By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
On December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died. This famous pacifist, Catholic convert, Trappist monk, spiritual writer, and comparative religion scholar has more influence now than when he lived. Brother Paul Quenon, a Trappist monk from Gethsemani Abbey, the same abbey where Thomas Merton lived, shared with Vatican News how the monks there celebrated the anniversary and how Thomas Merton’s memory still lives on.
Br Paul said that the monks at Gethsemani Abbey celebrated the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death during Mass on Monday. During the noon meal, the monks heard a recording of Thomas Merton singing Gregorian Chant. Thomas Merton “loved Gregorian [Chant]. When he was living in the hermitage he used a tape recorder to record numerous chants”, Br Paul said. An Archdiocesan liturgy commemorating the anniversary was celebrated Monday evening. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was joined by the Abbey’s Abbot, Dom Elias Deitz, and other priests from the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Wider influence now
“Merton’s influence is wider now than when he was alive”, Br Paul says. His “legacy seems to expand, and four or five books are published each year…. Of course, Pope Francis’ recommendation of Merton to a joint session of Congress was a surprise and delight. Many Americans had never heard of Merton, but many soon began making inquiries”, Br Paul said. Men and women considering a monastic vocation generally read something written by Thomas Merton. Although there are other authors to choose from, Br Paul says that Thomas Merton is still “prominent” among them. Nation-wide conferences including presentations on Thomas Merton manifest an ongoing, “thriving interest in Merton”, Br Paul attests.
Thomas Merton influenced his own Trappist Order, Br Paul explained. “His emphasis on contemplation and experience in prayer have helped to shift the focus of the Order from penitential life to contemplative living”. Beyond his own Order, both non-Catholic and non-Christian “spiritual seekers embrace Merton as someone who understands them and who can speak the language of the heart. His own broad grasp of the Catholic tradition and his years in the monastery lend a tone of authority to his writing, without being authoritarian”. Br Paul gave a concrete example of his continuing influence in secular circles. A “Buddhist stupa and a Christian labyrinth in honour of the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton” were recently constructed in a park at Spalding University in Louisville.
Lexington, KY and the US remember Merton
Thomas Merton is also being remembered outside of the Abbey walls. Br Paul provided 35 photographs on loan to the Carnegie Centre for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY. “Some of the best Kentucky writers” contributed poetry and prose in an evening dedicated to Merton’s memory at the Carnegie Centre which will host another event connected with the 50th anniversary on 18 January 2019. Since “Merton is an established figure in the ranks of American authors and spiritual writers”, celebrations also occurred throughout the US and articles appeared in newspapers and magazines.