Thomas Merton may have been the most influential American Catholic author of the 20th century, and some of his most spiritually formative years were spent at St. Bonaventure University. It seems only fitting that the scenic university in Cattaraugus County will host the 15th general meeting and conference for the International Thomas Merton Society from June 15-18.
"We're really excited about hosting this," said Sister Margaret Carney, OSF, STD, president emerita of St. Bonaventure University. "You can see the building he taught in, the building he lived in, the trails he walked on. You get a little closer to his life pre-monastery when you visit St. Bonaventure University."
Thomas Merton was a member of the St. Bonaventure University faculty in 1940 and 1941. The friars in residence at the time offered him significant direction and support in those years right before he went to Kentucky to become a Trappist monk. He went on to write more than 60 books and hundreds of poems touching upon everything from spirituality, to civil rights, to the nuclear arms race.
"The time he spent here at St. Bonaventure formed his foundational understanding of Catholic theology, and friar scholars took time to mentor him," said Sister Margaret, who noted that Merton was influential in life and was also an important voice after his death in 1968. "He was a voice of Catholic monastic spirituality, a voice of someone concerned about the Vietnam War and the beginnings of racial tensions in this country, a voice exploring what Eastern Monasticism has to teach us."
In December of 1941, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists). Although there were certain times of the day devoted to silence, he lectured novices at the monastery. The monastery made allowances for the number of people who wanted to come and confer with him about theology, spiritual life or resistance to the war, according to Sister Margaret. "The paradox is, he was a voice out of a place of silence, and that voice captured the world's imagination about the riches of Christian spirituality. I think he made monastic life attractive in a culture that seemed to have nothing to do with these ancient practices."
The four-day conference will include artistic events, lectures and discussion. Sister Margaret looks forward to having people from across the United States discover the university's library which has so much of Merton's correspondence and manuscripts. "We think that people closer to home may not realize that this extraordinarily influential voice of Catholicism spent significant time here. Anyone who's really interested in his work or his writing, it would pay them to come down and spend a couple of hours in our library."
This will mark the first time in decades that the International Thomas Merton Society is having its biennial conference at St. Bonaventure. Between 200 and 300 hundred people will attend, including scholars, teachers and enthusiasts. Registration is required and organizers are able to accept one-day registrations on a last minute basis.
"It's good for the university in that summer is a really lovely time on the campus and because our own student population is not there, it becomes a wonderful place for conferences on any kind of topic," said Sister Margaret. "We'd like more and more people to recognize that the university is capable of hosting. It also brings people who have not been to the campus to realize that we have a very significant collection of Merton material available."
For more information, visit http://merton.org/2017/default.aspx.