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Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was a 20th century Anglo-American Catholic writer. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.
Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of disillusioned World War II veterans, students, and even teen-agers flocking to monasteries across the US, and was also featured in National Review’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. Merton was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese writer on the Zen tradition, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton has also been the subject of several biographies.
On January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to Owen Merton, a New Zealand painter active in Europe and the United States, and Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker and artist. He was baptized in the Church of England, in accordance with his father’s wishes. Owen Merton, a struggling artist, was often absent during his son’s upbringing.
In August 1915, with World War I raging, the Merton family left Prades for the United States. They settled first with Ruth’s parents on Long Island, New York and then near them in Douglaston, New York. In 1917, the family moved into an old house in Flushing, New York where Merton’s brother, John Paul, was born on November 2, 1918. The family was considering returning to France, when Ruth was diagnosed with stomach cancer, from which she died on October 21, 1921, in Bellevue Hospital, New York. Merton was six years old.
In 1922, Merton and his father traveled to Bermuda, having left John Paul with his in-laws, the Jenkins family, in Douglaston. While the trip was short, Merton’s father fell in love with the American novelist Evelyn Scott, then married to Cyril Kay-Scott. Still grieving his mother, Merton never quite hit it off with Evelyn Scott. Her son, Creighton, later said that she was verbally abusive to Merton during their stay.
Happy to get away from the company of Evelyn Scott, in 1923 Merton returned to Douglaston to live with the Jenkins family and his brother John Paul. Owen Merton, Evelyn Scott and her husband Cyril Kay-Scott set sail for Europe, traveling through France, Italy, England and Algeria. Merton later half-jokingly referred to this odd trio as the “Bermuda Triangle”. During the winter of 1924, while in Algeria, Merton’s father became ill and was thought to be near death. In retrospect, the illness could have been an early symptom of the brain tumor that eventually took his life. The news of his father’s illness weighed heavily on Merton. The prospect of losing his sole surviving parent filled him with anxiety.
By March 1925, Owen Merton was well enough to organize a show at the Leicester Galleries in London. He later returned to New York and then took Merton with him to live in Saint-Antonin in France. Merton returned to France with mixed feelings, as he had lived with his grandparents for the last two years and had become attached to them. During their travels, Merton’s father and Evelyn Scott had discussed marriage on occasion. After the trip to New York, his father realized that it could not work, as Merton would not be reconciled to Scott. Unwilling to sacrifice his son for the romance, Owen Merton broke off the relationship.
In 1926, when Merton was eleven, his father enrolled him in a boys’ boarding school in Montauban, the Lycée Ingres. The stay brought up feelings of loneliness and depression for Merton, as he felt deserted by his father. During his initial months of schooling, Merton begged his father to remove him. As time passed, however, he gradually became more comfortable with his surroundings there. He made friends with a circle of young and aspiring writers at the Lycée and came to write two novels.
Sundays at the Lycée offered a nearby Catholic Mass, but Merton never attended. He often managed a Sunday visit home. A Protestant preacher would come to teach on Sunday at the Lycée for those who did not attend Mass, but Merton showed no interest. During the Christmas breaks of 1926 and 1927, he spent his time with friends of his father in Murat (a small town in the Auvergne). He admired the devout Catholic couple, whom he saw as good and decent people, but religion only once came up as a topic between them. Merton declared that all religions “lead to God, only in different ways, and every man should go according to his own conscience, and settle things according to his own private way of looking at things.” He wanted them to argue with him, but they did not. As he came to understand later, they realized that his attitude “implied a fundamental and utter lack of faith, and a dependence on my own lights, and attachment to my own opinion”; furthermore, since “I did not believe in anything,… anything I might say I believed would be only empty talk.”
Meanwhile, Owen Merton was off traveling and painting and attending an exhibition of his work in London, but in the summer of 1928 he took Merton out of the Lycée Ingres, informing him that they were headed together to England.
Merton and his father moved to the home of Owen’s aunt and uncle in Ealing, West London. Merton was soon enrolled in Ripley Court Preparatory School, another boarding school, this one in Surrey. Merton enjoyed his studies there and benefited from a greater sense of community than had existed at the lycée. On Sundays, all students attended services at the local Anglican church. Merton began routinely praying, but discontinued the practice after leaving the school.
