My apologies for the delay in posts to, I have just returned to Albany from Chicago where I was attending the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) Conference and General Meeting at Loyola University Chicago. It was an excellent event, as the ITMS conferences generally are. There are a number of things to discuss and share including a wonderful collection of concurrent papers, plenary sessions that included scholars the likes of Martin E. Marty, Esther de Waal and Douglas Burton-Christie, a roundtable about Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, among others. Perhaps the highlight of the general sessions was the debut performance of eight Merton poems set to a brilliant score — four of the pieces were composed by Alexander Peloquin and the other four were composed by my Franciscan confrere, the very talented Vaughn Fayle, OFM.

The orchestrated performance was titled, “Thomas Merton’s Celestial and Urban Music: A Concert of Thomas Merton’s Poetry Set to Music.” Among those in attendance beyond the more than 250 attendees and participants of the conference was Cardinal Francis George, OMI, the Archbishop of Chicago. There was a 65-piece chorus and orchestra that also included two brilliant soloists.

Words cannot begin to describe the overwhelming emotions felt by the audience last Saturday night while we experienced what was indeed a musical liturgy that invited its hearers and performers to transcend the now and enter a place where Merton’s prophetic voice and Fayle and Peloquin’s prodigious music invited us to reflect on so many things. The eight poems, composed by Merton in 1966, are described as “Freedom Songs,” and have much to do with the Civil Rights Movement and violence in that age, particularly in light of Vietnam. You can read these poems in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions, 1977).

Among the plenary speakers, Martin E. Marty was perhaps one of the most anticipated. A local Chicagoan and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, Marty discussed how Merton’s work and legacy portrays the truest Catholicity of the Church. This Catholicity was explained as contrasting the conventional understanding of “catholic” as “universal.” Marty pointed out that there is and was a latin word for universal (universalis: from unum and vertere) and that when the Fathers of the Church chose “catholic” (from kata and holos) over “universal” it was deliberate. Universal’s etymology stems from terms that denote something of a compass that can be used to create a boundary or delimit space. One can be outside the universal, while Catholic transcends those boundaries and remains entirely open.

Merton’s Catholicity, his willingness to reach beyond the popularly or conventionally conceived boundaries of Western Christianity to enter into real dialogue with others reflects, it would seem according to Marty, the truest affirmation of the creedal promulgation of the Church as “Catholic.” What a wonderful insight to carry into the future! As for those ecclesiastical leaders and others who shirk Merton as irrelevant or unorthodox (whatever that might mean), note well Professor Marty’s points.

While there is much more to share (and I will hopefully post some more reflections and comments here soon), I want to also direct you to the ITMS blog hosted by now-past-president Robert Grip: it includes photographs, videos and other information from the week’s events.

If you are a fan of Thomas Merton or even study his work in a more scholarly setting (or especially if you are engaged in Merton scholarship), you should join the ITMS. It is an inexpensive annual membership that, among supporting the ongoing scholarship and research of Merton’s work, provides you with the quarterly journal The Merton Seasonal and other benefits. The regular membership fee, which has intentionally been kept as low as possible by the ITMS Board for years, is only $25 and students can join with all the same benefits for the ridiculously low rate of $15! You can join here!

Photo: Bob Grip/ITMS

1 Comment

  1. Please send greetings to Fr Vaughn Fayle from Redemptorist friends in South Africa: Larry Kaufmann, Bafana, and me (briefly in Merrivale) Sean Collins. So delighted to read (above) of the collaboration of talent and inspiration along the lines described. Praised be God as we remember each other, with joy, across the globe and in the sweet remebrance of praise and Eucharist. Sean

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