What’s in the NAME — Thomas Merton?

By Jim Ruck

The Center’s founders,  in looking for a name, settled on “Thomas Merton,” the Catholic contemplative monk and social critic who had died not long before at age 53. From his Kentucky monastery his prophetic voice, clear and widely known, challenged America’s Vietnam War, its racism and other social injustices. That spirit is what the founders wanted.

Names are tricky. Some are mere formalities, someone who funded a building, someone largely unknown today. Other names leave an indelible mark, because the person’s spirit continues to inspire the group.

Is the Merton Center a collection of good causes and political agendas as much needed today as when it was founded? Or is it that and something deeper? As much as Thomas Merton may seem passé, a denominational religious, a monk largely hidden in the hills, he can continue to call both society and TMC members to a deeper, truer, more nonviolent path – personally, for the center, for our country, for the world’s people and environment.

My wife, Gail Britanik, and I both admired Merton before connecting with the Center. She joined the staff, fired by her passion for Central America. Together we led study groups, deepening our realization of how strong his influence could be. Two qualities are noteworthy.

Thomas Merton engaged in a life-long struggle for integrity. On a spring, 1941 retreat at Gethsemane Monastery, Merton resonated immediately with what he experienced. In December he entered the community. Once drifting in dissolute living, orphaned after his mother’s death at age 5 and his father’s at 16, at the monastery he absorbed the Christian message and the spirit of monasticism. He found both deeply healing.

But Merton did not merely conform to external expectations of religion or his superiors’ wishes. While at some points the monastic regimen cramped his conflicting desires for more solitude and for more engagement with the world, the monastery also recognized his talent. Merton was named to lead the young monks studying for ordination and then the novices. Challenging as this work was, it led Merton to appreciate the spirit of early monasticism and of his Cistercian Order.

With this fresh perspective, he challenged deadening accretions that crept in over the years. His was not a marketing campaign to get young monks in line, but a labor of love, connecting each student’s particular talents, attitudes and aspirations to God’s radical call and the deep sources from which to grow. Integrity: not learning how to play a role but discerning how to best live one’s life, fully, freely and without violence.

Jim Ruck was a TMC Board Member in early 80s, and husband of Gail Britanik, who was a staff member 1987-1993.

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