Future of Thomas Merton


By William H. SHANNON

In 1987, fourteen people with a serious interest in Thomas Merton and his writings had met at Bellarmine College (now University) in Louisville, Kentucky. The purpose of their meeting was to consider the establishment of an International Thomas Merton Society. After much discussion it was decided to bring such a society into existence then and there. The first action of the fourteen ITMS members was to call for a general meeting of the Society to be held at Bellarmine in the spring of 1989. The year 1988 was declared a “Celebrate Merton” year. Its purpose was to locate people interested in Merton, acquaint them with the existence of ITMS and its goals, and invite them to participation in the first general meeting. Contacts were made with various journals and a number of articles appeared. I wrote an article for Commonweal titled “The Future of Thomas Merton: Sorting out the Legacy”, in which I expressed the conviction that this man who had touched the lives of multitudes of people during his lifetime had, in the twenty years following his death, expanded his influence to a whole new generation of readers. This present article is a follow-up, detailing what has happened to that legacy through yet another twenty years, that is, forty years after his death.
In May 1989 the first meeting of the Society was convened at Bellarmine College. More than 200 people from a wide variety of places became acquainted with one another and some were able to announce the formation of their local chapters. Since then, general meetings of the ITMS have been held every two years (1991 in Rochester, NY; 1993 in Colorado Springs; 1995 in Olean, NY; 1997 in Mobile, AL; 1999 in Waterloo, ON; 2001 at Bellarmine again; 2003 in Vancouver, BC; 2005 in San Diego; 2007 in Memphis, TN). The 2009 meeting is schedule for Rochester, NY.
These gatherings in so many disparate places are one indication that Thomas Merton and his writings continue to move and inspire a large variety of people, young and older and in-between. The ITMS has taken steps to encourage wider interest in Merton studies. Thus, it established the Daggy Youth/Student Scholarships for young people (ages 14-29), which cover the registration fee and the cost of room and board at the conferences. These scholarships, offering their recipients the opportunity of conversations with Merton scholars and readers, will help to draw another generation within the Merton circle. Besides the Daggy Scholarships, there are Shannon Fellowships which provide, for up to five applicants, a $ 750 stipend to enable them to undertake research at the Merton Center at Bellarmine University or other places with depositories of Merton material.
The ITMS publishes The Merton Seasonal, a quarterly publication, now in its thirty-third year, and supports the publication of The Merton Annual, whose twenty-first year of publication will be 2008. Generally the Annual accepts more lengthy articles; the Seasonal, besides thoughtful, though normally shorter, articles, has an invaluable section in each issue, namely, a listing of recent publications by and about Merton. The Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland has a semi-annual publication called The Merton Journal; first published in 1993, it continues to offer fine insightful articles on Merton, his life, his works, his on-going influence.
There are Merton chapters in many places, not just in the United States but in a remarkably large number of other countries: for example, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Korea, Russia, to mention but a few of them. So many chapters of the ITMS witness to Merton’s transcultural appeal. His writings continue to cross cultural lines and fit comfortably into many varying cultures.
In 1988 much of that Merton material remained unpublished. In the earlier essay I mentioned that the first of five volumes of letters was published in 1985. The other four followed, the fifth appearing in 1994. In 2006 the Cold War Letters, which for many years had circulated privately among his friends in the mimeographed book with the famous yellow cover, was finally published. It consists of 111 letters Merton wrote – from October 1961 to October 1962 – to friends, activists and intellectuals. These letters deal with the problem of violence in the world, especially the violence posed by the terrible threat of nuclear destruction. In 2008 a hefty single volume, titled Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters offers a selection of “the best” from the five letter volumes. Once the letters had been published, a logical next step was to get the Merton journals in print. The time was right also, for Merton had put a twenty-five-year restriction on the publishing of his journals. The first volume of the journals, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation appeared in 1995 (one year after the publication of the fifth volume of the letters). The remaining six journal volumes came to print in a relatively brief period of time: between 1996 and 1998 – the seventh, picking up, as had the first, the mountain symbol of Merton’s best-seller autobiography: it was titled The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey. The following year a single volume, called The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, offered carefully chosen selections from the seven journals. Three volumes of Merton’s monastic conferences, mainly directed at the novices (which in 1988 I considered unlikely to be published because of limited appeal) have seen the light and been well received, with a fourth scheduled to appear in early 2009.
One ambitious project, completed in 2002, was The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, which has proved a helpful guide and quick reference for many things Mertonian. The last twenty years have also seen the publication of Merton’s manuscript The Inner Experience, several biographies of Merton, as well as critical studies of various areas of his thought: Christology, spirituality, war and peace and other areas. Also available are Merton anthologies: some featuring selections from the entire corpus of his works; others, particular areas of his writings. An extensive new bibliography has just appeared as well.
Missing from the Merton scene today are a number of cherished friends, closely associated with him and his writings, who have departed this life and joined him in another world. They include: James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions; Robert Giroux, who edited The Seven Storey Mountain and several other of his works; Naomi Burton Stone, his literary agent, friend, and sometimes critic; Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, his Kentucky neighbor from Loretto; from his days at Columbia College, Robert Lax, Edward Rice and Mark Van Doren deserve special mention. Though not one of those who knew Merton personally, the late Robert E. Daggy must be remembered as the Merton archivist to whom we owe much gratitude for organizing and cataloging the Merton collection at Bellarmine and making its materials available for the use of visiting scholars.