During his holidays, Merton stayed at his great-aunt and uncle’s home, where occasionally his father would visit. During the Easter vacation, 1929, Merton and Owen went to Canterbury. Merton enjoyed the countryside around Canterbury, taking long walks there. When the holiday ended, Owen returned to France, and Merton to Ripley. Towards the end of that year, Thomas Merton learned that his father was ill and living in Ealing. Merton went to see him and together they left for Scotland, where a friend had offered his house for Owen to recover in. Shortly after, Owen was taken to London to the North Middlesex Hospital. Merton soon learned his father had a brain tumor. He took the news badly, but later, when he visited Owen in hospital, the latter seemed to be recovering. This helped ease some of Merton’s anxiety.
In 1930, Merton stayed at Oakham School, a boarding school in Rutland, England. He was successful there. At the end of the first year, his grandparents and John Paul visited him. His grandfather discussed his finances, telling him he would be provided for if Owen died. Merton and the family spent most of that summer visiting the hospital to see his father, who was so ill he could no longer speak. This caused Merton much pain. On 16 January 1931, just as the term at Oakham had restarted, Owen died. Tom Bennett, Owen Merton’s physician and former classmate in New Zealand, became Merton’s legal guardian. He let Merton use his house in London, which was unoccupied, during the Oakham holidays. That year, Merton visited Rome and Florence for a week. He also saw his grandparents in New York during the summer. Upon his return to Oakham, Merton became joint editor of the school magazine, the Oakhamian.
At this period in his life, Merton was a complete agnostic. In 1932, on a walking tour in Germany, he got an infection under a toenail. Unwisely, he ignored it and it developed into a case of blood-poisoning so severe that at one point he thought he was going to die. But “the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, either that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year. Or if the thought did come to me, it was only as an occasion for its denial and rejection.” His declared “creed” was “I believe in nothing.”
In September, he learned he had passed the entrance exam for Clare College, Cambridge. On his 18th birthday, tasting new freedom, he went off on his own. He stopped off in Paris, Marseilles, then walked to Hyeres, where he ran out of money and wired Bennett for more. Scoldingly Bennett granted his request, which may have shown Merton he cared. Merton then walked to Saint Tropez, where he took a train to Genoa and then another to Florence. From Florence he left for Rome, a trip that in some ways changed the course of his life.
Two days after arriving in Rome in February 1933, Merton moved out of his hotel and found a small pensione with views of the Palazzo Barberini and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, two magnificent pieces of architecture rich with history. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton remarks:
I had been in Rome before, on an Easter vacation from school, for about a week. I had seen the Forum and the Colosseum and the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s. But I had not really seen Rome. This time, I started out again, with the misconception common to Anglo-Saxons, that the real Rome is the Rome of the ugly ruins, the hills and the slums of the city.
Merton began going to the churches, not quite knowing why he felt so drawn to them. He did not attend Mass; he was just observing and appreciating them. One day, he happened upon a church near the Roman Forum. In the apse of the church, he saw a great mosaic of Jesus Christ coming in judgement in a dark blue sky and was transfixed. Merton had a hard time leaving the place, though he was unsure why. Merton had officially found the Rome he said he didn’t see on his first visit: Byzantine Christian Rome.
From this point on in his trip he set about visiting the various churches and basilicas in Rome, such as the Lateran Baptistery, Santa Costanza, the Basilica di San Clemente, Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana (to name a few). He purchased a Vulgate (Latin Bible), reading the entire New Testament. One night in his pensione, Merton had the sense that Owen was in the room with him for a few moments. This mystical experience led him to see the emptiness he felt in his life, and he said that for the first time in his life he really prayed, asking God to deliver him from his darkness. The Seven Storey Mountain also describes a visit to Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery in Rome. While visiting the church there, he was at ease, yet when entering the monastery he was overtaken with anxiety. That afternoon, while alone, he remarked to himself: “I should like to become a Trappist monk.” He would eventually become a monk, and although some Trappist monks chose to take an oath of silence, Merton was always very vocal about his beliefs in his writings.
