Thomas Merton died 50 years ago this week. He was just shy of 54 years old.
I was 18 that year, a freshman in college and surely unaware of his death. Except that sometime shortly thereafter, perhaps inspired by his death in ways I have long forgotten, I picked up his book and read it.
The Seven Storey Mountain.
It is the narrative of his circuitous route to Christian faith and baptism. Merton published it in 1948, a mere ten years after his reception into the Catholic Church.
How and why I read the book is a mystery. I remember no one in my circle of family and friends who would be handing me a book by a Catholic, about a Catholic; many would not even equate joining the Catholic Church with becoming a Christian! The aggiornamento of Vatican Council II (1962-65) had not yet been felt in Kentucky, in either the Catholic or Protestant communities.
Except by one man, Thomas Merton, who had left France (the place of his birth), England, (the place of his upbringing), and New York (the place of his education) to settle in Kentucky, of all places: at the Cistercian-Trappist monastery known as Gethsemane, near Bardstown (the small town famous as the site of My Old Kentucky Home, several whiskey distilleries, and the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the Commonwealth).
In fact, Merton not only embodied the open spirit of the Vatican Council, he certainly was decisive in helping the church, as they say, to open the doors and allow a little sun to shine in.
His book surely did that for me: opened the doors of my mind and the windows of my imagination; for the first time, I saw the glory of Rome as a Christian community and felt the grace of Roman Catholicism as a vehicle of divine mission in the world.
It was the beginning, not of my pilgrimage back to Mother Church, as so many have declared as they walked away from Protestant churches into the Catholic Church, but of my appreciation for all that is true and good about Jesus Christ the Lord as he is believed, taught, and confessed (tipping my hat to Jaroslav Pelikan) among Catholics.
I visited Gethsemane Monastery while a student at Georgetown College. I talked to many Catholic scholars and curators while living in Jerusalem. Half of the books, so it seems, I read while a student at Southern Baptist Seminary were written by Catholics. I spent one semester of graduate studies living in Moreau Seminary and studying at Notre Dame University. I taught one semester at Duquesne University and many semesters at LaRoche College while a pastor in Pittsburgh.
Then came the Academy of Preachers: Fr. Martin Linebach, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Cathedral of the Assumption, Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics, St. Meinrad Seminary, Athenaeum of Ohio, Dr. Michael Connors, Dr. David Shea, Dean Greg Heille, and the steady stream of Roman Catholic students who have come to our National Festivals of Young Preachers.
Did I mention the unforgettable video we made at the 2016 National Festival, an appeal to Pope Francis to host the first international Festival of Young Preachers!?!
Somewhere in the middle of all this, a book by the Catholic scholar Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? prepared me for the second installment of influence from the late, great Thomas Merton; who wrote:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
The words are taken from his book Confessions of a Guilty Bystander (1966), which I have not read, and posted on the historical marker, which I have read many times, at the center of the city.
These words pick up the theme of von Balthasar’s thesis, resonate with the famous “Weight of Glory” sermon of C. S. Lewis, and help interpret my own epiphany: at an airport, somewhere, watching people as they walked to and from their gates, and suddenly realizing that the categories into which I had been taught to think about people no longer controlled my mind.
Lost and saved, friend and enemy, black and white, citizen and stranger, believer and atheist, rich and poor, wise and stupid, guilty and innocent, male and female, sick and healthy, young and old. Or to quote another writer of influence: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (The words of Paul the great apostle of God, writing to the Christians in Galatia halfway through the first century of this common era)
We are all one in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. And thank you, Thomas Merton.