By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Original manuscripts, letters and essays by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who lived and wrote at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky., will be exhibited at the Frazier History Museum beginning Jan. 30.
Photographs taken by Merton and those taken of him by nationally-known photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, as well as artifacts and other personal items, will be included in the exhibit, called “Thomas Merton: A Familiar Stranger.” In addition, paintings by Merton’s father, Owen Merton, will also be on display.
The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University is presenting the exhibit in partnership with the museum to wrap up the year-long Merton centennial celebration.
It will officially open on Jan. 30 with a celebration of Merton’s 101st birthday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum, 829 W. Main St. The exhibit will open to the general public on Jan. 31 (the monk’s birthdate) and run through May 29.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz will deliver the opening remarks at the celebration. Other speakers at the event will include Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer; Dr. Joseph McGowan, president of Bellarmine University and Dr. Paul Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine.
The celebration will also include readings of Merton’s writing, such as letters between the monk and Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The exhibit will include voice recordings of Merton speaking about King’s death. And selections from Merton’s work against racism will be paired with photographs taken by Courier-Journal photographers during the civil rights movement in Louisville in 1967 and 1968.
“This thought-provoking exhibit is an exploration into the influence and legacy of one of America’s most widely read spiritual leaders,” said a press release from the Frazier History Museum. “Merton’s reflections on compassion, interfaith relations and race are just as relevant today as they were when Merton wrote such classics as ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ and ‘New Seeds of Destruction’ in the 1960’s.”
Zachary Distel, the Frazier’s curator of collections, said during an interview at the museum that many people know of Merton as a scholar, but this exhibit “will get down to who Thomas Merton was and what made him tick.”
“Much of his life played out near Bardstown and his epiphany happened right here at 4th and Muhammad Ali,” said Distel. “His story is intertwined in Louisville and the region.”
Distel added that Merton was said to be humble, though he was a “huge international figure.” Distel hopes the exhibit will allow people to get to know Merton’s humble side.
During his address to a joint session of the United States Congress Sept. 24, Pope Francis held up Merton as one of four “great Americans.”
Items in the exhibit are on loan from the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine, which Merton named as the official repository of his literary estate. According to the press release, the Merton collection at Bellarmine has grown to include more than 50,000 items — the largest in the world. The center recently received some of Merton’s clothing, which also will be displayed.
Bellarmine’s President McGowan said in the release, Merton is “one of the most significant interdisciplinary Catholic thinkers of the 20th century.”