The thirteenth general meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) concluded Sunday morning with the celebration of the Eucharist at which John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, presided and preached. Preaching on the readings for the day, Bamberger encouraged the congregation of ITMS participants and attendees to seek the place of God within us. Drawing on the imagery of a nucleus that holds a cell together, Bamberger explained the significance for identifying one’s true self – the way of life exemplified by St. Paul’s statement about how it is “Christ who lives in me” from the second reading – and then living in such a way that one’s actions reflect that true self and its authentic values.
The previous day began with a plenary session focused on Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. The panel session included those who knew both spiritual writers personally as well as those who have worked on biographies of Nouwen. The rest of the day included concurrent paper sessions on themes such as Merton’s spirituality of the inner life, Merton’s poetry, the influence of the Carmelite tradition on Merton’s thought, Merton and young people, Merton as an intellectual critic, among others. Additionally, there were concurrent workshops that invited participant reflection on pedagogical themes for teaching Merton, approaches to prayer, and discussions about Merton’s writing.
The highlight of Saturday was the final plenary session and keynote address delivered by Ron Rolheiser, OMI, a theologian, best-selling author on spirituality, and current president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. Perhaps best known for his 1999 book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Rolheiser spoke on the topic: “Merton, Solitude, and Difficulties in Being Present in the Now.”
“We live in a culture which is a conspiracy against solitude,” Rolheiser began. “We try to be attentive to everything,” he added, “I’m not sure that we’re attentive to anything.” Rolheiser’s point, one generally accepted by all who are scholars and or practioners of a spiritual tradition, is that our hurried, over-stimulated, and typically hectic lifestyle is not conducive to developing a practice of prayer and solitude.
Rolheiser defined solitude as “being inside the present moment” and aesthetic such that “we’re able to give the world the gaze of admiration.” Some of the cultural factors that “conspire” against solitude stem from our misunderstanding of solitude as something we can simply “turn on or off” as we please and as “something that we can do and continue living the way we’re already living” as opposed to something we do that changes us and our practices.
The plenary lecture, which was co-sponsored by Sacred Heart University and open to the public, drew a large audience.
With the close of the 2013 conference, Merton scholars and enthusiasts alike are looking forward to June 4-7, 2015 for the next ITMS general meeting, which will take place at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, and celebrate the centenary of Thomas Merton.
This post was concurrently published at America Magazine.