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Shadow of a soul: Thomas Merton’s spiritual path wound through Bonaventure campus

This is where everything changed.

He hadn’t been born here, or educated here.

This wasn’t one of the many places he had lived with his family as a boy.

And yet, when 26-year-old Thomas Merton paused – and then paced back and forth – in front of a small brick shrine to St. Therese of Lisieux on a college campus in Western New York, it marked the end of one of Merton’s lives.

And the beginning of another.

The Merton that grew from this single moment of clarity and decision was a figure that the rest of the world would soon come to acclaim, even to love.

And this – though many people don’t know it, even here – is where that transformation took place.

“That’s the place that healed him,” said the Rev. James Martin, a New York City-based author well known for his books on saints and other spiritual subjects, on Merton’s time in the Buffalo area.

“He spent a considerable amount of time there – at a crucial time in his life.”

Today, Merton is considered one of the most important spiritual writers of the 20th century.

Some love him, for telling of his soul’s journey so openly.

Others criticize him, including for his interest in Eastern religions at the end of his life.

Now, as Merton’s most famous book – an autobiography called “The Seven Storey Mountain” – marks a 65th anniversary, some say it’s time to recognize the key role played by Western New York in Merton’s spiritual journey.

That significance will only increase, they say, as Merton’s relevance continues to grow.

“He’s seminal in so many places today,” said the Rev. Dan Riley, a St. Bonaventure University graduate and Franciscan friar who lives near the campus at Mount Irenaeus. “In spirituality, in social analysis, in engagement with so many religions and faiths.”

“There’s still so much more that might surface.”

After all, no other community can claim to be this: The place where Thomas Merton made his choice.

Here’s how it all happened – and why it matters.


Merton lived for 53 years. Not much of that time was spent here.

He was born Jan. 31, 1915, in France, the elder of two sons born to artists. His mother was American, his father from New Zealand. The family lived in Europe for a while, then came to the United States and stayed in Long Island with his mother’s relatives. Merton grew up in the Church of England.

His mother, Ruth, died of cancer in 1921. Merton later traveled in England, France and Bermuda with his father, Owen, a painter.

Merton attended a variety of schools of differing qualities – much of which he detailed in “The Seven Storey Mountain.” He attended Cambridge briefly and then, in 1935, entered Columbia University in New York City. By then his father Owen had also died.

While at Columbia, Merton spent time with other talented students who had literary and philosophical bents, including Robert Lax, an aspiring writer who was a member of a prominent family in Olean.

Lax, who would go on to become a well-regarded poet, became Merton’s close friend.

“Lax became, if not Merton’s best friend, certainly one of them,” said Paul J. Spaeth, director of the Friedsam Memorial Library and special collections librarian at St. Bonaventure. “He became one of Merton’s mentors. There was a certain innate spirituality in Lax he recognized right away.”

Lax would also become Merton’s pathway to a new life in Western New York.

The change of a life

Merton, who would become Catholic in this period, accompanied Lax on some of his trips home from college. The pair traveled across the state, arriving in the middle of the bustling Southern Tier community on a railroad car.

While in Olean, Merton became smitten with the beauty and quiet serenity of the rural setting.

He spent weeks in the area – some of that time at a woodland cottage that was owned by members of Lax’s family.

“In the summer, a number of them would come up and stay at my father’s cottage,” recalled Dick Marcus, 82, a nephew of Lax’s who as a boy met Merton when he came to town with his uncle. “It overlooked the city of Olean.”

Today, Marcus is one of the few still living in the area that remember direct contact with Merton.

“I knew all of Bob’s friends that went to Columbia with him,” said Marcus. “They would come up and write.”

Merton struck the young Marcus as a reserved, thoughtful type.

“He was not too tall, sort of round-faced, a sort of quiet guy,” said Marcus, whose mother was Lax’s sister. “Each one of Bob’s friends was different.”

Martin, the Jesuit author who has written about Merton, said Merton’s enjoyment of his time in this area is evident in his writings about it.

“There’s one scene where each of them tries to write a book in a week,” said Martin. “They’re like any bunch of college guys who get a house together. There’s something very charming about that.”

“I think he felt a sense of rest and calm there,” Martin said. “I think that sort of nursed him back to health.”

Yet in at least one way, Merton was a lot like the other friends he hung out with. He was working hard in those years to hone the craft of writing – by attempting novels, essays, and other sorts of pieces in his spare time.

“I used to go up there, and they would have their card tables, and be out there writing,” remembered Marcus.

Merton didn’t spend all his time on serious matters, though.

Marcus remembers that once, he and a friend built a treehouse.

“Merton and some of the others were watching,” Marcus said. “They got the idea they would like to have a sort of platform in the treetops, to write. They built this – it was way off the ground – this treehouse. They pounded in logs so they could climb up to it.”

Sojourn on campus

Merton didn’t go directly from that cottage in the woods to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he would spend the rest of his life.

There was an intermediate step.

Merton spent a period of three semesters, from the fall of 1940 to December 1941, teaching at St. Bonaventure, which was then a college, in Olean.

The school hadn’t appealed to him right away.

In fact, the first time Lax offered to show him around the campus of the Catholic college, as Merton later wrote in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” he refused.

Merton explained that he just wasn’t ready to see it. But later, Merton did visit the college and talk to some of the faculty, including Franciscan friars who worked there.

Some of those figures would affect his life in important ways in the next few years.

“On campus, the Big Three would have been Father Plassmann, Father Philotheus, and the other figure is Father Irenaeus Herscher,” said Spaeth, of the people on campus who influenced Merton the most.

Merton was advised during this period by these three men: the Rev. Thomas Plassman, president of the college; the Rev. Philotheus Boehner, a scholar; and the Rev. Herscher, who directed the college library.

