So, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about Thomas Merton in recent days. Preparations and then travel to Chicago for the International Thomas Merton Society conference at Loyola University have necessarily brought the twentieth-century monk to the forefront of my mind. One of the things that I think about rather frequently — and even more so now that I feel the extra duty to be aware of Merton-consciousness in light of my new ITMS responsibility — is how to make sure that the work, thought and life of Thomas Merton is studied and shared by as many people who might be interested.
Merton’s continued relevance is a theme that has increasingly come to the fore, reaching something of a zenith in recent years in part due to then Bishop, now Cardinal, Donald Wuerl’s remarks about why Thomas Merton was removed from the new American Catholic Catechism. The text, aimed especially at young adults, was to include a prominent American Catholic at the beginning of each chapter, which would serve as a model of Christian living.
Wuerl, the chairman of the committee responsible for this project, explained that, among other reasons, “the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was.” Implicit in Wuerl’s explanation, not to mention the misunderstanding of Merton’s own life and work, is the reality that the current Cardinal Archbishop of Washington sees Merton as an irrelevant figure in contemporary Christian life.
This statement predictably outraged scholars and enthusiasts of Merton’s work. But there is both a glimmer of truth (although not quite in the form proposed by Wuerl) in this critique and a significant misunderstanding. The truth comes in the ostensibly poor management of the “Merton brand” by way of effectively communicating the wisdom, resource, writings and story of Thomas Merton to many young people who were not part of the generation(s) that knew the Trappist’s name as a household figure in the wake of the success of his popular books.
Yet, the misunderstanding comes in a twofold form: first, the statement seems to imply that nobody of a certain (young) age knows Merton. As someone born after 1980, I can assure you that is patently untrue (see the photo above taken at a Merton conference 2 years ago featuring just a handful of the under-30 Merton crowd, including me).
Furthermore, just last week I was at the College Theology Society conference talking with a variety of young professors and doctoral students. Whenever we got on the subject of research interests, publications or schedules, I would inevitably mention Merton. Nearly EVERY person I spoke to in passing responded with admiration for Merton and his work. At one dinner table doctoral students at both GTU and Fordham university shared their love for Merton and his work (one even regularly worships at Corpus Christi Parish in Manhattan), yet none of them were members of ITMS (something I strongly encouraged all to do!).
Second, Wuerl’s statement seems to suggest that those who don’t know about Merton yet wouldn’t be interested to know, as if the Millennials (and perhaps the Gen-Xers before them) couldn’t find in Merton a spiritual guide, mentor and model. However, having given a number of public lectures as well as spoken informally with hundreds of young adults, those who are inevitably introduced to Merton always seem to like him and usually read more.
I am entirely convinced that if young people today are not “into Merton” it is only because they have not yet had the opportunity to be encouraged to explore his work. Sure, Merton (like any author) will not be for everybody, but to make a generational statement like Wuerl’s is unfounded and untrue.
Merton continues to be relevant today.
But one cannot be relevant today if no one knows about you and people come to know about you by meeting people where they are and sharing your story. For that reason, I believe that it is important for those engaged in Merton scholarship or those who are simply and personally inspired by his writing and story to share that with others. Encourage them to join the ITMS, to learn about current research and help support the organization that is committed to advancing Merton studies.
Today the 12th ITMS conference begins at Loyola University in Chicago and goes through Sunday. I hope to see many young people in attendance and hope even more that new folks might come to participate in events such as the ITMS conferences. One does not have to be a scholar or academic to attend, you can simply come and take in the papers and discussions. If we all do our part to spread the word, we can help ensure that Merton’s legacy will be passed on to the next generation!
Photo: Mike Brennan/ITMS