Today I spoke at the Thomas Merton Centennial Celebration, held on the last day of Merton’s centennial year, at the Frazier History Museum. This event also inaugurates the Frazier’s exhibition, Thomas Merton: A Familiar Stranger, which will open on Merton’s 101st birthday tomorrow. Here is my address:
The novelist, Walker Percy, once taught an entire undergraduate course in English literature based solely on exploring the first sentence of famous novels – with the insight that those first words contain the core of all that novel teaches.
Thomas Merton took just three sentences to tell his story in The Seven Storey Mountain, that 1948 classic autobiography. It begins vividly with these telling sentences:
“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
During his historic address to a joint session of Congress Pope Francis chose the icons of President Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton to speak to the best in American culture and the cultivation of the American dream. He quoted a substantial part of those opening words of Merton’s autobiography, in fact the 2nd and 3rd sentences.
Then the Pope added: “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
In these four descriptors, Pope Francis catalogues the life and contributions of Thomas Merton. He captured Merton’s spirit, not only as a person of artistic talent and social activism, but also for the Church, which he loved and served as the Cistercian monk Father Louis, as he is for ages to come identified on his cemetery marker alongside Gethsemani’s Chapel.
The four descriptors each deserve a longer telling but let me list them again:
- A man of prayer, whose community life in Kentucky’s Holy Land, embodied the contemplative spirit for which our present culture yearns, even without always being able to identify what is missing
- A great thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for the soul and for the Church – one who ponders before he speaks – another good lesson for our age;
- A man of dialogue – who both clarified his own convictions and came to others with both ears open to learn and share;
- A promoter of peace – who was courageous enough to identify forces for violence in his own heart at the beginning of his biography and so in humble frankness could walk with others along a path of peace.
I was asked to speak to the interconnection of Merton, Pope Francis, and the Church. We need only look to Thomas’ first three sentences in his autobiography published almost 70 years ago and the recent words to Congress of Pope Francis still four months new.
Telling too are the two short paragraphs by Pope Francis about these four icons of American culture at the end of his address to Congress. Permit me to use them to bring my brief remarks to a close:
Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.