the last few years of his life, in and out of Trappist garb, to listen to audiotapes of his sermons, is to be intrigued by a stolid, grinning monk who seemed to have a peasant's back and huge forearms. There was his high-timbred voice. There were his small feet and short legs. Work clothes appeared to fit him terribly. One of the monks who live at Gethsemani, Father Matthew Kelty, has said that "you could tell Father Louis by his walk. He had a rather rapid walk, but not altogether measured and orderly." Yes, it must have been a kind of window on all that was roiling inside.

But the most intriguing thing in the pictures of Merton in those last few years of his life is his mouth. It is so sensual-seeming. It's as though it wants to work constantly. New York publisher James Laughlin, who was Merton's close friend, and who's now deceased, has written of how he'd come to Gethsemani to visit the monk and would get the abbot's permission to take him outside the gates. Merton would properly leave the grounds in a clerical suit, carrying a satchel that presumably contained books of prayer. They'd get a few miles off the property and Merton would instruct Laughlin to stop the car. He'd run into the woods and emerge in Levi's and leather. Then they'd spend all day in country bars, with Merton buying everybody beers and talking nonstop. The man was such a prodigious drinker -- usually of wine, but whatever else he could get.

On his 50th birthday Merton wrote in his journals how he had always used love badly in his early life. He'd taken advantage of women sexually. He was ashamed.

In March 1966, the monk went to Louisville for a back operation. He'd been living in a small hermitage on the monastery grounds, having gotten permission from Dom James Fox to move out of the abbey's main buildings. He wanted more solitude.

The nurse-in-training came in to rub his back, give him a sponge bath. It was a kind of coup de foudre, as someone said: "love at first conversation."

He fought it, he embraced it. "There is no question that I am in deep," he wrote on April 27. The next day in his journals: "If I believe in love and in M., am I willing to face all the consequences frankly and despise the ridicule, the criticism and the injury without in any way cheaply giving in?"

Back in his hermitage, he is writing secret letters, he is going to rooms in the abbey to make furtive calls to her. He is conscripting friends to come to the monastery and drive him to Louisville on false pretenses. He is loathing himself. He cannot stop. He is beginning to wonder if somehow this isn't in God's plan for him. You get the sense of a man who wishes to be caught. And who has a compulsion to write it all down.

On May 12, 1966: "The only thing to do is to take all of it with a good heart and not fear the pain that must come with it."

A few days later: "What I wrote yesterday was in large part a shameful evasion." Ten days later: "We got ourselves quite aroused sexually last Thursday and since then I have suffered a great deal of confusion, anguish, indecision, and nerves." Three weeks later: "I wonder what all my reasonings and resolutions amount to!" By the end of the summer, when it has started to cool -- not what he feels for her, but the eroticism of it: "Was I being faithful in an obscure way to some other and more inscrutable call that was from God? Somehow I can't help believing that I was." He is coming to a realization that he is a monk in love who cannot leave his vows. Most of all he realizes how human he has been acting. To be human is to do some sublime and stupid things -- sometimes simultaneously. "I see that I am floundering around in the dark, and need to pray and meditate a great deal. And that it is true that this summer I have done some very foolish and dangerous things."

At an earlier point, his phone calls having been discovered and reported to the abbot, he had faced Dom James -- with whom he had so many struggles -- and confessed everything. A year later, still loving her so deeply, still wishing to do what God wants of him, he writes of "a real sense of being flawed and of needing immense help, pardon -- to recover some capacity to love God." He is both grateful and chastised, proud and humiliated.

Margie Smith went back to Ohio and married a doctor and raised sons. In all these years she has never once spoken publicly of Merton. Even Michael Mott, the authorized biographer, with access to all the Merton papers, with his prodigious research, never met her. (They spoke on the phone.) She has painted, she has taken advanced studies in nursing, she has kept up with the Louisville friends who were close to Merton. She has declined to become part of a culture in America that would reward somebody with millions for writing a book titled "I Was Thomas Merton's Secret Love." Death in Bangkok

In the fall of 1968 he left on a roundabout trip for Asia. Merton visited other monasteries in America, and there was much speculation, even in the secular press, that he might leave Gethsemani. He needed more solitude, he often said. He had brought the whole world to his doorstep, in a way. Jacques Maritain had come to Kentucky to see him. And Joan Baez. And Daniel Berrigan. He was spiritually and intellectually restless.

Was he actually going to leave Gethsemani for another monastery? The answer died with him.

A Bangkok conference brought together monks from East and West. On Dec. 10, Merton gave one of the principal addresses, although he didn't give it especially well, nor did it go over so pleasingly. He spoke on Marxism and monasticism. He seemed distracted, weary. He sort of trailed off at the end and said he'd just "disappear." He went back to his room -- and that is where they found him several hours later, on a terrazzo floor, with a standing fan diagonally across his body and a huge brown streak halfway up his side. There was the smell of burnt flesh in the room. Apparently, he had stepped from a shower and had come in contact with a faulty electrical cord. He was dead 27 years to the day he had entered monastic life.

The head of the Benedictine Order, Rembert Weakland, who was presiding at the conference, gave him absolution.

There were bizarre rumors and theories of suicide, of CIA involvement.

They brought him home, here, to a place called Gethsemani, named for agonies. They buried him in the monastery churchyard, under a red cedar: a small white cross, amid the rows of other small white Trappist crosses: Father Louis Merton.

"There is no easy way out of love," he once wrote in the journals. He was talking about Margie Smith, but he must have been talking about God's love as well. All you can do is try to be honest and to follow, even -- or especially -- in your madness. Because God is known to write straight, but with crooked lines. April 1954 letter used by permission of Merton Legacy Trust and the Abbey of Gethsemani. CAPTION: Thomas Merton -- bohemian, sensualist and America's most revered monk -- lived, prayed and struggled with his demons behind the walls of the Abbey of Gethsemani, below. "I resent and even hate Gethsemani," he wrote in a 1954 letter. "I fight against the place constantly." ec CAPTION: A morning fog and sunrise offer a contemplative setting for two Trappist monks at prayer in the Gethsemani graveyard after their 5:45 a.m. Lauds service. ec CAPTION: The monks in the Kentucky monastery eat modestly; this breakfast consists of a piece of bread with jam, an orange and a cup of coffee.

ec