Thomas Merton and the Poetry of Discernment

Paul Spaeth Outside Friedsam Library

Paul Spaeth has a trinity of responsibilities. Here in Olean, at St. Bonaventure University founded by the Franciscans in 1858, he is director of the library, librarian for its Special Collections, and also the curator of the Robert Lax Archives. After they met at Columbia University, Lax and Merton became lifelong friends. A poet and (eventual) hermit living on the island of Patmos, Lax had deep family ties in this forested area of New York State close to the Pennsylvania border.

Recently, Spaeth took several groups of attendees of the International Thomas Merton Society on a walkabout of the much-expanded campus, pointing out places that loom large in Merton’s brief but important stay on this campus. This university (then a college) is where Merton taught for several terms all the while struggling with the path he might take. Poet? Professor? Volunteer at Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem? Join a religious order? Become a Franciscan?

“No-one is certain about the details. Merton, of course, was not famous back in 1940. Over there in Devereux Hall, his room was on the second floor. From his descriptions in The Seven Storey Mountain, most likely over in that corner.” Cameras and cell phones click in the direction of this ivy-covered building.

Interior of Friedsam Library.Things are more certain inside the elegant Friedsam Library. “These are the same tables and chairs that were here when he was here. But the light fixtures are new!” explains Spaeth.

Down in the humidity- and temperature-controlled Special Collections, some distance away from rare Franciscan manuscripts and early print materials, are two small shelves of books that Merton left behind when, in 1941, he made his final exit from St Bonaventure’s and from what he thought for a while might have been a Franciscan vocation. The books are mostly poetry collections and a few “prize” books he had been awarded at Oakham, the British private school he had attended in his adolescence.Some of the books that TM left behind.

Spaeth reminds delegates of Merton’s initial impressions of the college. When Robert Lax drove Merton to the campus for the first time he refused to get out of the car. “Too many crosses. Too many holy statues. Too much quiet and cheerfulness. Too much pious optimism.” Merton said it made him want to flee. (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 201)

But Merton did return, though not as a visitor but as a teacher of English Literature. All through his studies at Columbia University, poetry fascinated him – Blake and especially the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. “I was deeply interested in Hopkins’ life as a Jesuit. What was that life? What did the Jesuits do? How did he live? I scarcely knew where to begin to find out about such things: but they had started to exercise an mysterious attraction over me.” (p. 211)

Gerard Manley Hopkins. Source: poets.comThat “mysterious attraction” compelled him toward life as a Catholic and, later, as priest and monk. Merton links his study of poetry with his conversion experience; each informed the other. It was while reading Hopkins at Columbia University, that something “began to stir within me, something began to push me, to prompt me. It was a movement that spoke like a voice. ‘What are you waiting for?’ it said.” (p. 215)

Interestingly, Merton later notes that he had been unable to write verse before he became a Catholic.

Paul Spaeth in front of the shrine to the Little Flower.

The final stop on Spaeth’s tour is the small shrine helped Merton to overcome his aversion to pious statues. In St. Thérèse of Lisieux he had discovered “a new saint,” one with the power to overcome the “thick resilient hide of bourgeois smugness and really take hold of the immortal soul beneath the surface.” (p. 354)

There was to be no turning back. Within weeks, as the “cold winter rain streaked the window of the train,” the almost-Franciscan, still fascinated-by-Jesuits Thomas Merton “travelled through the dark hills,” bound for Kentucky and the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.


Source for photos: Kevin Burns.


Kevin Burns is an Ottawa-based writer and editor. His most recent book is Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media, 2016) and distributed in Canada by Novalis.


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