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Pope commends Merton in Congress

Somerset Bridge, by Owen Merton - whose son Thomas, an American with lasting links to Bermuda from his childhood years here, was commended before Congress yesterday by Pope Francis.

Philosopher Thomas Merton — an American Catholic with strong Bermuda links — earned a place alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given to the United States Congress yesterday by Pope Francis. The Pope was commending “four representatives of the American people” but Merton, as he recalled in his 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, was something of an honorary Bermudian as well.

His childhood years on the Island in the 1920s are vividly recalled, if not always happily.

“Bermuda in those days had no big hotels and no golf courses to speak of,” Merton wrote.

“It was simply a curious island, two or three days out of New York, in the Gulf Stream, where the British had a small naval base and where there were no automobiles and not much of anything else either.”

The book, which became a notable best-seller for what is largely an account of his spiritual development, describes white houses “cleaner than sugar”, the many coloured waters, and the wooded hills of Somerset where Merton would live with his father, the painter Owen Merton, in a boarding house.

Merton’s father came twice to the Island, painting local scenes in watercolour. Merton was sent to a school for white children, and describes being “constantly punished” for his ineptitude at maths.

Later, however, he would return to enjoy the solitude of “those empty white roads” on his bicycle.

Abraham Lincoln and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day were two others lauded by Pope Francis, who told Congress that Merton had been “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.

“He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”