United States 1933
Merton took a boat from Italy to the United States to visit his grandparents in Douglaston for the summer, before entering Clare College. Initially he retained some of the spirit he had had in Rome, continuing to read his Latin Bible. He wanted to find a church to attend, but had still not quite quelled his antipathy towards Catholicism. He went to Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, but was irritated by the services there, so he went to Flushing, New York, and attended a Quaker Meeting. Merton appreciated the silence of the atmosphere but couldn’t feel at home with the group. By mid-summer, he had lost nearly all the interest in organized religion that he had found in Rome. At the end of the summer he returned to England.
In October 1933, Merton entered Clare College as an undergraduate. Merton, now 18, seems to have viewed Clare College as the end-all answer to his life without meaning. In The Seven Storey Mountain, the brief chapter on Cambridge paints a fairly dark, negative picture of his life there but is short on detail.
Some schoolmates of Merton at Oakham, then attending Cambridge with him, remember that Tom drifted away and became isolated at Cambridge. He started drinking excessively, hanging out at the local bars rather than studying. He was also very free with his sexuality at this time, some friends going so far as to call him a womanizer. He also spent freely—far too freely in Bennett’s opinion—and he was summoned for the first of what was to be a series of stern lectures in his guardian’s London consulting rooms. Although details are sketchy—they appear to have been excised from a franker first draft of the autobiography by the Trappist censors—most of Merton’s biographers agree that he fathered a child with one of the women he encountered at Cambridge and there was some kind of legal action pending that was settled discreetly by Bennett. By any account, this child has never been identified.
By this time Bennett had had enough and, in a meeting in April, Merton and his guardian appear to have struck a deal: Merton would return to the States and Bennett would not tell Merton’s grandparents about his indiscretions. In May Merton left Cambridge after completing his exams.
In January 1935 Merton enrolled as a sophomore at Columbia University in Manhattan. He lived with the Jenkins family in Douglaston and took a train to the Columbia campus each day. Merton’s years at Columbia matured him, and it is here that he discovered Catholicism in a real sense. These years were also a time in his life where he realized others were more accepting of him as an individual. In short, at 21 he was an equal among his peers. At that time he established a close and long-lasting friendship with the proto-minimalist painter Ad Reinhardt.
Tom began an 18th Century English literature course during the spring semester taught by Mark Van Doren, a professor with whom he maintained a friendship until death. Van Doren didn’t teach his students, at least not in any traditional sense; he engaged them, sharing his love of literature with all. Merton was also interested in Communism at Columbia, where he briefly joined the Young Communist League; however, the first meeting he attended failed to interest him further and he never went back.
During summer break John Paul returned home from Gettysburg Academy in Pennsylvania. The two brothers spent their summer breaks bonding with each another, claiming later to have seen every movie produced between 1934 and 1937. When the fall semester arrived, John Paul left to enroll at Cornell University while Tom returned to Columbia. He began working for two school papers, a humor magazine called the Jester and the Columbia Review. Also on the Jester’s staff were the poet Robert Lax and the journalist Ed Rice. Lax and Merton became best friends and kept up a lively correspondence until Merton’s death; Rice later founded the Catholic magazine Jubilee, to which Merton frequently contributed essays. Merton also became a member of Alpha Delta Phi that semester and joined the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.
In October 1935, in protest of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Merton joined a picket of the Casa Italiana. The Casa Italiana, established in 1926, was conceived of by Columbia and the Italian government as a “university within a university”. Merton also joined the local peace movement, having taken “the Oxford Pledge” to not support any government in any war they might undertake.
In 1936 Merton’s grandfather, Samuel Jenkins, died. Merton and his grandfather had grown rather close through the years, and Merton immediately left school for home upon receiving the news. He states that, without thinking, he went to the room where his grandfather’s body was and knelt down to pray over him.
In February 1937, Merton read a book that opened his mind to Catholicism. It was titled The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Étienne Gilson, and inside he encountered an explanation of God that he found both logical and pragmatic. Tom purchased this book because he was taking a class on medieval French literature, not seeing the nihil obstat in the book denoting its Catholic origin. This work was pivotal, paving the way for more encounters with Catholicism. Another author Merton began reading at this time was Aldous Huxley, whose book Ends and Means introduced Merton to mysticism. In August of the same year, Tom’s grandmother, Bonnemaman, died.
