For people interested in the life of Thomas Merton, the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University is an essential stop.
During his years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton developed close friendships with several people at Bellarmine College (now University) in Louisville. One year before his death, Thomas Merton named Bellarmine as the repository for his literary works and memorabilia.
In 1969 Bellarmine established the Thomas Merton Center, which serves as an international resource for scholarship and inquiry on Merton and his works and the ideas he promoted. With more than 50,000 items, it is the largest Merton collection in the world and also sponsors courses, lectures, retreats, and seminars.
Located on the second floor of the university’s library, the center welcomes drop-in visitors as well as scholars doing research in its collection. In many ways it’s possible to get a better feel here for Merton the man and writer than at the Abbey of Gethsemani. An interconnected series of rooms feature collections of his published books, personal affects and selections of his drawings, audiotapes, letters, journals, and photographs.
Its main room has shelves containing more than 300 doctoral dissertations and masters theses on Merton, while another room features watercolors done by Merton’s father, Owen Merton. In the hallway outside its doors is an exhibit of photographs taken by Merton.
The center also features artwork that depicts Merton, including a triptych in its main room showing Merton, St. Bernard, and the Virgin Mary (originally painted for the Abbey of Gethsemani, it was later moved here).
When I visited, I was most intrigued by a display case that contains a selection of the few personal effects Merton had at his death. Inside are his monk’s cowl, faded denim workshirt, eyeglasses, camera, and leather boots. Monks don’t own very many possessions, after all.
Merton’s more important treasures were the books inside the display case, all ones in which he made marginal notes. Many of the volumes were given to him (and therefore to the monastery), and from his jottings it’s clear that he read them carefully. Their titles range across the globe, across faith traditions, and across millennia: books on Zen, Chinese philosophy, Sufism, St. John of the Cross, the spiritual heritage of India, meditation, and Kakfa were just a few of the titles I jotted down.
During my visit, I was pleased to get the chance to visit with Paul M. Pearson, director of center. When I asked him why Merton continues to be so popular around the world, he said this: “Part of it is that he was an extraordinarily clear writer and thinker. But I think it’s also because the people who read him almost feel like they’re reading their own thoughts, or maybe those of a best friend. He wrote so insightfully about spiritual matters and was so honest in sharing his own struggles. He was able to put people at ease, both in person and in his writing.”
Merton’s greatest gift to the world, Pearson went on to say, is the way he integrated the paths of Mary and Martha. (In the Gospels, Jesus visits these two sisters, one of whom was always busy with household tasks, while the other sat at Jesus’ feet and listened intently to his words). “Merton didn’t separate these two paths,” said Pearson. “He felt that spirituality and action were linked and that you needed both to be a whole person.”
My favorite part of visiting the center was this: on display there is a typewriter that Merton used, a simple manual model that hearkens back to an earlier day. I was delighted that it wasn’t behind glass, and I admit that I stood there for a long moment, my hands lightly touching the keys.
The Thomas Merton Center is open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.