Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thomas Merton Center and Libraries at Bellarmine University


There is a neologism in the English language, which I recently learned called a "snowclone." Yes, the "l" is supposed to be there. A "snowclone" is a word or phrase that is "instantly recognizable" and often quoted or misquoted, and sometimes altered for one's specific needs. So when I offer up "WWTMD?" most of you should recognize the "WWJD?" ("What Would Jesus Do?") provenance, based on a 114 year old book called "In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?" by Charles Sheldon, and later popularized in the 1990s by Dan Seaborn and his bracelet wearing youth group in Holland, Michigan. But the "WWTMD?" snowclone refers to our present topic: Thomas Merton. "What Would Thomas Merton Do?" That's a good question! We know that he did a lot, and that he spent a good deal of time in Kentucky, which is why Kentucky, and specifically Louisville is a prime spot for Mertonians and other visitors interested in the late great monk.

But before I dig too deeply into Merton and the Mertoniana of the day, let me back up and show a bit of the Louisville context. On the corner of a street in downtown Louisville, I think it is 4th Street, there is an historical marker which indicates where Merton had one of his major epiphanies, which was a moment he recognized that he "loved the world." His time in Kentucky was also marked by his time spent at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. The Thomas Merton Center, which is located at Bellarmine University in Louisville has come to be the official repository of Merton's artistic estate. So a visit to see Mertoniana is a visit to Bellarmine. In these photos you will see various parts of the university, specifically outside of the library.

This very interesting statue is of the Cardinal Bellarmine himself, riding on his trusty steed, named Veritas. Bellarmine was a bit of a doctrinal warrier, so it is no surprise that they've made this statue of him on a horse called "Veritas!" (Truth!)

Inside the fairly new library, we have a wall dedicated to the president's books (i.e. of the university!) It contains mostly faculty publications.

Now back to Merton: A slight confession is probably in order. I was at one time a "Mertoniac"-- a Merton "maniac." Well, that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. But in my youthful days of spiritual wandering, I found interest and comfort in his most elegent and beautiful prose, specifically the wending and often wrenching autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain.

I read this when I was probably about 18 for the first time, and felt a great sense of transformation when reading it. But perhaps it was the power of his writing that made the monastic life seem so glorious, even though it is a book that speaks more of his youth and his relationship with his brother, and growing up. The next time I read it was almost a decade later, and the power of his words was different. It was still a magnificent book, but I received it more flatly, without the sparkle of intrigue and mysticism that I'd found as an 18-year-old.

So when I discoverd there was a Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, I made sure to visit it. And it was no disappointment! As you can see from some of these photos, there are many of his personal items, including his shirt and boots. But so too are there some of his books on Eastern religions and other topics.

Some of Merton's books above. Below, there is a library and reading room devoted to Merton conferences and meetings. In this library there are dozens of dissertations written on the topics of Merton and Merton's thought.

There were a few fine sculptures of Merton in the center. Above is a bust of his head, while below there is a more Buddhistic pose of the monk. Perhaps like all the great figures of history, whom we seek guidance and intercession from, we image and imagine these figures to our liking, making any form of real history or biography difficult to accomplish. There is, admittedly, a certain hagiographic quality that comes with characters like Merton. And the longer they pass into memory, the more exalted they become. So, to ask "WWTMD?"--that's a rather tough question to answer. Probably, he'd do many things. I'm not convinced he'd be a blogger. But he'd continue to be a communicator--to the people, to the world, to God. Then again, I think he's still doing that...42 years after he's left this earth.

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