It was on the campus of St. Bonaventure University (back then it was just a college) seventy-years-ago today, February 19, 1941, that Thomas Merton was received into the Third Order of St. Francis, also known as the Secular Franciscans. It was a very significant event in the young Merton’s life, he was 26 at the time, a new college professor (something I can relate to) and still discerning where the Spirit was calling him.
A few months later he would realize a vocation to the Trappist Order, but the beginning of his monastic life would not replace his Franciscan soul (as Sr. Kathleen Deignan has called it). Instead, the Franciscan tradition would remain an influential dimension of Merton’s spirituality, thinking and writing.
The Merton scholar Patrick O’Connell of Ganon University in Erie, Pa., has written this about Merton’s entrance into the Franciscan Third Order:
It is evident that he regarded it at the time as a turning point in his life as a Catholic. It expressed his need to move beyond a conceptual approach to God; it also is a response to the call to follow the way of the cross, and a confession of his inadequacy in doing so; finally it shows an awareness, perhaps still subconscious, that simply to give away a symbol of his possessions, as he did in the ceremony, is not going to be enough for Thomas Merton. This act of becoming a Franciscan then, albeit a Third Order Franciscan, crystallizes issues of identity and vocation that were so crucial for Merton both then and later.
Merton writes about this event in his own journal dated February 19, 1941:
Tonight I was received into the Third Order, under the patronage of Saint Gregory. I was thinking of entering the Order long ago — last fall. Things happened, or didn’t happen and I am not in it until now.
So while we can all celebrate Merton’s monastic vocation, truly his lifelong calling, we can also celebrate the great spiritual icon of the Twentieth Century’s entrance into Franciscan life. Merton made no secret of the importance the Franciscan tradition had to him and those, such as myself, who have studied the developments of his work cannot help but note that strain of Franciscan inspiration and admiration.
Happy 70th Anniversary, Thomas Merton!
(For those not familiar with what the Secular Franciscan Order is, check out yesterday’s post on this blog: “Spotlight on the Secular Franciscan Order“)