In January 1938 Merton graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in English. After graduation he continued at Columbia, doing graduate work in English. In June, a friend, Seymour Freedgood, arranged a meeting with Mahanambrata Brahmachari, a Hindu monk in New York visiting from the University of Chicago. Merton was very impressed by the man, seeing that he was profoundly centered in God, and expected him to recommend his beliefs and religion to them in some manner. Instead, Brahmachari recommended that they reconnect with their own spiritual roots and traditions. He suggested Merton read The Confessions of Augustine and The Imitation of Christ. Although Merton was surprised to hear the monk recommending Catholic books, he read them both. He also started to pray again regularly.
For the next few months Merton began to consider Catholicism as something to explore again. Finally, in August 1938, he decided he wanted to attend Mass and went to Corpus Christi Church located near to the Columbia campus on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights. Mass was foreign to him, but he listened attentively. Following this experience, Merton’s reading list became more and more geared toward Catholicism. While doing his graduate work, he was writing his thesis on William Blake, whose spiritual symbolism he was coming to appreciate in new ways.
One evening in September, Merton was reading a book about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism and how he became a priest. Suddenly he could not shake this sense that he, too, should follow such a path. He grabbed his coat and headed quickly over to the Corpus Christi Church rectory, where he met with a Fr. George Barry Ford, expressing his desire to become Catholic. The next few weeks Merton started catechism, learning the basics of his new faith. On November 16, 1938, Thomas Merton was baptized at Corpus Christi Church and received Holy Communion. On February 22, 1939, Merton received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. Merton decided he would pursue his Ph.D. at Columbia and moved from Douglaston to Greenwich Village.
In January 1939 Merton had heard good things from friends of his about a part-time teacher on campus named Daniel Walsh, so he decided to take a course on Thomas Aquinas with Walsh. Through Walsh, Merton was introduced to Jacques Maritain at a lecture on Catholic Action, which took place at a Catholic Book Club meeting the following March. Merton and Walsh developed a lifelong friendship, and it was Walsh who convinced Merton that Thomism was not for him. On May 25, 1939, Merton received Confirmation at Corpus Christi, and took the confirmation name James.
In October 1939, Merton invited friends back to sleep over at his place following a long night out at a jazz club. Over breakfast, Merton told them of his desire to become a priest. Soon after this epiphany, Merton visited Fr. Ford at Corpus Christi to share his feeling. Ford agreed with Merton, but added that he felt Merton was suited for the diocesan priesthood and advised against joining an order.
Soon after, Merton met with his teacher Dan Walsh, whom he trusted to advise him on the matter. Walsh disagreed with Ford’s assessment that Merton was suited to a secular calling. Instead, he felt Merton was spiritually and intellectually more suited for a priestly vocation in a specific order. So they discussed the Jesuits, Cistercians and Franciscans. Since Merton had appreciated what he had read of Saint Francis of Assisi, he felt that might be the direction in which he was being called.
Walsh set up a meeting with a Fr. Edmund Murphy, a friend at the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street. The interview went well and Merton was given an application, as well as Fr. Murphy’s personal invitation to become a Franciscan friar. However, he noted that Merton would not be able to enter the novitiate until August 1940 because that was the only month in which they accepted new postulants. Merton was very excited, yet disappointed that it would be another year before he would fulfill his calling.
By 1940 Merton began to have doubts about whether he was fit to be a Franciscan. He felt he had never truly been upfront about his past with Fr. Murphy or Dan Walsh. It is possible some of this may have concerned his time at Cambridge, though he is never specific in The Seven Storey Mountain about precisely what he felt he was hiding. Merton arranged to see Fr. Murphy and tell him of his past troubles. Fr. Murphy was understanding during the meeting, but told Tom he ought to return the next day once he had time to consider this new information. That next day Fr. Murphy delivered Merton devastating news. He no longer felt Merton was suitable material for a Franciscan vocation as a friar, and even said that the August novitiate was now full. Fr. Murphy seemed uninterested in helping Merton’s cause any further, and Merton believed at once that his calling was finished.
St. Bonaventure University
In early August 1940, the month he would have entered the Franciscan novitiate, Merton went to Olean, New York, to stay with friends, including Robert Lax and Ed Rice, at a cottage where they had vacationed the summer before. This was a tough time for Merton, and he wanted to be in the company of friends. Merton now needed a job. In the vicinity was St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan university he had learned about through Fr. Edmund. The day after arriving in Olean, Merton went to St. Bonaventure for an interview with then-president Fr. Thomas Plassman. Fortuitously, there was an opening in the English department and Merton was hired on the spot. Merton chose St. Bonaventure because he still harbored a desire to be a friar, and felt that he could at least live among them if not be one of them.
