Author and monk Thomas Merton would have turned 100 years old on Saturday. He continues to be considered a leading Catholic thinker of the modern Church, on themes ranging from spirituality and prayer to social issues.
A new book published by Ave Maria Press considers the “Franciscan heart” of Thomas Merton.
ZENIT spoke with its author, Franciscan Father Daniel Horan, about his insights into this element of Merton’s spirituality.
ZENIT: Who was Thomas Merton?
Father Horan: Thomas Merton was an American Trappist Monk and best-selling author who wrote about topics ranging from contemplation and Christian spirituality, to interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, to topics related to social concerns including civil rights, racism, and violence. He died very suddenly in December 1968, but would have turned 100 years old on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015!
ZENIT: What is his relevance today?
Father Horan: Many of the themes that Merton addressed in his writing continue, unfortunately, to be relevant today: war, violence, injustice, and religious intolerance, among others. His insight, always deeply rooted in the Christian vocation to follow the Gospel, has great potential to speak to the experiences of women and men living in 2015.
For example, in an age shaped so dramatically by threats of terror and violence, oftentimes associated with religion, Merton’s lived example of dialogue and genuine quest to understand others offers us a model for living in a pluralistic world. Additionally, at a time in which we are constantly seeking to understand who we are in a rapid-paced digital world, Merton’s call to contemplation so as to discover our “True Selves” in discovering God is a very important and counter-cultural invitation.
ZENIT: How would you recommend someone "getting to know" Merton?
Father Horan: Merton is one of those rare authors whose books still remain in print and continue to be translated into new languages every year. The best way to get to know Merton is to read his writing. There are several, equally good starting points. A classic introduction is to read his own spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which is how most people first got to know him. For those interested in his wisdom and insight on the spiritual life of prayer and the journey to discover God and one’s “True Self,” I recommend reading, New Seeds of Contemplation. If you’d like a glimpse at his writings on social issues, justice, peacemaking, and other still-relevant themes, pick up Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
ZENIT: With Pope Francis on the Throne of Peter, your book on the "Franciscan heart" of Thomas Merton is perhaps more timely than ever. What can you tell us about this "Franciscan heart"?
Father Horan: I think the witness, leadership, and example of Pope Francis has drawn extra and deserved attention to the legacy of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. This is certainly an ideal time to recall the life and work of Thomas Merton for whom St. Francis was also such a formative figure. Merton had a personal devotion to St. Francis, he wrote in a 1966 letter to reporter Anthony Bannon: “I will always feel that I am still in some secret way a son of St. Francis. There is no saint in the Church whom I admire more than St. Francis.”
But in addition to the personal love of the medieval saint, Merton’s theological and spiritual outlook was indelibly shaped by his love of the Franciscan tradition. What I mean by Merton’s “Franciscan heart” is that at the core of some of his most fundamental insights and contributions to modern spirituality stand the wisdom and model of St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Bonaventure, Blessed John Duns Scotus, St. Angela of Foligno, and other Franciscan men and women.
Learning more about the Franciscan roots of Merton’s writings helps us to appreciate his relevance and insights even more, especially in the age of Pope Francis.
ZENIT: Why have you personally dedicated a portion of your life to the study and following of Merton?
Father Horan: I like to say that my scholarly research into the life and work of Thomas Merton resulted from a personal interest grown out of control. I became captivated by Merton’s writings, particularly his journals and letters, which provided a window into the real humanity and pilgrimage of faith he traveled throughout his life. I always felt on an individual level that I could relate to his story, especially as a young man who entered religious life at about the same age, and I also felt that Merton’s contributions to the Christian theological and spiritual tradition remained relevant in our own day – I wanted to help shed light on his work and aid in sharing his wisdom with others.
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The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: