“Right praise leads to peace.”
That was the assessment of Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the question-and-answer session that followed his address at the 2015 Thomas Merton Lecture Dec. 3 at Corpus Christi parish in Manhattan.
“We become ourselves through orthodoxy, through right praise,” continued Bishop Barron, when asked about Merton in the context of current destructive events encroaching the globe.
“‘Glory to God in the highest,’ we say, ‘and on earth peace to people of good will.’”
Such a proclamation, he suggested, is profound. “If I give glory to God in the highest,” he added, “then together, peace will break out among us.”
The lecture was presented by the Hugh J. and Catherine R. Kelly Endowment for the Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia University and Columbia Catholic Ministry.
Bishop Barron’s talk, “Thomas Merton: Metaphysics of Peace,” was held toward the conclusion of the centennial marking Merton’s birth, Jan. 31, 1915.
“Right praise,” particularly through Mass attendance leads to peace, Bishop Barron said, as Merton himself could attest.
In introductory remarks, Father Daniel P. O’Reilly, parish administrator of Corpus Christi and director of Columbia Catholic Ministry, explained the role Corpus Christi Church, a nearby neighbor of Columbia University, played in the conversion of Thomas Merton when he was a student at the university in the early 1930s.
The parish website also offers a chronology of Merton’s affiliation with Corpus Christi. Born in France and educated in England, Merton entered Columbia University in 1935. He joined a fraternity and lived in a rooming house at the edge of campus. Neither he nor his family were particularly religious.
One Sunday in August 1938, while a graduate student at Columbia, Merton rose early and ventured into Mass at Corpus Christi, located at 529 W. 121st St. The following month he knocked on the rectory door and asked for instruction. And on Nov. 16 of that same year he was baptized into the Catholic Church.
Merton would finish his master’s degree in English and teach at St. Bonaventure College. But home for the Trappist monk would be the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He died Dec. 10, 1968 while in Thailand attending a conference of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians. He was 53.
Bishop Barron, founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry known for its “Catholicism” series, credits Merton, in part, for his vocation to the priesthood. Bishop Barron recalled, at age 17, working in a suburban Chicago bookstore alongside his brother who literally threw, and suggested he read, Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” The book, as Bishop Barron said in the lecture, was about falling in love with God.
“The reading of that book had a huge impact on me,” said Bishop Barron, who has also served as rector/president of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Bishop Barron’s talk included lyrical passages from Merton’s book, which described the university student’s discovery and delight from entering the church, sitting in a back pew and eventually exiting with a renewed sense of all that surrounded him.
Merton’s experience, Bishop Barron said, is an example of the “economy of grace,” a theme about which the bishop would further expound in his lecture.
“It’s a thrill to be here at this place, and to be honoring Thomas Merton,” Bishop Barron said.
Approximately 250 attended the lecture, according to Father O’Reilly. Among them were Columbia University students; FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries from Columbia University and New York University; parishioners of Corpus Christi; seminarians and religious, and members of the International Thomas Merton Society.
Adrián Montoto, a Columbia junior majoring in medieval history, said at the reception that followed he may be willing—“if I can find the time between studies—to now read ‘The Seven Storey Mountain,’ because of Bishop Barron’s insistence that that, and other of Merton’s writings can be read through an orthodox lens,” Montoto said. “I’m at least now willing to give it the chance based on his authority.”