By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Editor’s note- Dr. Collins passed away Jan. 31. The story below was written in 2015. His full obituary is here:
Shrewsbury – In “The Sign of Jonas,” the Trappist monk, author and theologian Thomas Merton wrote: “Keeping a journal has taught me that there is not so much new in your life as you sometimes think. When you re-read your journal you find out that your latest discovery is something you already found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences.”
For Dr. John “Jack” Collins, many of those ideas have emerged from Merton’s work. Collins’ exploration of it has led the Shrewsbury resident down an amazing road. It began in Korea, recently brought him to Louisville, Ky., and has had several detours – including a Massachusetts prison – along the way.
A former teacher, college professor and superintendent of schools in Shrewsbury, Collins has spent most of his life as an educator. But before he received his doctorate in education, he received an education of a different kind; he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. It was there that he first discovered Thomas Merton – in a box of book donations from the Red Cross. Collins chuckled as he said that most of his fellow soldiers preferred “colorful” books. Because of that, the only two left in the box one day were Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and Merton’s “The Sign of Jonas.” The latter captured his attention in a profound way.
“I wanted to read everything he had written,” he said.
But his passion for the monk’s writings didn’t end with reading them. Collins has written many published articles. He has also contributed chapters to two books, and he facilitated a program at St. Mary’s Parish in Shrewsbury for 11 years. Additionally, he writes a Merton column for “The Catholic Free Press,” co-hosts a Shrewsbury Media Connection show, and gives lectures. It was one of those lectures that led to a wonderful accomplishment for the Thomas Merton scholar – the establishment of an International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) chapter at Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI)-Shirley.
One of 48 chapters worldwide, it started after an inmate invited Collins to speak at the prison. His first lecture went so well that he was invited to give a second one. Although he credits the Holy Spirit with inspiring him, he remembered the inspiration hitting him as he drove home from that second lecture. Collins said he’s happy the prisoners in the chapter are talented and “motivated to learn.” He said they read voraciously, and participating in discussions and presentations seems to build their confidence.
“Prison is filled with hate and despair,” said Collins, who is currently leading them through a discussion of “The Sign of Jonas.” “Thomas Merton gives them hope.”
In June, Collins’ years of studying Merton’s work culminated in a trip to Louisville to attend the 14th General Meeting of the ITMS. The conference, which celebrated the centenary of Merton’s birth, was also attended by Jack Collins Jr., one of Collins’ two sons, and his son’s wife Nancy Hughes-Collins. At a banquet, Collins received a Louie award. With hundreds of guests giving Collins a standing ovation, the coveted award was given to him because his “distinguished service has contributed to the aims of the society and to the furthering of its goals.”
“I was overwhelmed because it’s a very prestigious award. I was very happy to be selected for it,” Collins said.
While the father of four and grandfather to seven has been busy giving presentations about his first book “A Korean War Memoir,” which recounts the activities of the 513th Transportation Truck Company as well as his personal experiences serving his country, his keen interest in Merton’s work continues to have an impact on his life.
“Thomas Merton has enhanced my spiritual life,” Collins explained. “Thomas Merton’s work on contemplative prayer is something that has helped me spiritually. He has also made me socially aware.”