In September 1940, Merton moved into a dormitory on campus. (His old room in Devereux Hall has a sign above the door to this effect.) While Merton’s stay at Bonaventure would prove brief, the time was pivotal for him. While teaching there, his spiritual life blossomed as he went deeper and deeper into his prayer life. He all but gave up drinking, quit smoking, stopped going to movies and became more selective in his reading. In his own way he was undergoing a kind of lay renunciation of worldly pleasures. In April 1941, Merton went to a retreat he had booked for Holy Week at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. At once he felt a pull to the place, and could feel his spirits rise during his stay.
Returning to St. Bonaventure with Gethsemani on his mind, Merton returned to teaching. In May 1941 he had an occasion where he used his old Vulgate, purchased in Italy back in 1933, as a kind of oracle. The idea was that he would randomly select a page and blindly point his finger somewhere, seeing if it would render him some sort of sign. On his second try Merton laid his finger on a section of The Gospel of Luke which stated, “Behold, thou shalt be silent.” Immediately Merton thought of the Cistercians. Although he was still unsure of his qualifications for a religious vocation, Merton felt he was being drawn more and more to a specific calling.
In August 1941 Merton attended a talk at the school given by Catherine de Hueck. Hueck had founded the Friendship House in Toronto and its sister house in Harlem, which Merton visited. Appreciative of the mission of Hueck and Friendship House, which was racial harmony and charity, he decided to volunteer there for two weeks. Merton was amazed at how little he had learned of New York during his studies at Columbia. Harlem was such a different place, full of poverty and prostitution. Merton felt especially troubled by the situation of children being raised in the environment there. Friendship House had a profound impact on Merton, and he would speak of it often in his later writing.
In November 1941 Hueck asked if Merton would consider becoming a full-time member of Friendship House, to which Merton responded cordially yet noncommittally. He still felt unfit to serve Christ, and even hinted at such in a letter to Hueck that same month, in which he implied he was not good enough for her organization. In early December Merton let Hueck know that he would definitely not be joining Friendship House, explaining his persistent attraction to the priesthood.
On December 10, 1941 Thomas Merton arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani and spent three days at the monastery guest house, waiting for acceptance into the Order. The novice master would come to interview Merton, gauging his sincerity and qualifications. In the interim, Merton was put to work polishing floors and scrubbing dishes. On December 13 he was accepted into the monastery as a postulant by Dom Frederic Dunne, Gethsemani’s Father Abbot since 1935. Merton’s first few days did not go smoothly. He had a severe cold from his stay in the guest house, where he sat in front of an open window to prove his sincerity. But Merton devoted himself entirely to adjusting to the austerity, enjoying the change of lifestyle. During his initial weeks at Gethsemani, Merton studied the complicated Cistercian sign language and daily work and worship routine.
In March 1942, during the first Sunday of Lent, Merton was accepted as a novice monk at the monastery. In June, he received a letter from his brother John Paul stating he was soon to leave for war and would be coming to Gethsemani to visit Merton before leaving. On July 17 John Paul arrived in Gethsemani and the two brothers did some catching up. John Paul expressed his desire to become Catholic, and by July 26 was baptized at a church in nearby New Haven, Kentucky, leaving the following day. This would be the last time the two saw each other. John Paul died on April 17, 1943 when his plane’s engines failed over the English Channel. A poem by Merton to John Paul appears at the end of The Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton kept journals throughout his stay at Gethsemani. Initially he had felt writing to be at odds with his vocation, worried it would foster a tendency to individuality. Fortunately his superior, Father Abbot Dom Frederic, saw that Merton had a gifted intellect and talent for writing. In 1943 Merton was tasked to translate religious texts and write biographies on the saints for the monastery. Merton approached his new writing assignment with the same fervor and zeal he displayed in the farmyard.
