Robert Ellsberg launches celebration of Merton’s birth

Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, is editor of Dorothy Day’s published diaries and letters and a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. (CNS photo/courtesy of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers)

Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, is editor of Dorothy Day’s published diaries and letters and a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. (CNS photo/courtesy of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Thomas Merton, the famed Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani, and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, saw the Christian life as a total commitment to God, according Robert Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, a former Catholic Worker who served with Dorothy Day, described the life-long strivings of these 20th century Catholics during a lecture Nov. 16 at Bellarmine University. His presentation, “To be a Saint: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and the Call to Holiness,” was the first program in a year-long series at Bellarmine to celebrate the centennial of Merton’s birth in 1915.

The gathering drew about 150 people, including local Catholic Workers, men and women religious, priests and lay people of various traditions interested in the lives of Day and Merton.

Ellsberg, who is publisher of Orbis Books and a biographer of Day, described himself as a hagiographer — one who studies and reflects on the lives of saints. He writes about the saints for Liturgical Press.

Merton and Day, he said, are “two paradigmatic saints of our time.”

They were “exemplary Christians who took seriously the call to holiness,” he said, a calling that, “over the course of their lives evolved and deepened in various ways and this example ultimately has something to teach us about the meaning of holiness in our time.”

Ellsberg noted that each had experienced a “tumultuous” youth and both turned away from selfish pursuits during their conversions. These conversions marked the starting points in their lives when a new and “deeper quest” began.

Dorothy Day is often quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” Ellsberg noted.
But she also strived for such holiness, he said.

She wrote, “ ‘The saint is the holy person, the integrated person.’ She adds, ‘We all wish to be that,’ ” Ellsberg said.

He said that “any serious reflection on such lives makes it clear that the path to holiness does not involve conforming ourselves to some cookie cutter pattern. To become a saint is not like being fitted for a prefab suit of clothes.

“It’s more like a process, one that’s never really finished. It’s the work of a lifetime,” he said. “Merton would ultimately reflect,
‘For me to be a saint means to be myself.’ ”

Merton and Day never met, but they corresponded and often wrote about the difficulties of persevering, Ellsberg said.

The sainthood cause for Dorothy Day began in 2000 at the urging of the late Cardinal John O’Conner. She is currently regarded as a “Servant of God.”

There is no cause under consideration for Thomas Merton. His archives at Bellarmine University attract researchers from around the world and his writings attract Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Ellsburg’s lecture was followed on Nov. 17 by a symposium and workshops focused on “Thomas Merton and the Catholic Worker Tradition: 21st Century Practices of Compassion and ‘Works of Mercy.’ ”

Participants, including representatives of local agencies and organizations,  were expected to identify three goals for the Bellarmine campus and Louisville Metro related to compassion and works of mercy.

The Thomas Merton Centennial celebration continues through the fall of 2015. The speakers include:
-Sister Ilia Delio, director of Catholic studies and visiting professor at Georgetown University.
-Dr. Charles Taylor, author of The Secular Age.
-Jesuit Father Francis X. Clooney, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

A complete schedule of the centennial  events is available online at http://www.bellarmine.edu/merton-centennial.

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