Beyond his prolific publications, we know Thomas Merton for his vast, diverse readings and massive output of correspondence. This session explores perspectives on peace, race, and ecology that Merton shared in his apostolate of letters. It connects these views with reading materials that informed his thought and helped address his recipients’ immediate concerns about those social dilemmas. It also highlights how his responses spoke beyond their immediate context and, as Daniel Berrigan stated, timelessly “unmasked the spiritual forces which lie under the appearances of things” and remain at play in our own time.
Gordon Oyer is the author of Signs of Hope: Thomas Merton’s Letters on Peace, Race, and Ecology and Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest, which reconstructs Thomas Merton’s 1964 retreat for peace activists. Over the past decade he has presented papers at several ITMS and Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland conferences, and he has published articles in The Merton Annual and The Merton Journal as well as book reviews for The Merton Seasonal. Oyer received his MA in history from the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Louisville, KY.
Thomas Merton’s appreciation for the work of notable literary artists of the southern United States and Global South is well-documented throughout his writing. Using the broadest of criteria, Merton, by virtue of having found his only stable earthly home in the hills of Kentucky, can also be identified as a “southern writer,” in whose works evidence of a deep affinity with the voices of the expansive South can be heard. In this talk, I hope to explore some of the classical and contemporary particulars as well as the implications of a poetic and spiritual connection between Merton and other writers of a compelling, enigmatic body of literature.
Dr. Deborah Kehoe is a lifelong resident of Mississippi, born and raised in Jackson, now living in Oxford. She took a PhD in English with a concentration in twentieth-century literature from the University of Mississippi and is retired from a decades-long career of teaching rhetoric and literature in the red clay hills of her native state. She is a former member of the ITMS Board of Directors and current co-editor of The Merton Annual.
Since His Death in 1968, Merton’s Catholic identity has been regularly questioned, both by those who doubt the authenticity of his Catholicism given his commitment to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and by those who admire Merton because they see him as an aberration who rebelled against his Catholicism. In my presentation, I want to talk about how thoroughly immersed Merton was in his Catholic identity and to explore what we can learn today about what he can teach us about a Catholicism simultaneously rooted in tradition and open to the world and to others.
Dr. Gregory K. Hillis is Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. His doctoral research was on early Christian theology, with a particular focus on St. Cyril of Alexandria. In the last few years he has turned his attention to the life and writings of Thomas Merton. He teaches a popular undergraduate course on Merton and has delivered lectures around the United States on Merton’s theology. He has written both academic and popular articles on Merton’s life and authored the recent book Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Identity (Liturgical Press, 2021).
The Polarizing Conflicts that divide the Catholic Church and social life are widely recognized but poorly understood. Thomas Merton understood what we face as a crisis of authority that has far-flung implications and whose fullest dimensions have come into view only in decades since he died. We will explore the crisis of authority as we now experience it in 2022, and we will look to Merton for wisdom about how we can resolve the crisis.
Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical Press, 2018).
Surrounded by suffering and death, we believe in redemption and new life. Besieged by every form of war, we hope for peace and the coming of God’s Kingdom. Where is war present in your life? Is it only experienced “out there,” or can it be found “in here” as well? Have you identified an enemy to destroy? Are you sure that enemy is not yourself? Excerpts from Doug’s play “Merton and Me – A Living Trinity” and these words of Thomas Merton will guide our reflection: “Life and death are at war within us. As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die.”
Douglas Hertler (aka Doug Lory) is a professional actor, playwright, retreat leader, and NYC tour guide. He also works at Fordham University School of Law as an actor/educator. His one-man play “Merton and Me – A Living Trinity” debuted in the fall of 2018 for the Corpus Christi Chapter of the ITMS. Doug spent the month of January 2020 living with the Trappist community of Mepkin Abbey as a monastic guest and will be performing his show there in February. He also serves on the board of the American Teilhard Association. His website is www.mertonandme.com.