On March 19, 1944, Merton made his temporary profession of vows and was given the white cowl, black scapular and leather belt. In November 1944 a manuscript Merton had given to friend Robert Lax the previous year was published by James Laughlin at New Directions: a book of poetry titled Thirty Poems. Merton had mixed feelings about the publishing of this work, but Dom Frederic remained resolute over Merton continuing his writing. In 1946 New Directions published another poetry collection by Merton, A Man in the Divided Sea, which, combined with Thirty Poems, attracted some recognition for him. The same year Merton’s manuscript for The Seven Storey Mountain was accepted by Harcourt Brace & Company for publication. The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography, was written during two-hour intervals in the monastery scriptorium as a personal project.
By 1947 Merton was more comfortable in his role as a writer. On March 19 he took his solemn vows, a commitment to live out his life at the monastery. He also began corresponding with a Carthusian at St. Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, England. Merton had harbored an appreciation for the Carthusian order since coming to Gethsemani in 1941, and would later come to consider leaving the Cistercians for the Order. On July 4 the Catholic journal Commonweal published an essay by Merton titled Poetry and the Contemplative Life.
In 1948 The Seven Storey Mountain was published to critical acclaim, with fan mail to Merton reaching new heights. Merton also published several works for the monastery that year, which were: Guide to Cistercian Life, Cistercian Contemplatives, Figures for an Apocalypse, and The Spirit of Simplicity. That year Saint Mary’s College (Indiana) also published a booklet by Merton, What Is Contemplation? Merton published as well that year a biography, Exile Ends in Glory: The Life of a Trappistine, Mother M. Berchmans, O.C.S.O. Merton’s Father Abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, died on August 3, 1948 on a trainride to Georgia. Dunne’s passing was painful for Merton, who had come to look on the Abbot as a father figure and spiritual mentor. On August 15 Dunne was replaced by Dom James Fox, a former U.S. Navy officer. In October Merton discussed with the new Abbot his ongoing attraction to the Carthusian Order, to which Fox responded by assuring Merton that he belonged at Gethsemani. Fox permitted Merton to continue his writing, Merton now having gained substantial recognition outside the monastery. On December 21 Merton was ordained as a subdeacon.
On January 5, 1949 Merton took a train to Louisville and applied for U.S. citizenship. Published that year were Seeds of Contemplation, The Tears of Blind Lions, The Waters of Siloe, and the British edition of The Seven Storey Mountain under the title Elected Silence. On March 19 Merton became a deacon in the Order, and on May 26 (Ascension Thursday) he was ordained a priest, saying his first Mass the following day. In June the monastery celebrated its centenary, for which Merton authored the book Gethsemani Magnificat in commemoration. In November Merton started teaching mystical theology to novices at Gethsemani, a duty he greatly enjoyed. By this time Merton was a huge success outside the monastery, The Seven Storey Mountain having sold over 150,000 copies. In subsequent years Merton would author many other books, amassing a wide readership. He would revise Seeds of Contemplation several times, viewing his early edition as error-prone and immature. A person’s place in society, views on social activism, and various approaches toward contemplative prayer and living became constant themes in his writings.
In December a fellow priest at the monastery allowed Merton to take the monastery jeep out on the property for a drive. Merton, having never learned to drive, wound up hitting some trees and running through ditches, flipping the jeep halfway over in the middle of the road. Needless to say, he never used the jeep again.
During his long years at Gethsemani Merton changed from the passionately inward-looking young monk of The Seven Storey Mountain, to a more contemplative writer and poet. Merton became well known for his dialogues with other faiths and his non-violent stand during the race riots and Vietnam War of the 1960s.
By the 1960s, he had arrived at a broadly human viewpoint, one deeply concerned about the world and issues like peace, racial tolerance, and social equality. He had developed a personal radicalism which had political implications but was not based on ideology, rooted above all in non-violence. He regarded his viewpoint as based on “simplicity” and expressed it as a Christian sensibility. In a letter to a Latin-American Catholic writer, Ernesto Cardenal, Merton wrote: “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies.”
Merton finally achieved the solitude he had long desired while living in a hermitage on the monastery grounds in 1965. Over the years he had occasional battles with some of his abbots about not being allowed out of the monastery despite his international reputation and voluminous correspondence with many well-known figures of the day.
At the end of 1968, the new abbot, the Reverend Flavian Burns, allowed him the freedom to undertake a tour of Asia, during which he met the Dalai Lama in India on three occasions, and also the Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen master, Chatral Rinpoche, followed by a solitary retreat near Darjeeling. Then in what was to be his final letter he noted, “In my contacts with these new friends, I also feel a consolation in my own faith in Christ and in his dwelling presence. I hope and believe he may be present in the hearts of all of us.”. He also made a visit to Polonnaruwa (in what was then Ceylon), where he had a religious experience while viewing enormous statues of the Buddha. There is speculation that Merton wished to remain in Asia as a hermit.
Personal life and death
According to The Seven Storey Mountain, the youthful Merton loved jazz but by the time he began his first teaching job he had forsaken all but peaceful music. Later in life, whenever he was permitted to leave Gethsemani for medical or monastic reasons, he would catch what live jazz he could, mainly in Louisville or New York.
In April 1966, Merton underwent a surgical procedure to treat debilitating back pain. While recuperating in a Louisville hospital, he fell in love with a student nurse assigned to his care. He wrote poems to her and reflected on the relationship in “A Midsummer Diary for M.” Merton struggled to maintain his vows while being deeply in love with the woman he referred to in his personal diary as “M”. He remained chaste, never consummating the relationship. After ending the relationship, he recommitted himself to his vows.
On December 10, 1968, Merton had gone to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. While stepping out of his bath, he reached out to adjust an electric fan and apparently touched an exposed wire and was accidentally electrocuted. He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941. His body was flown back to the United States and he is buried at Gethsemani Abbey.
Contact with Buddhism
Merton was first exposed to and became interested in Eastern religions when he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means in 1937, the year before his conversion to Catholicism. Throughout his life, he studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism in addition to his academic and monastic studies.
Merton was not interested in what these traditions had to offer as doctrines and institutions, but deeply interested in what each said of the depth of human experience. This is not to say that Merton believed that these religions did not have valuable rituals or practices for him and other Christians, but that, doctrinally, Merton was so committed to Christianity and he felt that practitioners of other faiths were so committed to their own doctrines that any discussion of doctrine would be useless for all involved.
He believed that for the most part, Christianity had forsaken its mystical tradition in favor of Cartesian emphasis on “the reification of concepts, idolization of the reflexive consciousness, flight from being into verbalism, mathematics, and rationalization.” Eastern traditions, for Merton, were mostly untainted by this type of thinking and thus had much to offer in terms of how to think of and understand oneself.
Merton was perhaps most interested in — and, of all of the Eastern traditions, wrote the most about — Zen. Having studied the Desert Fathers and other Christian mystics as part of his monastic vocation, Merton had a deep understanding of what it was those men sought and experienced in their seeking. He found many parallels between the language of these Christian mystics and the language of Zen philosophy.
In 1959, Merton began a dialogue with D.T. Suzuki which was published in Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite as “Wisdom in Emptiness”. This dialogue began with the completion of Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert. Merton sent a copy to Suzuki with the hope that he would comment on Merton’s view that the Desert Fathers and the early Zen masters had similar experiences. Nearly ten years later, when Zen and the Birds of Appetite was published, Merton wrote in his postface that “any attempt to handle Zen in theological language is bound to miss the point”, calling his final statements “an example of how not to approach Zen.” Merton struggled to reconcile the Western and Christian impulse to catalog and put into words every experience with the ideas of Christian apophatic theology and the unspeakable nature of the Zen experience.
In keeping with Merton’s idea that non-Christian faiths had much to offer Christianity in terms of experience and perspective and little or nothing in terms of doctrine, Merton distinguished between Zen Buddhism, an expression of history and culture, and Zen. What Merton meant by Zen Buddhism was the religion that began in China and spread to Japan as well as the rituals and institutions that accompanied it. By Zen, Merton meant something not bound by culture, religion or belief. In this capacity, Merton was influenced by the book Zen Catholicism. With this idea in mind, Merton’s later writings about Zen may be understood to be coming more and more from within an evolving and broadening tradition of Zen which is not particularly Buddhist but informed by Merton’s monastic training within the Christian tradition.
Merton’s influence has grown since his death and he is widely recognized as an important 20th-century Catholic mystic and thinker. Interest in his work contributed to a rise in spiritual exploration beginning in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Merton’s letters and diaries reveal the intensity with which their author focused on social justice issues, including the civil rights movement and proliferation of nuclear arms. He had prohibited their publication for 25 years after his death. Publication raised new interest in Merton’s life.
