Lawrence Cunningham delivers third game day series lecture on Saint Thomas Merton

In his address to Congress on September 24, Pope Francis highlighted four American figures who “were able by hard work and self-sacrifice … to build a better future.”  Two days later, Lawrence S. Cunningham, Emeritus O’Brien Chair of Theology, delivered his “Saturdays with the Saints” lecture about one of those figures, Thomas Merton.

To begin, Cunningham listed Merton’s many roles during his life as poet, literary critic, social activist, monastic theorist, partner in dialogue, and spiritual master.  He decided, however, to focus on the autobiographies written by this 20th-century Trappist monk.

Merton’s first and most famous autobiography, Cunningham said, is Seven Storey Mountain (1948).  In it, Merton chronicles his orphaned childhood, promiscuous lifestyle, conversion at Columbia University, and entry into the monastery.  Cunningham described the book as “all about the evils that are in the world, the need for withdrawal, the need for penance, the need for conversion of heart, et cetera.”

He also explained that the title alludes to the mountain in Dante’s Purgatorio.  “In a way,” said Cunningham, “[the] title of the book refers to his own journey, because through many fits and starts and sinfulness and so on, he himself then ends up … [at] the ‘earthly paradise’” of the monastery.

Next, Cunningham spoke about The Sign of Jonas (1953), which relates 10 years of Merton’s life, from his entry into the monastery to his ordination.  “I would argue,” said Cunningham, “that places in that book contain some of the most powerful prose that Merton ever wrote, especially the epilogue called ‘Fire Watch.’”

Cunningham described this passage in detail, in which Merton describes his contemplative experience watching the sunrise after his all-night inspection.  Cunningham said of the title, “In medieval exegesis … Jonah was considered the prototype of the monk,” who is “hidden from the world … [and] prays.”

Cunningham then turned to Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).  In this and subsequent writings, he said, Merton emphasized his strong connection to humanity, despite physical isolation.  “Then the question becomes for him … how does one live as a vowed monk, faithful to one’s vocation, and yet have a concern for the world?” said Cunningham.  

He described Merton’s dedication to be “faithful to the contemplative vocation, and yet open to everything that is good in the world … [striving] to be a person in dialogue.”  This mindset led Merton to address several social issues of his day, such the anti-nuclear movement and racial turmoil, in various publications and letters.  Merton also befriended Dorothy Day, another of the four figures Pope Francis mentioned in his recent address.

Along with his dedication to social justice, Merton was known for his humility and docility.  Cunningham spoke of the controversy the monk’s activism created, and that “when he was told ‘you may not publish’ [by the abbot general], he didn’t publish,” though he continued to write private letters.

Finally, Cunningham examined A Vow of Conversation (1988), a title that refers to Merton’s monastic as well as activist life.  This volume, Cunningham explained, relates Merton’s desire to practice hermitage, although he subsequently traveled to California and Asia.  During his travels, Merton engaged in conversation with figures such as the Dalai Lama, gave conferences, and tragically died of a heart attack.  Many of his journals were published posthumously.

Cunningham discussed Merton’s interior life, which he found most clearly described in a letter to a Muslim Sufi in Pakistan.  He quoted Merton’s explanation of prayer: “Being before God as if you saw him … a kind of praise rising up out of the center of nothing in silence.”

Cunningham praised Merton’s ability to write with authenticity and clarity—a technique that he also credited to Pope Francis—that avoids lofty “Church speak” and relates to readers directly.  To demonstrate the saint’s simplicity, Cunningham concluded with a quotation from Merton:  “We cannot do without God … it’s impossible.  Simply impossible.”

Sophia Buono is a PLS major and Education, Scheduling, and Society minor living in Lyons Hall.  Her goal in life is to have a pet platypus.  If you can refer her to any helpful pet stores, contact her at