Thomas Merton, 100th Birthday of a Trappst Monk…And a Secular Franciscan?

Merton

Today, January 31, 2015, would have been the 100th birthday of Father Louis Merton, OSCO; better known to the world as Thomas Merton. The Catholic, Christian blogosphere is abuzz with reports, stories, and reflections on the life of this Trappist monk, one I read on Crux, by Dennis Sadowski, of the Catholic News Service; another by Margery Eagan, On Spirituality columnist for Crux, and finally a very moving post by Father Dan Horan, OFM on his blog.

I do not know how many will share this opinion, but I think of Thomas Merton, as the one person who brought Christian spirituality, especially contemplative spirituality to the modern American Catholic population. After him, I think we see an increase in the number of books on spirituality, and prayer, geared for the Catholic laity, and new authors, like Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, Richard Rohr, and Emilie Griffin. I know for myself, my spiritual life became much deeper, more enriched by reading his writings. He showed me a path to walk, and encouraged me to seek out other spiritual fathers and mothers, for inspiration and guidance.

I am still discovering new things about Merton, especially as heretofore unpublished journals, books, and essays are becoming public. This has given a much more rounded view of Merton, his life, his struggles, and his achievements. Now there are some facts that I was not aware of until I recently read Father Dan Horan, OFM book on Merton, was that Thomas Merton had some deep Franciscan roots. After his conversion to Catholicism, he felt a call to the Order of Friars Minor, and had applied to the Order, and was initially approved to enter into formation as a friar. Before he was to enter, something happened; scholars are not completely sure what, that caused Merton to withdraw his application. Still attracted to Franciscanism, he found himself at the Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure’s, in western New York. There, he joined the faculty as an instructor in English. It was during his time there, that he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, now known as the Secular Franciscan Order. This bit of information floored me. Now I knew that Merton had a Franciscan connection. When I was once a Franciscan novice myself, and attended some summer classes at St. Bonaventure’s, I daily would look up at a hillside clearing, known as “Merton’s Heart.” But to learn that Merton had been a Secular Franciscan, “Wow!”

Of course, this brings a whole bunch of questions: what fraternity did he belong to? Is the fraternity still in existence? Is the fraternity’s register, with his name listed in it, still available? Did he attend monthly fraternity meetings, or was he an isolated tertiary, attached to a fraternity, but unable to make the meetings? Maybe someday, some scholar, maybe even a Secular Franciscan, will be able to find answer to these questions.

I owe a debt of thanks to Father Louis, for prodding me to go ever deeper into my relationship with God. May he rest in peace!

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