|Trappist Father Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century, is pictured in an undated photo. The Vanderbilt Divinity School is sponsoring a series of events Dec. 2, 3 and 5 to honor the centenary of his birth. CNS photo/Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University
The Vanderbilt Divinity School is sponsoring a series of events Dec. 2, 3 and 5 to honor the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic Trappist monk and prolific writer of more than 60 books and hundreds of poems and articles.
For a significant portion of his life, Merton lived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky near Louisville, and a frequent site for retreats for those from this area.
Events are being coordinated by David Horace Perkins, a professor of religion in the arts and contemporary culture at the Divinity School. “This is a celebration of Merton’s ongoing relevance, his spirit and energy, and his many diverse interests, which of course all found a center place in faith and religion,” said Perkins. “He provided a model for many of us who are not Catholic, who are still mightily influenced by him – a model of global citizenship.”
The celebration was inspired by a conversation between Perkins and the Rev. Mark Forester, University Chaplain at Vanderbilt, who were considering ways they might collaborate.
“One day I happened to email him to try to stir the conversation a little bit, and I happened to catch him while he was up at the Abbey of Gethsemani,” said Perkins. “Being in the context I guess, he asked me if I had any interest in Thomas Merton. That just blew the top of the room off in terms of things that we could discuss.”
The two men decided to create a conference that would hold academic and scholarly weight, and, because of Perkins’ focus area, connect Merton and the arts while bringing together people from wide backgrounds who might also want to honor Merton.
“A gathering of a ‘tribe’, so to speak,” Perkins said. “All the folks out there who have read Merton – some of us over many years and for a number of different reasons – and would like an opportunity to commemorate and remember what it is about Merton that was influential to us and life-changing.”
One of those “tribe” members is Father Steve Wolf, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville.
“Thomas Merton was formed in Trappist spirituality of stillness, silence and solitude,” said Father Wolf. “He thought he went to Gethsemani to get away from the world, but in some mystical experiences came to know union with all of humanity. He stayed in dialogue mostly by letters and reading and writing countless articles and books.”
According to Father Wolf, Merton can continue to converse with us, especially in light of all the recent horrific events transpiring around the world. “Wherever we are, we can be alone with God, even on a crowded street corner, because we are all walking around ‘shining like the sun!’” – that last a quote from a mystical vision that Merton had in Louisville in the late 1950s.
“And so we can seek peace even in the middle of the wars of the world by entering into dialogue with those who disagree with us about anything or everything,” continued Father Wolf. “One summer I was allowed to study in the Holy Land, and there read Merton’s ‘Faith and Violence,’ a book that I like to read in the center of human controversy.”
During his earlier career as a CPA, Father Wolf discovered Thomas Merton by accident, when a book he was reading quoted Merton’s “No Man Is an Island.” Intending to give the book to a friend who was going through a difficult time, Father Wolf found himself reading and dog-earing its pages, so he purchased a second copy for his friend.
“While reading Merton, I found myself reading the Bible, and have not stopped,” said Father Wolf. “If I were to spend the rest of my life with only two books, the first would be the Bible and the second would be ‘New Seeds of Contemplation,’ especially the chapter that begins with ‘A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.’ I am grateful that there is so much of his writing that I have not yet read, and that so many folks have so much to say about him.”
The upcoming celebration kicks off at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, with a lecture by Victor Judge, associate dean at the Divinity School. Entitled “Thomas Merton and the Awful Silence,” the presentation will examine Merton’s calling to the craft of writing.
At 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the St. Augustine Episcopal Chapel on Vanderbilt Campus, “Merton and Tao: An Experimental Theatrical Piece Based on Thomas Merton’s ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’” will be presented, directed by Bill Feehley, former head of Belmont University’s theater department.
The festivities continue back at the Divinity School at 3 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, with a reception and opening of the exhibit, “A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photographs of Thomas Merton.” The exhibit will remain open until 7 p.m. when the next event will take place, “Life at Gethsemani Abbey: Poetry of Thomas Merton and Paul Quenon,” featuring readings and commentary by Brother Paul Quenon.
At 8 p.m., Dick Sisto will provide a jazz concert and personal reflection, “Merton’s Jazz and Memories of a Friend.” Sisto, an accomplished vibraphonist whose music Merton was a fan of, will be accompanied by Jeremy Allen on double bass.
All of the above events are free, with no registration required. The final event, at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, is a “Workshop on Contemplative Leadership,” facilitated by Kat Baker of the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions. To register for this event, visit http://vanderbi.lt/leadershipworkshops. For all other information, visit