Merton would later acknowledge – in his autobiographical writings, and in letters and journals – that his time at the college was deeply important.

“He loved St. Bonaventure, and he loved his experience” there, recalled Anthony Bannon, a 1960 graduate of the college who is now executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.

Bannon, impressed by Merton’s lasting legacy on the campus, wrote a letter to Merton in the mid-1960s, long after Merton had left the school. Bannon received in return a detailed, handwritten letter from the monk, offering thoughts about his time in the region.

“The letter about St. Bonaventure and his experience at St. Bonaventure is very dear,” said Bannon, who placed the document in an archive in the Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky.

The moment of decision

Merton changed his mind about his life in the late fall of 1941, as he walked around the campus in Olean.

He had been thinking about entering the religious life for a while.

Previously, he had applied for admission to a community of Franciscans but had not been accepted.

Merton’s deliberations that day in early December were different. He was considering entering a community of strictly contemplative and rigorously disciplined monks in Kentucky – the Trappists.

Pacing around St. Bonaventure – including in front of the shrine of St. Therese that still stands on the edge of campus – Merton made his choice.

He wrote about this moment in his best-selling book, using the nickname for St. Therese, the “Little Flower”:

“I said this time to the Little Flower: ‘You show me what to do.’ And I added, ‘If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk. Now show me what to do.’ ”

On Dec. 10, Merton took a train from Olean to Kentucky, where he entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the Trappists, at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

“He was very on fire with this dream of being a monk, when he left here,” said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure.

Merton would remain in the monastery the rest of his life. He would write more than 70 books, including memoirs, meditations, and essays.

“The Seven Storey Mountain,” when it appeared in 1948, shaped and influenced generations of Americans – especially young people.

“We were all reading ‘Seven Storey Mountain,’ ” said Carney. “I was a high school girl, I was reading it. The nuns had us read it. It was quite adult – it was quite challenging stuff.”

“He was challenging us to this profound search for God,” she said.

Later in life, Merton would shift some of the focus of his writing to political topics and Eastern spirituality. And, according to some books published about him, he seems to have had something of an affectionate personal relationship – the degree of it not fully known – with a young woman, a nurse he met while a patient in a hospital.

Those late-in-life developments have turned some people off on him as a spiritual figure, said Martin, the Jesuit priest who is the author of books including “Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints.”

But, Martin said, that may not be a fair assessment of Merton. “The revelations of the affair have taken some of the shine off his reputation,” Martin said. “It was also one event in his entire life.”

Merton took a trip to Bangkok in 1968, for a conference on religion. That was where he died, apparently of accidental electrocution, in his hotel room.

Lasting legacy

Those who know of Merton’s time in Western New York say there are many traces of the writer here.

The cottage that used to belong to the Marcus family – where Merton spent so much time – still stands, though the family no longer owns it.

At St. Bonaventure, visitors can stroll the campus – a Merton-themed walking tour brochure is offered – and see the brick building, Devereux Hall, where Merton lived when he was on the faculty.

The brick shrine to St. Therese, which became the site of Merton’s pivotal decision, is also located along a pathway on one edge of the campus. Nearby is a small grotto honoring Our Lady of Lourdes, where Merton also prayed.

The Friedsam Library, built in 1938, still looks the way it did when Merton used it as a place to study and read.

And, inside the library, there is a small collection of books that Merton himself owned before he left for the monastery – some of them inscribed with his name, and a few of them marked as prizes that he won in academic competitions during his school days. Merton left the books to St. Bonaventure.

“He left a Bible. This is signed in the front,” said Spaeth, guiding a visitor around the campus to trace Merton’s footsteps.

St. Bonaventure’s library also contains other rare material related to Merton and his life and work.

The university’s Merton Archive contains some of Merton’s class notes and teaching notes, material from his thesis on William Blake, journals, proofs and other documents by the writer.

“It was his deep personal friendship with Father Irenaeus, that’s how we came to have some of the material we do, his notebooks, things like that,” said Brother Ed Coughlin, vice president for Franciscan mission at the university.

There are also editions of many of Merton’s books, including “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

Coughlin, who lectures on Merton to students at the university, said that autobiography continues to be a powerful work for young people in the 21st century who are at a moment in their lives much like Merton when he wrote it 65 years ago.

“He struggled so much in his own life, as he struggled to embrace his religious vocation,” said Coughlin of Merton. “But (it’s) the ability to be reflective, to be contemplative.”

“He does it in an extreme way, by becoming a Trappist. But he’s a wonderful model for young people, as they struggle to answer that question: Who am I? And who am I going to become?”

‘Merton’s Heart’

Pointing to a sneaker that belonged to Bob Lanier – a star basketball player – Dennis Frank, the university’s archivist, said Merton is on the short list of the most notable people connected to the school.

“Most people who have come out of here who have gone on to fame and fortune have been in athletics,” said Frank.

“When Merton was here, basically no one had ever heard of him.”

Carney, the president, said she would like to increase the visibility of St. Bonaventure – and by extension, Western New York – as a place where Merton can be appreciated and understood, especially as attention focuses on the writer with the approach of the centennial celebration of his birth.

“I think we have the capacity to preserve a very important period of his life,” Carney said. “I would like to be a point of gathering.”

And there is one more bit of local lore that speaks to Merton’s legacy in this small rural community.

According to an old story, Merton used to love to walk in the woods around campus, where a clearing in the forest – shaped like a heart – remains.

It is visible from a great distance. Those who know of it call it “Merton’s Heart.”

Official sources at St. Bonaventure concur that the story is likely not true – that it’s just a bit of colorful embroidery on the legacy of a famous man.

But there it is. The name remains. It’s even on the walking tour.

“If you come to campus,” said Coughlin, the brother, “you get introduced to Merton’s heart.”