CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Perhaps the best way to write a story about a local group devoted to the worldview of Catholic monk, writer and mystic Thomas Merton is to make sure the voice of the man himself is prominently heard.
Merton died 44 years ago at the age of 53, yet he remains a popular and influential spiritual thinker well into the 21st century. Look no further than West Virginia's capital city for evidence, where the Charleston Chapter of the Thomas Merton Institute was formed in January.
Merton continues to speak to busy contemporary times, says Father Bill Petro, who helps run the group, which meets 7 to 8:30 p.m. this Tuesday and every second Tuesday of the month, at Blessed John XXIII Pastoral Center, 100 Hodges Rd.
"People are needing, craving, some kind of silence and solitude in their daily living," said Petro. "Merton was able to bring that contemplative dimension of living out of the monastery and offer it to people in the ordinariness of their lives."
Merton was born in France on Jan. 31, 1915, a date Petro chose as "an auspicious beginning" to launch the group this year with the simple declaration: "We discuss all things Merton. No preparation is required."
"All things Merton" covers a lot of ground when considering the writings and thoughts of the searching young man ordained as a priest in 1949 and rechristened "Father Louis."
Merton wrote upwards of 70 books on spirituality and social justice, as well as voluminous poetry, reviews and essays. His best-selling 1948 autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," recounts his path from beatnik-era partier to Trappist monk, a life arc that influenced others. As Merton's Wikipedia entry notes, the autobiography "sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US."
Merton remains pertinent, said Petro, as his probing into the human heart and his call to aid others in need offers "a foundation of basic spiritual values -- for example, silence, solitude, honesty, sincerity, community, compassion: things that are written in the DNA of the human heart."
Too often, these ingrained human traits are overwhelmed by the crush of daily life and our own suffering, yet Merton's challenge was to nurture them so they flourished, said Petro. "Because of all this stuff that life puts on you, those things get drowned. But deeper down we yearn for those."
Like many significant spiritual figures, Merton was complex. He yearned for the solitude of a hermit's life at his home monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky (where he is buried). Yet his open personality and questing nature, love of jazz -- and beer -- and his cosmopolitan upbringing on two continents, made him a man of the world beneath his brown monk's cowl.
His writing made him a national figure in the anti-war and social justice movements of the '60s. He was sought out at his hermitage in the Kentucky woods by a stream of visitors. Among them was folksinger Joan Baez, who came calling in 1966 with Ira Sandperl, with whom she'd launched the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. The encounter is described in "The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals," by Merton scholars Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. Smitten by the singer, Merton wrote: