By Ethan Kibbe, ’18
He’s been gone almost 50 years, but Thomas Merton remains a meaningful figure in the history of St. Bonaventure University, which gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth with a Winter Carnival from noon until midnight Saturday, Jan. 31.
Fr. Francis Di Spigno O.F.M., executive director of University Ministries, said Merton’s journey of self-discovery at St. Bonaventure, where he taught English in the early 1940s, is still worth studying.
“I think it’s a perfect metaphor for us as an institution with young men and women planning their futures, some with varying degrees of certainty about what they want to do,” he said.
THE HISTORY OF MERTON AT ST. BONAVENTURE
Thomas Merton first came to St. Bonaventure University — then St. Bonaventure’s College — in the summer of 1938. At the time, he was studying at Columbia University, where he met one of his closest friends, Robert Lax. Lax, a renowned poet, was an Olean native, and Merton came to visit him during the summer.
Lax brought Merton to campus, but Merton refused to get out of the car, saying that he initially felt uncomfortable in the presence of so many religious figures. Later that year, Merton converted to Catholicism, and the next summer, he returned to visit Lax in Olean. This time, he visited the campus library where he met Fr. Irenaeus Herscher, O.F.M., who soon became his friend.
In the latter part of 1939, Merton considered becoming a Franciscan friar. So, when he returned to Olean in the summer of 1940, he stayed on campus in Butler Gymnasium. He later withdrew his request to become a friar, but his connection with the Franciscans and St. Bonaventure did not end.
Merton was hired as an English professor at St. Bonaventure in the fall of the 1940, and he held the position until his departure in December of 1941. While teaching at the college, he began to discern a calling to the monastic life. In the spring of 1941, while still employed by St. Bonaventure, he travelled to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This visit led Merton to consider becoming a Trappist Monk, and on December 10, 1941, he left St. Bonaventure and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Di Spigno said Merton was someone who should be “held up as a role model — as someone who was seeking, and not just to get a job, but asking, ‘What is this about?’”
After leaving St. Bonaventure and joining the Trappists, Merton would become one of the most polarizing religious figures of his era. He became famous for his written works and was an outspoken peace activist. He publically opposed the Vietnam conflict, and he supported the civil rights movement.
Merton sought peace among all people, regardless of religious or racial differences. As people today strive to attain these goals, the ideas and writings of Thomas Merton remain as significant today as they did 50 years ago.
“His ideas still speak to us today, probably even louder than they did then,” said Di Spigno.
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