He was born in France and died in Thailand. But when he was laid to rest it was in the soil of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky where he had lived for 27 years as a monk of the Trappist order, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Thomas Merton was one of the most important and profound spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Like other Trappists, he took a vow of silence, but book after book of poetry, essays, commentary, reflection and meditation made his voice heard around the world. He was also a complex and many-sided man who had his share of struggles, doubts and disappointments.
It was a long and fascinating journey that brought him to the Abbey of Gethsemani. He was born in Prades, France on January 31, 1915. His father, Owen Merton, was a painter from New Zealand. His mother Ruth, also an artist, was an Ohio-born American from a Quaker family. They met in Paris, married, and had two children, Thomas and his younger brother John Paul, who was killed at sea during the Second World War. Merton’s mother died when he was six, and Merton and his family moved around frequently during his childhood and adolescence, shuttling among France, England, Bermuda and the United States. He spent time in boarding schools and living with relatives. His father, who was absent from him for long periods of time, died when he was fifteen, and he lived with his grandparents in England, later attending Oakham in Rutland and then spending a year at Clare College, Cambridge.
His time at Cambridge was a dark period of his life. Merton was a troubled young man swiftly becoming a hard-drinking womanizer, eventually fathering a child (both mother and child are believed to have died during a Nazi air raid on London). His guardian settled the threat of a paternity suit against him and sent him to live with his American grandparents. Thomas Merton sailed to Long Island and enrolled at Columbia University.
Merton found the Columbia campus a welcome change. He became involved in fraternity life, worked for student publications, made friends and was nurtured by teachers the likes of Mark van Doren, a distinguished poet and revered English professor. Merton plunged into literary study, wrote fiction, and drew cartoons and sketches, but he was still a man about town, enjoying jazz, the company of young women, and long nights drinking with his friends. He flirted with Communism. During these years in New York, Merton composed four novels, only one of which he saved (and was published posthumously), completed his master’s thesis on William Blake and began graduate work on the famous Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In addition, he contributed book reviews to both the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times.
But the young man determined to be a writer also felt a deep restlessness during his college years. One day he passed the Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue and became entranced by a copy of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in the store window. He purchased the book and soon began reading other Catholic religious and philosophical works, inching closer to conversion. He began attending Mass, learned the Catechism and was baptized. In 1940 he took a position teaching at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, New York after completing his master’s degree.
Merton’s conversion had a long foreground. Although his experiences with formal religion within his family were minimal, Merton was taken with the cathedrals and churches of Rome when he visited there in 1933, and he never forgot the Catholic culture he saw in France, remembering in particular a French couple deeply devoted to their faith. He also became interested in mysticism after reading Aldous Huxley’s Means and Ends, and befriended a Hindu monk visiting New York named Mahanambrata Brahmachari who encouraged Merton to pursue Christian answers to the spiritual questions that he had.
But the restlessness persisted after his conversion, something telling him he had a religious vocation. He considered becoming a Franciscan and was disheartened when a friar discouraged him from entering the order. However, an Easter retreat at Gethsemani in April of 1941 had a powerful effect on Merton. He returned to the Cistercian monastery, and on December 10, 1941, just a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Thomas Merton was tentatively accepted into the community in Kentucky, leaving behind his assorted manuscripts with friends in New York. The young pilgrim had found his home.
Abbey of Gethsemani.
Merton had entered one of the toughest of the Catholic religious orders. The monks followed a vow of silence, ate spartan meals, and spent long hours in prayer, meditation and physical labor. Yet Merton embraced the life.
One tension that surfaced early involved Merton having essentially two vocations: one as a monastic, the other as writer. Merton gave himself over to the routines of monastic life—the early morning prayers, meditation, the long hours of work in the fields—and initially stifled his desire to write despite surges of poetic inspiration, but the monks learned of his gift of language and asked him to take on various writing assignments at the monastery. Soon Merton could write more freely. In 1944 he published his first volume of poetry, Thirty Poems, which contains the famous and moving poem, “For My Brother, Reported Missing In Action, 1943.” A Man in the Divided Sea followed in 1946 and Figures For An Apocalypse appeared in 1948.
