Thomas Merton: Still relevant after all these years?

Thomas Merton

Next week, January 31, 2015 would have been the 100th birthday of the American Trappist monk, mystic, and author Thomas Merton. Despite his untimely death in 1968, his wisdom remains relevant and timely, writes Daniel Horan in America.

Having died suddenly in Thailand on Dec 10, 1968, while overseas to speak at conferences for Catholic monastic communities in Asia, Merton never lived to see a birthday beyond his 53rd.

Though Thomas Merton’s life was short, his output in terms of writing, poetry and correspondence was extraordinarily productive. The diversity of his work makes abundantly clear his importance in a number of areas related to Christian living, creative expression and social action.

His continued popularity is confirmed by his perennial status as a best-selling author, a rare accomplishment. Many of his books have never gone out of print. The depth of his thought and spiritual genius is confirmed by the ever-growing bibliography of new articles and books written about Merton by scholars in diverse fields from theology and spirituality to American history, literature and peace studies.

While a general consensus appears to affirm the enduring status and legacy of Merton’s life and work, there are detractors who claim he is outdated and his appeal overstated.

Among the most recognisable critics of Merton’s legacy and relevance is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the current Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

In 2005, when Cardinal Wuerl was Bishop of Pittsburgh, he chaired a committee that oversaw the production of a new United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which was aimed particularly at young adults.

Each chapter was to include a profile of an American Catholic whose life and work could serve as a model for Christian living. As the author and peace activist Jim Forest recalls in an afterward to his biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, Cardinal Wuerl decided that the profile of Merton originally planned for the catechism should be removed from the draft text.

Among the reasons given was that “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who [Merton] was.”

As both a member of the millennial generation and a professional scholar of Merton’s work, I take Cardinal Wuerl’s remark very seriously. In a sense, he is right. Not many of my peers—let alone people younger than I—know Merton in the same way that previous generations have, many of whom read Merton’s spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain and recognised Thomas Merton as a household name.

Yet in another sense Cardinal Wuerl’s reported view discounted the power of Merton’s true legacy. Merton does, in fact, resonate with the young adults who are introduced to his work, and it is the responsibility of the American church to remedy precisely what the cardinal was diagnosing. We must pass on to the next generation the wisdom and example of Merton so young Catholics can know him too.

As we celebrate the centenary of Merton’s birth it seems fitting to take a closer look at some of the ways Merton can continue to speak to us...

Read full article: Merton (Still) Matters (America)

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