There are those who love Thomas Merton’s Catholic spirituality and those who love him despite his Catholic faith.
And there are those who question whether the late Trappist monk remained Catholic near the end of his life, when his dedication to interreligious dialogue led him to Asia.
Dr. Gregory K. Hillis, a professor of theology who teaches a course on Merton at Bellarmine University, has considered enough opinions and questions on the matter to write a book.
“Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision,” published by Liturgical Press, was released Nov. 15. Hillis will discuss his book and hold a signing on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. in Bellarmine’s Frazier Hall, 2001 Newburg Road.
“I keep getting the same question, especially in our polarized society, ‘How Catholic was he?’ ” Hillis said in a recent interview. The answer: “Deeply Catholic.”
The 320-page book begins and ends with that question and answer. In between, it considers Merton’s life and thought, from his conversion to his monastic life and from his work as a man of dialogue — on a variety of subjects — to his trip to Asia where he died.
Hillis relies on Merton’s books, letters and private journals — released 25 years after his death in 1968. He noted that the Cistercian, known as Father Louis at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist Ky., may surprise some.
For instance, he wasn’t excited by some of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
“Here’s this guy, who everyone sees as a liberal Catholic, who is not excited about the liturgical changes. He really likes the Latin,” said Hillis. “We too quickly want to pigeonhole people into one camp or another and Merton doesn’t allow for that.
“This reframes who Merton really was and, as such, serves as an introduction to Merton,” he said.
The book frames Merton as a man of dialogue, which Hillis asserts “is rooted specifically in the Eucharist.”
“For him, it’s an overwhelming sense of God’s love, not only for him but for all people,” Hillis said. “All people need to know how loved they are and have something to contribute.
“We recognize the beauty and goodness of the other person and work alongside them and understand they have something to offer.”
If not, “we become insular and have nothing to offer the world,” he said. “We cease to be a eucharistic people.”
Among those who offer praise for the book are clergy, religious, scholars and writers.
Trappist Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani writes, “For all that has been written about the fine inner workings of Merton’s expansive mind, most have missed what Hillis demonstrates as the mainspring — his identification with the priesthood and the universalism of the Eucharist, the principle part of his everyday life.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz writes, “While acknowledging Merton’s complexities and fallible experiences, Dr. Hillis seeks to set the record straight about Thomas Merton’s identity throughout his life as a thoroughly and deeply rooted Catholic.
“This book includes a compelling account of Merton as an active contemplative seeking to be engaged in the joys, sufferings, anguish, and grief of this world and Merton’s rich insights and fascinating encounters with a wide array of individuals,” he continues. “ ‘Man of Dialogue’ provides a path that diverges from soundbites and quick solutions to the courageous and intelligent path of dialogue so desperately needed by our world.”
“Man of Dialogue: Thomas Merton’s Catholic Vision” is available from Liturgical Press, Amazon and at the event on Nov. 29. Masks and social distancing will be required at the event.