Photograph of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin. Used with permission
of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.
Photographs by Thomas Merton. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.
"He saw the extraordinary in the ordinary and so do I when I look at his photos.
- Sister Marilyn Sunderman, RSM"
Thomas Merton was one of the most important spiritual thinkers of our time," says theology professor Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, who makes room for 400 volumes on Merton in her home library. A 20th-century contemplative monk who lived in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton was a prolific writer and the cause of much subsequent writing about him, including Dr. Sunderman's many articles and presentations.
Much of her recent published work has focused on Merton's photography, which she says allowed him to become "profoundly attuned to created reality" - and to enter into communion with it and, through it, with God. "Merton's photos silently proclaim that the world is aglow with the glory of God," one of her articles states.
Sunderman has suggested that Merton's photographic embrace of "celebrating the world as it is" can be tied to his embrace of Zen principles later in life. With the aid of his "Zen camera," as he called it, Sunderman says Merton saw reality in its "suchness." In his hands, the camera became a contemplative instrument.
What's unique about Sunderman's perspective on Merton is her systematic approach. To the study of such an unsystematic man whose interests go off in every direction, she has looked at broad themes relating to his work. In doing so, she suggests his photography exhibits the "being awake, being in the moment" principle found in Zen. Through the moment captured on film, according to Sunderman, he is able to show the revelation of God.
As Sunderman switches her research focus to the Shakers and their embrace of simplicity, she will consider that group's influence on Merton, who wrote about them and took photos of the Shaker community near Lexington, Kentucky.
Like Merton, Sunderman is interested in many subjects, many of them the same: poetry, photography, solitude, education. "He looked at life as an ongoing education," she says. "Whatever he's interested in, I want to explore, because I know there's a jewel for my own journey."
Dr. Marilyn Sunderman has studied Thomas Merton since graduate school at Fordham University, where she earned a doctorate in systematic theology.
"Whenever I read Merton, I walk away so nourished," says Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, who appreciates his depth, the diversity of his interests and his ability to communicate clearly through his writing. In the spring semester, she taught a theology course on Thomas Merton for the first time and witnessed how deeply he affected her class. She recalls that one student scoured Portland's used bookstores to find his books.
As a Merton scholar, Sr. Sunderman has given numerous seminars and retreats on Merton. Next June she will offer a five-day retreat in Ohio centered on his teachings. She has also published numerous articles in scholarly journals about his photography, poetry and philosophy of non-violence.
Note: Wellehan Library owns a collection of materials related to the life and work of Thomas Merton that are available to the public for on-site study, by appointment.
Photograph of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.
Thomas Merton was a priest who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, not far from Louisville, Ky., from 1941 until his accidental death in 1968. For a few years, he lived in solitude at a hermitage on the grounds. Becoming a Catholic as a young man just out of college, he was only 53 when he died on a visit to Thailand. A widely read author, social activist and ecumenical spirit, Merton embraced Zen Buddhism during the last year of his life.
Merton wrote at least 70 books, perhaps the most famous of which is his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain. His writings often reflect his struggle with being human as he seeks the divine.
The Thomas Merton Center is an archive based at Bellarmine University, in Louisville, Ky.