The Enduring Influence of Thomas Merton

Fr. Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire and creator of the impressive Catholicism series, a few days ago published an essay expressing the impact that Thomas Merton's writings exerted on his (Fr. Barron's) interest in religious life. Fr. Barron says that Merton "had a decisive influence on me and my vocation to the priesthood."

Like so many searchers for the last half century, Fr. Barron's first lens into Merton's thought was The Seven Storey Mountain. Barron "became completely caught up in the drama and romance of Merton's story, which is essentially the tale of how a man fell in love with God." Merton's memoir, says Fr. Barron, is "extraordinarily well written, funny, adventurous, and spiritually wise."

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As I read Fr. Barron's appreciation, I was struck by its similarities with the faith journey of Fr. James Martin, S.J., In In Good Company, Fr. Martin's account of his path to the Jesuits, he described the first time he heard about Merton. It was by accident: Fr. Martin was watching TV, trying to relax after a "wretched day" at work, when he came upon a PBS special titled "Merton: A Film Biography."

After watching the special, Fr. Martin bought The Seven Storey Mountain and, as he says in his book, read it three times. "I realized with some force," wrote Fr. Martin, "that this was what I could do. Maybe not join a monastery, but at least move closer to a life like that. It sounded great--so peaceful, so romantic." 

Of course, for Fr. Barron and Fr. Martin, the rest speaks for itself. They responded to the desires that Merton's book awakened and are now giving to Christians worldwide what Merton has: spiritual nourishment and strength for the journey.

As I reflect on the writings of Fr. Barron and Fr. Martin, I wonder: What explains Merton's appeal? What makes his story so gripping? For readers who've read Merton, what role has his work played in your spiritual development? 

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