Thomas Merton was America’s most famous monk, a best-selling author and internationally renowned spiritual thinker.
Pope Francis, in his 2015 speech to Congress, said Merton was one of four Americans who inspired him, along with Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.
But for a group of Kentucky artists that included writers Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, folksinger John Jacob Niles, and artists and printers Victor and Carolyn Hammer, Merton also was a friend, companion and kindred spirit.
Merton lived for 27 years at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County. By the 1960s, his fame helped earn him freedom to leave the monastery, make visits to Lexington and Louisville and eventually travel internationally.
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While attending a religious conference in Asia, he died of heart failure on Dec. 10, 1968. He was 53.
A new generation of Kentucky writers and artists will mark the 50th anniversary of Merton’s death with two programs in Lexington, which are free and open to the public.
The first is a jazz concert at 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 533 E. Main St. Dick Sisto, a vibraphonist who teaches at the University of Louisville, will perform. Merton was a big jazz fan, and Sisto was among his friends.
At 6 p.m. on Dec. 10 there will be a reading of Merton’s works at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St. Readers include poets Rebecca Gayle Howell and Maurice Manning; author Silas House; chef Ouita Michel, musician Daniel Martin Moore and the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.
Before the readings, at 5 p.m., there will be a reception and showing of photographs of the Abbey of Gethsemani by Brother Paul Quenon and Harry Hinkle. The events, called “The Road Ahead of Me: Lexington Celebrates Thomas Merton,” are sponsored by the Carnegie Center, Good Shepherd and Hindman Settlement School.
“So many generations have come to Merton’s writings now as a way of experiencing and practicing faith that moves outside of the American Evangelical system,” said Howell, who began reading Merton’s books when she was a youth in Elizabethtown. “Locally, we also have this sense of him as our neighbor. He’s been a teacher of mine for a really long time and has guided my life as an artist.”
Merton, born in France to an American mother and New Zealand father, earned English degrees at Columbia University and became a Catholic at age 23. He went to a retreat at Gethsemani in 1941 and, eight months later, asked to join the order.
As a monk, he wrote more than 70 books about spirituality, pacifism and social justice. His 1948 autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” became a best-seller and made Merton an unlikely international celebrity.
Merton also attracted a following in the 1960s with his advocacy for civil rights and against war. He was interested in Interfaith dialogue, which is what led him on his fatal trip to Asia.
“He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people,” Pope Francis said of Merton. “He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
But Merton also was interested in poetry, photography and the artistic culture of his adopted state. He enjoyed picnics and other outings where he and these Kentuckians could talk about life and art.
“Merton’s legacy locally is special and different from his legacy internationally,” Howell said. “That’s what I’m hoping we can celebrate and pass on.”