Only 6 weeks ago I received an email from Paul Pearson inviting me to the 11th International Thomas Merton Conference in Rochester USA. While it wasn’t a personal invitation it seemed to me to be so, so I discussed it with my family and made the long trek to the USA.
I wasn’t sure what I was coming to except I knew we would be discussing Merton and his life and work. I knew there would be scholars and academics, experts and guru’s and indeed did find such. But that wasn’t all I found here. I found the spirit of Merton whose love for dialogue and openness seems to imbue this group of people.
No-one here kids themselves that Fr Louis (Thomas Merton) was a perfect saint. All are well aware that, like us, he is a frail and vulnerable human being which seems to be what attracts us to him. There are no glossy images or eloquent sweetness and light spoken about him. He is just a bloke but a bloke who could see into and engage with the divine in others, whose ordinariness drew people to him and out of themselves but didn’t mask that very humanness in himself. I have had a chance to chat to some people who knew him and he was above all else simply human. Fr Jim Conner who was Merton’s Under Master of Novices spoke very candidly and openly about who Merton was, about some of the confict and some of his misdemeanours as did Herbet Mason yet, their underlying admiration and respect for him remains. As does mine.
At the same time the integrity of his thought and writing is such that we are always discovering ourselves in the nuances of what he has to say. It seems that as we see him more clearly as a human being we hear him more clearly in what he says and we see and hear our selves more honestly. In his words we lose a little more of our false self and discover a little more of our true self.
A clear focus for many seems to be Merton’s turn to the East and especially his interaction with and practice of Zen Buddhism. In our modern climate where alternative practices are in vogue Merton’s engagement with Buddhism as practice to enlighten his Christian Monasticsm seems to have preempted our age.
Another focus of the conference was the engagement with other religions, particularly Islam and the Jews. We shared in panels which spoke of these issues and religious services such as the Shabbat (service to usher in the Sabbath) which was moving. It seems again that Merton has shown us the way to dialogue with others, particularly those of the Abrahamic traditions which we desperately need to hear and practice in our fragmented age.
The conference concluded with a Mass presided over by Monsignor Bill Shannon (92) who was the founding president of the ITMS (formed on the 10th anniversary of Merton’s death in 1978). Bill shared a homily which reinforced the need for us to rediscover Merton’s ideas and particularly the need to engage in dialogue with other faiths including secular atheism and finished by saying simply, “It is getting late.”
The mass was moving and very beautiful with wonderful singing and music. Sitting in the chapel of the Sisters of St Joseph surrounded by the stain glass windows depicting women saints was poignant for a church, and unfortunately not just the Roman church, which denies women a formal role.
Later in the day a group of us went to Genessee Abbey for afternoon prayers, another experience altogether which took us back to the middle-ages and a practice of monasticsm we have only read about.
Tomorrow I fly home, a very different person somewhere deep within than the one who came here on the 8th June.