Friday, February 27, 2015

Thomas Merton's 100th Birthday (Plus One Month)

(A month ago, the Norbertine Community of Santa Maria de la Vid celebrated Thomas Merton's birthday with an inspired presentation by Rev. Brian Taylor, former rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.  If you missed the talk, here is a write-up by one of our guest authors)

By Jennifer Murphy-Dye

Happy 100th Birthday, Thomas Merton!
Did you know that January 31, 2015, was Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday? Upwards of 130 people filled to overflowing the conference room at Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey to honor the memory of this holy and inspiring man on the anniversary of his birth.

Rev. Brian Taylor
The morning presentation began on a humorous note, with Norbertine Oblate Meg Ashcroft thanking everyone for coming in spite of the snowy winter weather, quoting from the first part of Merton’s famous prayer, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” Meg then introduced the Rev. Brian C. Taylor, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande who served as rector of St. Michael and All Angels Church for 30 years. Brian admitted that he is not a certified “Mertonologist,” but was introduced to Merton through his writings. He shared an opportunity he had to spend the night in Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Our Lady of Gethsemani Trappist Abbey in Kentucky, a place where Merton prayed, studied, and wrote – prolifically!

Merton authored seventy books during his twenty years in the monastery, including compilations of his poetry. Brian drew upon these writings, interspersing biographical information with quotations from Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, along with verses from Merton’s books of poetry. The breadth of Merton’s writing is awe-inspiring, covering topics from contemplation, Eastern thought, and monastic life, to social issues like war and poverty.

Participants were spellbound as a recording of Merton’s last public talk was played. The prophetic last words of his address in Bangkok, Thailand were “So I shall disappear.” After speaking at the conference on December 10, 1968, he died of accidental electrocution or a heart attack that followed. He was 53 years old. Brian spoke about five attributes of Merton’s life: authenticity, contemplation, social engagement, creativity, and humor. After offering examples of each, listeners were asked to share in conversation “Which of these attributes speaks to you about your own life experience at this time, and how?” The room was abuzz with many conversations which connected with Thomas Merton’s spiritual journey.

Merton could be both serious and humorous simultaneously, Brian pointed out. He played an audio recording of Merton speaking about how many towels a person really needs (two!) and details about what to do with towels after taking a shower so as not to be wasteful – all as a prelude to a talk about monastic life. He also commented on America’s relationship with football: “Football is one of the really valid and deep American rituals. It has a religious seriousness which American religion can never achieve.” Always, Merton’s reflections are food for thought and discussion.

Abbot Joel Garner
While many books about and by Thomas Merton can be found in The Norbertine Library, Brian recommended that anyone interested in learning more about Merton could begin with The Merton Reader. In reference to the crowded room at the Abbey, Brian quoted Merton: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.” Another highlight of the morning was the opportunity for a period of contemplative prayer during which the sense of solidarity among those present deepened in the silence.

As noon approached and the snow began to melt, Abbot Joel Garner, O.Praem., thanked everyone for joining in the celebration of Thomas Merton’s impact on so many people’s journeys of faith, past, present, and future.

(The author coordinates community outreach for the Ecumenical Institute foir Ministry in New Mexico. She was recently elected as chair of the board of the New Mexico Conference of Churches).. 

No comments: