By Tanya Connor
SHIRLEY – A Thomas Merton library dedicated to a local Catholic Oct. 21 was willed to a Trappist abbey – then donated to a prison.
The action itself was a reminder of points Pope Francis made during his recent U.S. visit.
Thomas Merton, the famed Trappist, was one of the people “outside of the establishment” whom Pope Francis spoke about, Michael W. Higgins said at the dedication of the John Collins & Edward Farley Thomas Merton Resource & Research Center at MCI-Shirley. Professor Higgins is president of the International Thomas Merton Society and vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
During his visit Pope Francis pointed to Merton and three other Americans as examples to follow. He used their lives to make several points, among them support for “the global abolition of the death penalty” and the belief that “society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
The other Americans the Pope cited were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day.
Speaking to Congress Sept. 24, Pope Francis quoted Merton talking about being free by nature, in the image of God, but the prisoner of his own violence and selfishness.
“Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church,” the Pope said.
“He shares his own woundedness,” Professor Higgins said of Merton. “We all ache into holiness. … That’s why people read Merton. … They discover a companion on the way. … He was one of us.”
At the dedication prisoners unveiled a sign over the Merton resource and research center housed in Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at MCI-Shirley.
“I am especially honored to have the center named partially after me and Edward Farley,” Mr. Collins, of St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury, said. “My hope is that this will generate enthusiasm on the part of the prison population” to study Merton.
Mr. Collins, who started the only Merton Society chapter in a prison at MCI-Shirley, said he believes this is the second largest collection of Merton materials in the world. The largest is at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., fairly near the Abbey of Gethsemani where the Trappist lived, he said.
Mr. Collins said he donated to the prison library, as did other Merton scholars and followers, but the biggest donation is the collection Edward J. Farley of Lowell willed to St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, the local Trappist community.
Thomas More Farley, son of the late Edward and Margaret Farley, said he asked the monks about donating his father’s collection – which includes about 1,000 books, videos, tapes and other materials – to the prison chapter. His sister Margaret Farley Lombardi said the monks, who have an extensive Merton library themselves, agreed.
“Our Dad would be so pleased with this dedication today,” she said. (He died last April.) Several of their family members attended. Among other guests were three of Mr. Collins’ children and his daughter-in-law Nancy Collins, who is his associate in the prison chapter, which meets monthly to discuss Merton’s writings.
“We know that Dad’s collection is in the right place,” Mrs. Lombardi told the prisoners. “These materials will help each of you to grow in your faith. … You are in our prayers as you learn about Thomas Merton.”
Mr. Collins said the story of his work with Mr. Farley is recorded in the Merton scholars’ autobiography “We are Already One.”
He said they met in the 1980s as fellow educators. (He was a school superintendent and adjunct professor various places and Mr. Farley was an assistant superintendent in Tewksbury.)
In 1991 they started a Merton Society chapter in Bedford which they ran for 19 years and in 2002 he started one at his parish which he ran for 11 years. In August 2013 he started MCI-Shirley’s chapter, after prisoners, who saw his Merton columns in The Catholic Free Press, asked him to come speak – and to come back again.
At the Oct. 21 dedication Deacon Arthur Rogers, Catholic chaplain at MCI-Shirley, thanked God for the Merton collection and said special people wanted it there.
Prisoners shared things they’ve gained from Merton and the chapter.
Shawn Fisher had volunteer Ruth Ste. Marie read Merton’s poem, “The Five Enemies.” It talks about “the robber” and “the respectable citizen” both losing “the original simplicity of man” by love of what dazzles the senses.
“Much like Merton’s monastic life, a prisoner can certainly identify with many of the simplicities of life,” Mr. Fisher said. They can identify with Merton’s comparison of sacrificial vessels and wood in the ditch which both came from the same tree.
“[W]e all originated from the same place … Our beauty enhanced or diminished by the choices we make,” Mr. Fisher said. “Yet, as we shed the extravagances of life we find our way back to our original ‘simplicity.’”
Joseph Labriola told how he found Merton’s “Seeds of Contemplation” in the 1970s in a place where prisoners were allowed only a Bible or a Quran. He felt God’s love, shared what he read with other prisoners and begged the priest to smuggle in more Merton books.
Now he’s trying to make Merton’s words part of his everyday life, he said. He read a Merton passage about coming to know God fully by uniting one’s will with Christ’s.
Michael Skinner said that at first he thought that Merton was a draft-dodger because he joined the monastery right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He mentioned this to Mr. Collins, who suggested he read Merton’s autobiography, which changed his perspective.
Mr. Skinner said he learned Merton tried to join the medical corps and didn’t qualify. He decided Merton followed God’s call, which “greatly affected me and all of us in here.”
Timothy Muise marveled at how Mr. Collins treats him and the other prisoners as his equals.
“I’m a different guy today because people like Jack believe in us,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a better tribute paid to me,” Mr. Collins said.
Professor Higgins said Merton was ridiculed, experienced ecclesiastical censure, and knew he needed constant self revision.
“We’re still publishing new stuff by Merton” that wasn’t published before. “The man’s been dead for decades. He really is an icon for our times.”