Thomas Merton: The Next Generation

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

5 Responses to “Thomas Merton: The Next Generation”

  1. I think part of the problem is that Merton’s writing is generally pretty deep and so can be pretty intimidating for the layperson to approach. Even his most popular writings, like Seven Storey Mountain, are pretty heavy reading at times. Not to mention the sheer volume that he produced. I mean, where to begin? And then there’s the writings about Merton which are also often quite scholarly and hard to approach.

    For example, I have one nephew who is receiving confirmation tomorrow night, and another (my Godson) who is graduating high school in a couple of weeks. I’d love to pick up some Merton for each of them as a gift, but what would make sense? Kids nowadays seem to have such short attention spans, and spend so little time actually reading. I considered Merton’s “Opening the Bible” because it’s such a short work, but one that was very impactful for me. I also considered James Martin’s “Becoming Who You Are” even though I didn’t find it personally to be all that helpful, but it might be good for a beginner.

    So, what’s your suggestions for introducing someone (particualarly a young person, and not necessarily a theology student!) to Merton?

    Thanks,

    Dave

  2. Joel McFadden Says:

    I agree with Dave that Merton’s writings can seem a bit intimidating. My introduction to Merton was The Seven Story Mountain as required reading as a part of my early formation with the Christian Brothers. I did not like it, mostly I think because I didn’t find much in common with Merton. But, he made an impression on me and I returned to him years later and he has been a huge part of my life ever since. He is like a well that I constantly draw from and his writings have linked me to a ever expanding array of other people who have profoundly affected my life.

    I once spoke with a person who was at least 30 years my senior who was delighted to learn that we both shared a love for Merton. She remarked, “I loved his early books, but really don’t care for his later stuff.” As it turned out, my experience was exactly the opposite. I loved his “later stuff”! In short, I believe Merton can appeal to a wide variety of people for many different reasons. All one has to do is attend a single ITMS conference to see that fact in full flower.

    Peace,

    Joel

  3. I am a twenty-something who has recently returned to the Church after a 5 year hiatus. I credit my return in large part to Thomas Merton. The first book of his that I read was “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” which I stumbled upon at my local library. I was very much into Buddhism at the time, so I appreciated reading a Catholic monk’s favorable essays on Zen. But ultimately, I learned more about Christianity than I did about Buddhism by reading the book. Merton’s words inspired me to delve deeper into the faith of my birth and explore the rich tradition of Christian spirituality and mysticism. I’ve shared his books with several of my friends, all of whom echo similar sentiments after reading him.

    Is Merton relevant to today’s generation of young adults? Resoundingly, yes! For those of us “lapsed Catholics” and wayward spiritual seekers, Merton is the voice calling us home.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Patty! I would also encourage you to join the ITMS if you haven’t already, I think you’d really like receiving the quarterly “The Merton Seasonal” journal and staying in touch with the latest Merton news! http://www.Merton.org for more info.

  4. offerte mutui…

    […]Thomas Merton: The Next Generation « Dating God[…]…

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