Merton is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on December 10.
The Abbey of Gethsemani benefited from the royalties of Merton’s writing. In addition, his writings attracted much interest in Catholic practice and thought, and in the Cistercian vocation.
In recognition of Merton’s close association with Bellarmine University, the university established an official repository for Merton’s archives at the Thomas Merton Center on the Bellarmine campus in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Thomas Merton Award, a peace prize, has been awarded since 1972 by the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Social Justice in Pittsburgh.
An annual lecture in his name is given at his alma mater, Columbia University.
Bishop Morocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School in downtown Toronto, Canada is named in part after him.
Some of Merton’s manuscripts that include correspondence with his superiors are located in the library of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA.
1.^ Reichardt, Mary R. (2004). Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature, Volume 2. Greenwood Press. p. 450. ISBN 031332803X.
2.^ Thomas Merton Collection – Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University.
3.^ “Chronology of Merton’s life” – Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University
4.^ “FICTION: 1949 BESTSELLERS: Non Fiction”. TIME. Dec. 19, 1949. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
5.^ “Religion: The Mountain”. TIME. April 11, 1949.
6.^ National Review’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century National Review website
7.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 3-5.
8.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 6.
9.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 7-9.
10.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 15-18.
11.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 20-22.
12.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 30-31.
13.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 31-41.
14.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 57-58
15.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 63-64
16.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 99.
17.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 107.
18.^ Seven Storey Mountain, 114.
19.^ Niebuhr, Gustav (November 1, 1999). “Mahanambrata Brahmachari Is Dead at 95”. New York Times. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
20.^ Thomas Merton’s paradise journey: writings on contemplation, By William Henry Shannon, Thomas Merton, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000 p. 278
21.^ Pennington, M. Basil (2005). Thomas Merton: I have seen what I was looking for : selected spiritual writings. New City Press. p. 12. ISBN 1565482255.
22.^ Letter, November 17, 1962, quoted in Monica Furlong’s Merton: a Biography, p. 263.
23.^ “Religion: Mystic’s Last Journey”. TIME. August 6, 1973. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
24.^ Learning to Love, p. 110
25.^ “Religion: The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians”. TIME. December 20, 1968. pp. 3, 4. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
26.^ “Monks of Abbey of Gethsemani: Thomas Merton (profile)”. Abbey of Gethsemani.
27.^ Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey p.100
28.^ Thomas Merton – Contemplative, Mystic, Panentheist
29.^ Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander p.285
30.^ a b Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey p.105
31.^ Zen and the Birds of Appitite p.139
32.^ Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey p.106
33.^ Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey p.112
34.^ Robert Giroux (October 11, 1998). “Thomas Merton’s Durable Mountain”. New York Times.
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Thomas Merton
2008 – Graham, Terry, The Strange Subject – Thomas Merton’s Views on Sufism, 2008, SUFI: a journal of Sufism, Issue 30
2007 – Deignan, Kathleen, A Book of Hours: At Prayer With Thomas Merton (2007), Sorin Books, ISBN 1-93349-505-7
2006 – Weis, Monica, Paul M. Pearson, Kathleen P. Deignan, Beyond the Shadow and the Disguise: Three Essays on Thomas Merton (2006), The Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, ISBN 0-95515-711-0
2003 – Merton, Thomas, Kathleen Deignan Ed., John Giuliani, Thomas Berry, When The Trees Say Nothing (2003), Sorin Books, ISBN 1-89373-260-6
2002 – Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O’Connell The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (2002), Orbis Books, ISBN 1-57075-426-8, 556 p.
1997 – Merton, Thomas, “Learning to Love”, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Six 1966-1967(1997), ISBN 0-06-065485-6. (see notes for page numbers)
1992 – Shannon, William H., Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story (1992), The Crossroad Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8245-1281-2 biography
1991 – Forest, Jim, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (1991), Orbis Books, ISBN 0-88344-755-X, 226 p. illustrated biography.
1984 – Mott, Michael, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), Harvest Books 1993: ISBN 0-15-680681-9, 710 p. authorized biography.
1978 – Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain (1978), A Harvest/HBJ Book, ISBN 0-15-680679-7. (see notes for pages)
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