I’m wrapping up what turned out to be a very successful, if quick, research visit to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. I had the delusion that I would have much more time than I did (partly because, in my mind, I didn’t appropriately adjudicate travel-days versus research-days and instead lumped the whole trip together), but nevertheless I was able to do all the research I set out to do and a little more, even if it wasn’t the tons of extra work I had hoped.
I am incredibly grateful for the expert assistance and friendly academic companionship of Paul Peason, the TMC director and archivist, and Mark Meade, the assistant director of the TMC. The TMC is the largest repository of Merton’s manuscripts, typescripts, correspondence, notes, and other materials. There are several other large repositories, including Columbia University and my own Alma Mater St. Bonaventure University, where Merton taught English before entering the Trappists.
One of the projects I am working on these days is the editing of the correspondence between Thomas Merton and his dear friend and literary agent Naomi Burton Stone (who, interestingly, was also the literary agent of other significant figures like Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird). Stone donated her entire collection of material to St. Bonaventure University, so the lion’s share of the manuscripts, typescripts and related material is found in that collection (where I spent the better part of last July researching).
However, I was aware that there were 9 letters missing from the SBU collection and copies of these missing letters, each of which was published in excerpt form in a volume of correspondence decades ago, were held at the TMC. In the process of examining and transcribing those texts I discovered five more letters that I did not know existed, for they were not included in the SBU collection. It’s very exciting to do this sort of work, laborious as it is, it allows me to have an increasingly more complete glimpse into this dimension of Merton’s life.
The other Merton project, the reason for which I was granted funding to make this research trip, was to look at several aspects of Merton’s developing understanding of religious life and how, more specifically, his interest in Franciscan spirituality, theology and philosophy might or might not have influenced that, especially early on. As I continue to work on that area of interest, it becomes clearer and clearer that the issue of poverty (both the evangelical conceptualization and poverty as abjection in a social justice sense) is where the nexus of Franciscan insight and Merton’s theory and praxis meet.
I was able to accomplish quite a lot in that regard, examining the archives of his recorded lectures and conference notes on the subject. It’s not surprising, then, that the one set of hand-written notes Merton had on St. Francis of Assisi is entirely focused on the theme of poverty. What is pleasantly surprising is the way, at least two decades before the renewal of Franciscan scholarship in this area began in earnest, Merton connected (accurately in my initial opinion) the notion of poverty with the Christocentricity of the crucifixion. In a way, Merton anticipated the work of Bonaventurean scholars like Zachary Hayes and Ilia Delio, my own M.A. thesis director. These Merton notes were never published.
The trip was very good and I could go on at great length describing additional discoveries and curiosities in my research, but I realize this is an already lengthy post. I concluded my trip to the home of Bourbon without making it to a new distillery — I suppose I have to save something to look forward to next time — but did enjoy a lovely dinner and conversation with the parents of a very good friend of mine. They happen to both teach on faculty at Bellarmine, so connecting with them was no trouble at all.
I look forward to my next visit to Louisville, a destination that will probably become more and more frequented as I continue working on this edition of correspondence.