More and more as time goes on, the development of Merton studies will depend on later generations of scholars and students who will come under the influence of this remarkable writer of spiritual literature. His writings on spirituality and their influence on the totality of human life are unmatched by the works of any other writer during his own time and, I would dare to add, well beyond his own time. Clifford Stevens, writing the year after Merton’s death, made the bold statement: “People of the twenty-fifth and fiftieth centuries, when they read the spiritual literature of the twentieth century, will judge the age by Merton.
Merton has always had his detractors. Without a shred of evidence and with much evidence to the contrary, a vociferous few ultra-conservative critics have accused Merton of having abandoned his Catholic faith and turned to Buddhism in the last days of his life. Some of these critics evidently managed to influence the committee of American bishops who had been given the task of producing the new American Catholic Catechism. These critics managed to derail the bishops’ plan to tell Merton’s story in the first chapter of the Catechism. Apparently with little or no contact with scholars well acquainted with Merton’s story, the bishops’ committee decided to scratch him and substituted Elizabeth Seton in his place. Their post factum reason for this switch was that they wanted to preserve a “gender balance” in the Catechism. (Certainly “gender balance” is a desirable goal these days, but hardly a priority one looks for in documents that emanate from the American Bishops’ conference.) The International Thomas Merton Society attempted to get the bishops to reverse their decision. A letter, endorsed by more than 1500 people, was sent to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chairperson of the committee charged with writing the catechism, to Bishop William Skylstad, USCCB president, and to the other bishops of the drafting committee. The letter said, in part:
We are particularly disappointed and deeply disturbed by news reports that the figure of Thomas Merton, who was to have appeared in the opening chapter of the catechism, was eliminated from the final draft. Merton has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience. . . We respectfully request that the committee reverse its decision and restore the material on Merton to its original place in the volume.
Needless to say, this request was not honored and the Catechism that was finally published is the poorer for this unfortunate omission.
Now, as we look back over the forty years since Merton’s death, we can express the confident belief that Merton studies have grown beyond our highest expectations. But more than that, interest in Gethsemani’s famous monk continues to attract an amazing number of new devotees. On April 28, 1968, a young man wrote to Merton that he would like to come to the monastery and be one of his disciples. Merton wrote back: “I just don’t have disciples, don’t look for disciples, and don’t think I could be of any use to disciples.” He tells him to be a disciple of Jesus. “But don’t build on a mud pile like me!” (WF 241-242).
Mud pile or not, Thomas Merton, whether he willed it or not, has through his many writings, become the spiritual director of countless numbers of people. He has guided the spiritual journey of many whose names we shall never know: people who are in communion with the Catholic Church, but perhaps even more, people of various other religions and – most astounding of all perhaps – people with no religious affiliation at all. For many of them, their only link with spirituality is the monk of Gethsemani whose writings have captivated their minds and hearts.
As time goes on Merton’s role as a “spiritual director” through his writings continues to grow, as more and more opportunities to learn about him are becoming available. The number of educational institutions – universities, colleges, high schools – offering courses and seminars on Merton increases steadily. The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, begun in July 1995 in Louisville, Kentucky, offers many resources for people searching for help in building a deeper spirituality. The stated purpose of this Institute is “to awaken interest in contemplative living through the works of Thomas Merton, thereby promoting Merton’s vision for a just and peaceful world.” It strives to achieve this goal in a variety of ways. It offers frequent, regularly scheduled retreats (for small groups) at Bethany Springs (located near the Abbey of Gethsemani). There are also periodic conferences on some topic related to spirituality and the need to bridge contemplative living with life in a secular world that so often is content to live on the surface of life. The Merton Institute also offers a variety of publications. The most influential is Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton; eight of these brief pamphlets have been published and are ideally suited for groups of four to ten. Using Merton’s writings as a starting point, each session seeks to discover the experience and spiritual level of those in the group. As of now, some 1500 groups have found this program interesting and helpful. Meanwhile those who want to know more about the Merton Institute will find their website helpful.
As we move into the forty-first year since his death, we can do so with the confidence that the Merton legacy is secure. Its continued growth shows no signs of abating. What will be the directions that Merton studies may or should take for the future? Now that the letters and the journals have been published, there is need, as I suggested twenty years ago, for a uniform edition of Merton’s many essays and his poetry. For a long time Merton’s poetry existed in unmanageable form in a huge volume without introduction or notes. Happily there are Merton scholars who are working to make the poetry more available and more intelligible to the ordinary reader. Merton’s thinking on the environment and our care of the earth is already beginning to receive serious attention from Merton scholars. The published letters and the journals offer a very fruitful area of study that remains largely untouched. They offer unrivaled opportunities for theses and dissertations, as well as other types of publication.
In 2028 there will be, I presume, yet another twenty-year report assessing where Merton studies have progressed sixty years since his death. Perhaps it will be written by someone who today is a Daggy scholar. I wish her or him well. I feel confident that it will be a report of yet further progress as Merton studies continue to appeal to new generations and ever diverse cultures.
The Merton Seasonal, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 2008, blz. 7-11.