Over the years many of Thomas Merton’s visitors and friends commented on his sense of humour. With the seriousness of his writings this humour can all too easily be overlooked. This presentation will explore Merton’s sense of humour from his pre-monastic cartoons, through his correspondence, journal entries and recordings, to the stories told by his friends and brothers. Merton’s sense of humor was a way for him to critique the world, humorously warning readers of our propensity to “wear our mitres even to bed” and reminding them of his own need for beer!
Paul M. Pearson is Director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky and Chief of Research for the Merton Legacy Trust. He is Resident Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and served as President for the 10th administration. Paul is a founding member of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He edited Seeking Paradise: Thomas Merton and the Shakers, A Meeting of Angels: The Correspondence of Thomas Merton with Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, Thomas Merton on Christian Contemplation and, most recently, Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton's journey to Alaska, a sojourn of seventeen days, has been rendered mostly as a "blip" within his remarkable biography. Yet the mysterious frontier suddenly surfaced to captivate him. Though short in duration, Merton's experience of the vast terrain, along with the talks he gave, were profound in spiritual insights. This presentation will explore that untold story, along with visual images of the places Merton experienced and photographic images taken by Merton himself.
Kathleen Tarr, longtime Alaskan, lives and writes under the Chugach Mountains in Anchorage. She is the founder of the Alaska Chapter of the ITMS and author of We Are All Poets Here: Thomas Merton’s Journey to Alaska – A Shared Story about Spiritual Seeking (2018). Her essays have appeared in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (2015) and Merton & Indigenous Wisdom (2019). She is a member of the ITMS board of directors, PEN America, and the Alaska Historical Society. She draws inspiration from contemplating the spiritual geography of mountains.
On June 27, 1949, Merton was allowed, for the first time, to venture outside the Abbey of Gethsemani’s gated enclosure to walk in the woods alone. His writing and his spirituality changed forever as a result. In Thomas Merton's Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise, author Monica Weis notes, "Once beyond the monastery walls, Merton's heart soared." Why? Perhaps, after being doused in words for years, suddenly he could share an expansive, silent space with God and just listen. This session will explore what Merton found beneath the branches, on the hills, and in all of nature: a sense of transcendence.
Sophfronia Scott is a novelist, essayist, and leading contemplative thinker whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Her latest book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton, received a Louie award in 2021. Sophfronia’s other books include Love's Long Line, and This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son Tain. She holds degrees from Harvard and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sophfronia lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and is the founding director of Alma College’s MFA in Creative Writing, a graduate program based in Alma, Michigan.
In a 1966 Commonweal article, Merton describes a time when “almost nothing is really predictable … almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is at the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that … most cannot even believe that it is there." Is there a more apt description of the situation we face today? How then can we fashion a personal response to the "new normal" that is unfolding? With Merton as our navigator, is there a way to discover clarity, meaning, authenticity, and, yes, even beauty in these confounding times?
Judith Valente first began reading Thomas Merton shortly before beginning her career in journalism at the age of 21 at The Washington Post. She subsequently worked for The Wall Street Journal and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. She then covered religion as an on-air correspondent for PBS. She is the author of two collections of poetry and several spirituality titles, including How to Live: What The Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community and The Art of Pausing, which she coauthored with Brother Paul Quenon.
As participating readers of his powerful gift for spiritual direction, even in absentia and posthumously present, already know from their experience of his writings, the most significant forces in Thomas Merton’s own spiritual formation came from his reading and pursuing of intersections and convergences with those whose influence shaped his ever-organic selfhood and its transcendence. In many ways profound and providential resonances, his “double image,” Denise Levertov, like Merton, creates poetry which serves as spiritual direction. Their friendship creates a pas de deux for those inclined to join in “the general dance” of the Spirit in the cosmos.
Lynn R. Szabo is a devoted scholar of the poet, mystic, and political activist Thomas Merton. She is the editor of the first comprehensive selection of his poetry, In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions, 2005), and is Professor Emerita of English Literature, Trinity Western University, near Vancouver. In her retirement, Lynn serves as a spiritual director, a mentor to writers and young professors, and a facilitator of study groups for the National Council of Jewish Women. Her decades of studying poetry, especially Merton’s, are one of the pleasures not interrupted by her more recent life as a wheelchair navigator!