Letters Between Trappist, BC Jesuits Highlight Burns Exhibit
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013 00:09
“It seems I am working for the Jesuits these days. How do I get considered an honorary member of the society? Or would that wreck you?”
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and best-selling author, corresponded with Boston College’s Reverend Francis W. Sweeney, S.J., for years, resulting in a beneficial relationship for both Merton and BC. Currently on display in the John J. Burns Library, the Thomas Merton Collection bears the fruits of their correspondence.
The display is actually comprised of three separate collections: the Thomas Merton collection, the James H. Forest Collection, and the M. Basil Pennington Papers. The Thomas Merton collection contains the original letters between Merton and BC Jesuits, and copies of Merton’s books inscribed to BC. The James H. Forest Collection is a series of photographs of Merton throughout his life. The M. Basil Pennington Papers are the papers of Trappist monk, M. Basil Pennington, who wrote a biography on Merton.
Merton and Sweeney struck up a relationship based on their love of poetry. They became close in their letters, but never met face-to-face. The letters reveal a side of Merton that is not overt in his books. He makes wry jokes with Sweeney, and the relationship was always light-hearted.
As a gift, Merton gave Sweeney a typescript of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Sweeney then passed it on to Rev. Terence Connolly, who headed the BC Library at the time.
“This was the beginning of the Merton Collection, which continues to grow and now includes drawings by Merton, photographic images, and correspondence,” states the guide to the exhibit.
Connolly saw this as an opportunity to develop the special collections for the library, thus prompting him to seek his own relationship with Merton. In return for any books Merton needed for his research, Merton would send a signed copy of his own books to the Boston College Librarians.
Merton was initially embarrassed by having a collection about him at BC, but later wrote to Sweeney saying, “I am most honored to think that Boston College really regards me as worthy of a ‘collection.’”
The tone Merton uses with Sweeney is informal—with Connolly, however, Merton maintains a formal tone. Merton makes it clear that he respects Connolly. He even asked Connolly to pray for him while Merton was in the process of becoming ordained. Connolly requested to go to Merton’s ordination, but was unable to attend.
After Connolly’s death in 1961, Rev. Brendan Connolly became the head of the special collections. Brendan Connolly reached out to Merton to continue the “inter-library loan” between BC and Merton.
Brendan Connolly and Merton had a relationship that focused on the philosophical side of Catholicism. In one letter, Merton asks Brendan Connolly to define the Jesuit spirit. A carbon copy of Brendan Connolly’s response is in the exhibit. Additionally, Merton liked the “Jesuit take” on church issues. The collection has firsthand accounts of Jesuit community during Vatican II, as both Merton and Brendan Connolly enjoyed watched and discussing the Vatican II Council unfold.
The Thomas Merton Collection is an outstanding resource for all BC students. English students can read discussions on poetry. Theology and history students can cite primary documents on the religious community’s response to Vatican II. Any student can learn about what a Jesuit candidly thinks of the Jesuit spirit. Catholic converts can see the typescript of a very influential Catholic convert’s autobiography.
Some of the most memorable lines of Merton’s books were in his letters before the books were published. Whether developing ideas for a book, or developing a special collection, both Merton and BC looked on the relationship as a way to grow for the better.