Questions For Studying The Work of Thomas Merton


On February 26, we will be discussing THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, and the career of Thomas Merton. I want to use this example as a basis to discuss several themes within modern Catholic history, and will be sending round some materials relating to these. They include:



A remarkable number of Americans and Europeans converted to Catholicism during the early and mid-twentieth century, including some celebrities. They often had an enormous impact on the Catholic Church, and they include some of the most celebrated of all modern Catholics. In the US, great converts of the past 150 years include Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker (LOOK THEM UP IN MORRIS’S AMERICAN CATHOLIC!) Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, and Avery Dulles. British examples include Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton and Graham Greene. Why were they so important? What did they bring into the church? What were their sources of conflict with it? Most important for our purposes, WHY DID THEY CONVERT? What does this tell us about the society of the time and its discontents?




Why did Merton claim that Gethsemani Abbey was the capital of America? What do we learn from this book about mysticism and monasticism? Is it possible to write convincingly about these themes, or are they beyond words? Why do they matter in studying religious (or non-religious) history? How far is it possible to confine the mystical impulse within a particular denominational tradition – try and follow up on Merton’s later encounters with Buddhism. A couple of interesting websites you might like to check out on this theme include:





For a historian reading Merton, there are countless incidental pieces of information about American Catholic life. Find some of them. What do we learn about for instance other people’s attitudes to Catholicism; about pacifism; about urban Catholicism, about the history of practices like confession, about celibacy; about gender issues; about recruitment to the priesthood; about devotional styles…. In other words, this is potentially a huge historical resource. What can we get out of it?