College Hosts International Thomas Merton Society Conference

Biennial conference challenges mind, body, and spirit

Saint Mary’s is welcoming over 200 people from around the world for the 18th International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) biennial conference. Over the weekend of June 22-25, attendees will have the opportunity to dive deeply into the life and work of Thomas Merton through research and reflection.

Merton, an American Trappist monk, was best known for his written work, authoring more than 60 scholarly books along with hundreds of poems and articles. In honor of Merton’s substantial influence, the ITMS was founded in 1987 to promote a greater knowledge of his life and writings.

Eight-year ITMS member and the College’s Director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality (CFSS) Dan Horan, OFM, Ph.D., is serving as the site coordinator for the conference. Horan notes that one of his earliest influences on his spiritual journey was Merton, and hasn’t missed an ITMS conference since his first time presenting research at the event in 2007. As the site coordinator, Horan leads a team of other campus community members including Religious Studies and Theology Professor Jessica Coblentz, and CFSS Project Coordinator Julia Feder. 

Attendees will have a variety of engaging activities to choose from throughout the weekend, from scholarly presentations and participatory workshops, to prayer and meditation sessions. Outside of these offerings are the keynote addresses featuring four theology and Thomas Merton experts. Maria Clara Bingemere, world-renowned spirituality scholar and professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro; Sister Simone Campbell, religious leader, attorney, poet, and “Nuns on the Bus” founder, as well as former director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; Sophia Park, author, and professor of Religious Studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, California; and Shannen Dee Williams, professor of history at the University of Dayton and a specialist in Black Catholic history.

All of the plenary speakers are women for the first time in ITMS history, something Horan says was a deliberate decision. This year’s theme, “Sophia Comes Forth Reaching,” focuses on Merton’s own interest in feminine imagery for God and how he was shaped by the influential women in his life and society. The significance of the divine feminine in Merton’s life and work also directly connects to Saint Mary’s. 

“When we were in the early stages of planning the theme for this year’s conference, we wanted to draw from the connection that exists between the place of Saint Mary’s, its history as a women’s Catholic college, and Sister Madeleva,” says Horan.

Featured frequently throughout the conference is Merton’s rich history with Sister M. Madeleva Wolff, CSC, the third president of the College and beloved poet. The pair corresponded often through letters, one day leading a student of Sister Madeleva to write to Merton asking the complex question of “what is contemplation?” In response, Merton wrote a booklet titled that very question, and in 1948, Saint Mary’s was the first to publish it.

Merton wasn’t only connected to the College through his friendship with Sister Madeleva, but through its education, as well. In the fall of 1956, history professor Bruno Schlesinger founded the Program for Christian Culture, known today as the Humanistic Studies Department, receiving advice and support from Merton throughout. 

“That’s something that makes this conference so special: we’re going to be at a place that has this deep rooted history with Saint Mary’s and its legacy and vice versa. Merton was shaped by people like Sister Madeleva,” says Horan.

Horan emphasizes that the conference highly encourages young scholars to attend. Through the Daggy Scholarship Program, 22 college students from around the world are able to attend this year’s conference free of charge. Scholarship recipients also receive a one-year membership to the ITMS. The impressive list of Daggy Scholars includes four Saint Mary’s undergraduates, along with students from the University of Notre Dame, Yale University, University of Southern California, and Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany.

“The ITMS provides a real sense of community that’s different from other conferences. While there’s really important research that’s being presented, and intellectually stimulating conversations taking place, it’s all done within a spirit of support, of friendship, of hospitality,” says Horan.

June 23, 2023

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