A mystical experience of everyday life: Remembering Sister Suzanne Zuercher

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“God wants you to publish my book.”

So said Sister Suzanne Zuercher the first time I met her about a year ago at a meeting of the Illinois Thomas Merton Society.

This is not the first time I have heard this opinion expressed. I am a publisher and I do publish books on spirituality. And a lot of people believe that God wants or even tells them to write their books, so it is not surprising that they would also think that God would direct me to publish it.

Just for the record, this statement does not convince me to publish a book. In fact it usually has the opposite effect. I figure if God wanted me to publish a particular book, he also would have notified me. At least a heads up by e-mail or text. But this has never happened, not even the time I published a new translation of the Bible.

I admit I am mystically-impaired. To my knowledge I’ve never had a direct communication with the divine. No appearances by the Blessed Mother or her son. No signs in the sky as to what I should or should not do with my life. So excuse me if I’m not tuned in to which books the Almighty might want me to publish, and I certainly don’t trust the idea that he would direct an author to me.

But this time, for some reason, it was different.

First of all, Sister Suzanne is a pretty persuasive lady. When I met her she was 83 years old, a Benedictine nun all her adult life, the former head of a high school, a psychologist, life coach, and spiritual director, and the noted writer of several books. She is also an expert on the Enneagram and on Thomas Merton’s writing. Plus she has a great sense of humor, even about her belief that God wanted me to publish her book, although she claimed she truly believed that.

Second, she had written an interesting book about Thomas Merton’s love affair a couple of years before he died with a young nurse half his age, whom he referred to in his journals only as “M” for Margie. To this day, only a handful of people really know who she was. A book about Thomas Merton and sex? I was interested, whether God was involved or not.

So after reading her manuscript I agreed to edit and publish her book. Then it turned out that Sister Suzanne was in a big hurry to get it published. Merton’s 100th birthday is in January of 2015, and she wanted the book out before then. I’m not sure she told me God wanted it published so fast, but Sister Suzanne certainly did. As I have mentioned, she is very persuasive, so I put her book at the front of our pipeline and began work on it.

The book was very well written, but it was an odd book for several reasons. Suzanne had never met Merton, much less Margie, yet she insisted that because she had done a book on Merton’s Enneagram she knew how he thought. Not only that, but she had only one side of the story, Merton’s. Because he was who he was, Merton wrote all about his feelings for Margie in his journal. In fact he obsessed over their relationship, reflecting on their love and what he should do about it. He put all this in his journal but directed that it not be published until 50 years after his death, which means that it was not available until fairly recently. The letters that Margie had written to him, however, Merton had burned before he went to Thailand for a conference at which he was electrocuted by a faulty fan. Margie, for her part, never talked about their relationship. No one knows for sure where she now lives or even if she is still alive. She would be in her seventies now.

But Sister Suzanne felt she understood what the two of them had gone through and how much their love for each other had affected Merton’s vocation and spiritual maturity. She knew this, she told me, only because she herself was a vowed religious who had to deal with same issues that Merton did. Because she and Merton were on the same point of the Enneagram, she insisted that she could explain to others what had happened between the two.

So I put the book on the fast track and we published it earlier this year. While the book was in the final stages of typesetting, however, Sister Suzanne was unexpectedly diagnosed with serious cancer. I was able to get the book printed and copies sent to her before she went in for her operation. I am told seeing the book gave her great pleasure. She never really recovered and died peacefully on June 14, 2014.

I now know why God wanted me to publish her book.

Suzanne Zuercher’s book, The Ground of Love and Truth: The Relationship between Thomas Merton and the Woman Known as “M” was published under the In Extenso imprint in April 2014.