By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
As the 2017-2018 school year ended late last month, St. James School fifth- and sixth-graders finished up a 12-week study of Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk who died half a century ago.
Shelby Thomas’ religion class studied the famous monk who lived and wrote at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. The curriculum led the curious fifth- and sixth-graders on a journey into monastic life, Merton and his writings. It also included a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani and culminated with an art show at Bellarmine University, where students showcased their artwork inspired by Merton.
Thomas said she was “nervous” as she introduced the study; Merton is typically part of high school or college curriculum.
“I was nervous about getting into his writings. I was worried about how they’d interpret his epiphany,” said the young
teacher during an interview in her classroom in mid May.
She was wrong, she said, adding, “They were super interested” from the first day.
Billy Fowler, Analiese Bell, Griffin Cisney and Eric Schermbeck, students in Thomas’ class, said they found the simple, disciplined life led by the monks most interesting. They were also surprised by Merton’s curiosity about other religions.
They discussed the curriculum in their classroom, surrounded by their artwork depicting Merton and monastic life.
“He studied different religions not to get other people to join his, but to learn,” said Billy, who created a miniature sculpture that depicts Merton writing by candlelight. “He stayed true to his religion” and allowed others to do the same.
Analiese said she’s good at drawing portraits, so she tried her hand at a portrait of Merton.
“He wanted to learn about other religions. Not too many people would do that,” she said. As far as monastic life and monks, she was struck by “how early they wake up” and how “they try to be nice to everyone.” Analiese said Merton has inspired her to “always give people a chance.”
Griffin said he liked that Merton “never looked down on anyone. He respected other religions.”
The study also taught him “to respect others and their religion,” he said. The fifth-grader said he plans on reading Merton’s autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” this summer.
Eric was inspired to sculpt a church from clay following his visit to the abbey, he said, noting how “simple” the church at the abbey was.
“I thought it would be grand, but it was simple and straightforward,” said Eric. The fifth-grader said it was “bold” of Merton to travel and meet with faith leaders, such as the Dalai Lama.
Thomas said the idea for this curriculum, which she calls the “Thomas Merton Elementary and Intermediate Level Study,” came to her at the suggestion of a parent, who’s a Bellarmine University professor.
The study began in March with monastic life and progressed into the life of Thomas Merton. Thomas said the kids “loved learning about monks” even before they got into Thomas Merton’s life. And the “depth of their questions blew me away,” she said.
Most of the study happened in religion class, but it cut across most areas of their study, said Thomas. The students read some of Merton’s writings in literature class and talked about metaphors, studied the countries Merton visited in social studies and broke down “dense” vocabulary words in language arts, said Thomas.
Part of the study also included a visit from Dr. Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center at Bellarmine University, who gave a presentation on Merton’s writings and his famous epiphany that occurred in downtown Louisville in 1958.
Thomas said she hopes to keep teaching the Merton study to this age group. Locally, Merton is one of the “greatest influences as far as interfaith relations,” said Thomas. The study, she noted, gave the children a different perspective on the way the faith is practiced and a view on how others should be treated, even if they don’t practice the same way,” said Thomas.
As “life-long learners,” Thomas said she hopes the students will take away Merton’s beliefs about acceptance and that they’ll be curious and go out into the world and “investigate.”