By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Trappist Brother Paul Quenon was a 17-year-old novice when he met Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani more than 50 years ago.
Brother Quenon, a monk and poet, recalled life with Merton May 13 during a program called “Sacred Journeys: Merton and his Legacy,” part of the 20th Festival of Faiths.
He was one of five people who spoke during the program about how their lives had been touched by Thomas Merton, the influential Trappist monk who lived and wrote at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky., decades ago.
Brother Quenon said Merton — who was director of novices at the time they met — was his mentor. Some of the lessons he learned are still relevant all these years later, he said. Though he was young at the time of their meeting, Merton always treated him as an equal, he noted.
“I never had a feeling he was talking down to me,” he said.
The May 13 program — which was led by Dr. Paul Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University — was one of several offered during the May 12-17 festival. Other speakers during Festival of Faiths events included Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja of Nigeria, and Jesuit Father Michael Czerny of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Festival organizers said this year’s theme “Sacred Journeys and the Legacy of Thomas Merton” honors the Trappist monk who was born 100 years ago on Jan. 31.
Merton converted to Catholicism and, in 1941, entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he went on to influence thought through numerous books and writings on contemplation, interfaith understanding and socio-political issues, such as peace and racism.
Brother Quenon noted during the May 13 program that Merton didn’t expect anyone under his guidance to think of themselves as his “disciples.”
“You are disciples of Christ and he really believed that,” said Brother Quenon. “I believe that’s the attitude he wanted us to have.”
Brother Quenon said that though Merton was a person you could go to with questions, he encouraged novices to think for themselves.
“He didn’t want you to look for answers in what he had to say,” Brother Quenon noted. “He wanted you to look at the issue yourself.”
Brother Quenon said Merton is still present in his prayer life and continues to be a “mentor” and a “voice” for many.
Writings from Merton’s journals always seem to resonate with groups who visit the Abbey of Gethsemani seeking to learn about Merton, he noted.
Another presenter, who said he went in search of Thomas Merton years ago, was local filmaker Morgan Atkinson.
Atkinson — who has chronicled Merton’s life in three documentaries — spoke about Merton’s effect on him. Atkinson said his own life was profoundly changed when he encountered the monk’s writings some 40 years ago.
“He’d written about a journey where he’d found meaning and I wanted that. I needed that,” said Atkinson of Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Atkinson was in his mid-20s and had just returned to Louisville following what he believed to have been a failed pursuit at becoming a famed filmmaker. He was searching for meaning in his own life, he said.
After reading the book, he wanted to see where Merton lived. He made a weekend pilgrimage to the Abbey of Gethsemani and was changed forever, he said.
His “entire orientation to living changed” that weekend, Atkinson noted. “In the stillness and wonder of that weekend, I could sense, in my mundane life, something sacred.”
Atkinson noted that the qualities he initially admired in Merton — passion, commitment and certainty — still inform his life today.
Other presenters included Dr. Christopher Pramuck, a professor of theology and spirituality at Xavier University, and Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, whose presentation was delivered via a pre-recorded video message.
The Festival of Faiths also included presentations of poetry, film, theater, photography and music as well as discussions on self discovery and spiritual practices by religious leaders from around the world.