Clevelander to take role of modern-day mystic Sunday at St. Francis

St. Francis Spirituality Center and Project Peace are to host a free, one-man dramatization about Thomas Merton, the modern-day mystic, at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the St. Francis Convent Chapel. The free program is to portray the spiritual journey of Merton and the critically acclaimed writings he produced before his death in 1968.

Actor and playwright James Nagle of Cleveland wrote “Thomas Merton: Alive at Fourth and Walnut.” He has performed the drama at numerous venues, including the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul’s Catholic Cathedral in Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, he performed the play at five cities in New York.

“I got to do it at an international Merton conference this summer in Louisville. They were celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. There were 500 people there from 20 countries,” Nagle said during a phone interview.

The author said he was inspired to research Merton and write the play after attending a series of retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery where Merton lived as a monk, near Louisville, Kentucky. The title of the play refers to the site in Louisville where Merton experienced a spiritual revelation that changed his life.

Biographical records say Merton was born in France in 1915. His father was a pianist and a well-known landscape artist. The family later moved to England, where Merton attended school. His parents died while he was a teen, so he went to live with his grandparents in New York City, where he studied at Columbia University and became a social activist.

With no religious upbringing, Merton studied world religions and met with several leaders of other faiths. Gravitating to the values of Christianity and Catholicism, Merton was known as a pacifist, ecumenist, poet, writer and teacher. Like his artistic parents, Merton also pursued painting, photography and caligraphy.

Nagle said he speaks in the persona of Merton during the play. The first part of his program, “The Search for God,” depicts Merton’s conversion from agnosticism to the Catholic faith. Merton eventually chose a scholarly life as a Cistercian monk, writing poetry, social commentary, lectures, reviews and nonfiction books. Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” was published in 1948.

Merton’s written works are housed in the archives at the abbey in Louisville. Officials there have requested a copy of Nagle’s script, to be included with 19 other plays about the monk; however, Nagle has not been able to provide a manuscript.

“There actually is no script. I have never written the play down or typed it. It’s all memorized. I created it in my mind and in my heart and I just memorized it,” Nagle said.

Having started out as an educator teaching at a high school in Hawaii, Nagle made a career change when he felt a call to become “a clown for the Lord.” He moved to Pittsburgh and prayed for help in organizing and funding a show to coincide with the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The show was called “Clown Across America.”

Prayers were answered when the Pittsburgh business community agreed to pay Nagle’s expenses. He departed Feb. 14, 1976, and gave the program at 76 cities in all 50 states. Nagle said he performed in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and prisons in red, white and blue clown garb.

“Ten months later, I was at the White House for the lighting of the nation’s Christmas tree. That’s where it ended. I had all these wonderful experiences,” Nagle said.

As an actor, Nagle has appeared in more than 40 plays. He also has another production, “Stories from the Road: Encounters with the Living God in Everyday People.” It tells the stories of two real people who inspired Nagle.

While living in Pittsburgh, Nagle also had his own “Fourth and Walnut” experience.

“Everywhere I looked, I saw people shining like the sun. Everybody was smiling and happy. So when I do that scene in the play, I’m not acting. I’m remembering what I experienced,” Nagle said.

After each performance of “Alive at Fourth and Walnut,” Nagle speaks with audience members and passes out a questionnaire to get feedback. An elderly priest told Nagle he felt as if Thomas Merton himself was present, telling his own story. After a performance Oct. 21 at The Pines in Fremont, one of the sisters told Nagle, “You will never know how deeply you touched the souls of the people in this audience today.”

“I say that he was a spiritual giant and at the same time, a very, very human being. I think that’s why people can identify with him. He celebrated his humanity,” Nagle said.