It was also in 1948 that Merton published the book that made him widely known: The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography. The abbot had encouraged him to write his life story. The book was a bestseller, and readers were intrigued by the young monk who jettisoned the prospect of a conventional literary and academic career for the monastery. It offered a window into the mysterious world of the monastic who obeyed the vow of silence. The book also seemed to hit a nerve with readers confronting troubling new realities and uncertainties following the cataclysm of World War II. A million copies of the book were sold. Merton’s works helped draw young men to the monastery, made the Cistercian life more widely known, and they were lucrative—Merton gave his royalties to the abbey.
Merton’s career was in full swing. In 1949 he was ordained a Catholic priest and received the name Father Louis. His life was a busy round of both writing and teaching, for in 1951 he was appointed Master of Students. He held this position through 1955, then was named Master of Novices, a position he held until 1965. He had no shortage of students as large numbers of men came to Gethsemani in the years after World War II. It was also in the years after The Seven Storey Mountain that Merton began writing a variety of works and started addressing important social and political topics.
In 1949 he published three works that demonstrate the range of his writing. Seeds of Contemplation is a reflective, devotional work. The Tears of the Blind Lions is a collection of poems—the last he would publish until 1956– and The Waters of Siloe is a history of the Cistercian order from its origins in France. A number of Merton’s works include books he was asked to do by his superiors at the abbey, and The Waters of Siloe is an example of such projects. Other examples of what we might call commissioned works include Exile Ends in Glory, a life of a Trappistine nun named Mother Berchmans published in 1947, and What Are These Wounds?, a life of St. Lugarte of Aywieres. Merton did not always have a high opinion of the books he was essentially asked to write, but his skills as a writer still make some of them interesting reading.
But Merton published plenty closer to his own heart. The Sign of Jonas, a journal of Merton’s life from 1946 to 1952, appeared in 1953. Merton would go on to publish many books of essays, devotions, and meditations—he would ultimately publish 250 essays in his life–and as the fifties came to an end Merton began to speak his mind more on social issues, including race, war, nuclear weapons and materialism. Merton also began to explore eastern religions and Asian approaches to mysticism and contemplation and became an important figure in ecumenical dialogue. In addition, he explored Latin American poetry and translated poems by a number of noted poets, including Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, who was one of Merton’s novices at Gethsemani, Alfonso Cortes, Cesar Vallejo, and Ruben Dario. Ernesto Cardenal would later become known as a liberation theologian and member of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua.
Merton’s poetry began to change. While earlier poetry was generally in the shorter lyric form, later work was more experimental, longer, and frequently incorporated selections from Merton’s wide reading. The tone of such poetry is often ironic and sometimes bleak as Merton contemplates the separation of human beings from themselves and from one another. Merton’s last two major poetic works, Cables To The Ace (1968), and The Geography of Lograire (1969), deal much with mass culture, misuse of technology and the long shadows cast over European and American history by mistreatment of non-western cultures.
In 1965, Merton asked for and received permission to live as a hermit on the monastery grounds. A small dwelling was constructed for him and here Merton lived for the remainder of his life. While residing there he published four volumes of a literary journal called Monk’s Pond and continued to write, pray and meditate. However, he did not cut himself off from the community. He usually came back to the main grounds for one meal each day and also gave a weekly Sunday afternoon talk at the monastery. He also explored interests in painting, photography, and calligraphy.
Merton had come a long way from the young monk who composed The Seven Storey Mountain. He was a deeply respected writer who corresponded with important authors, intellectuals and religious figures from around the world. He received so much mail that he usually needed a briefcase to carry it back to his hermitage. But Merton’s life wasn’t easy. He didn’t always get along with his superiors at the abbey. He was expected to stay on the abbey grounds and for a while was forbidden to write on the Vietnam War.
His life was further complicated when he fell in love with a young nurse after he had back surgery. Merton eventually broke off the affair, confessed to the Abbot—one of Merton’s phone calls to her was overheard by another monk—and renewed his vows. Yet the romance seems to have been a kind of anchoring grace in Merton’s life, demonstrating to him he was capable of loving—and being loved—by another human being in a nurturing romantic relationship.
In 1968 Merton left Gethsemani for a trip to Asia, his stated purpose being attendance at a conference of Cistercian and Benedictine superiors in Bangkok, Thailand, but Merton was also interested in learning more about Asian approaches to mysticism and contemplation. He left well ahead of the conference and stayed with Buddhists for forty days and had several long meetings with the Dalai Lama. On December 10, 1968, twenty-seven years to the day since he entered Gethsemani, Thomas Merton was electrocuted in Bangkok when a fan collapsed on him and he came in contact with an exposed wire.
In the forty-five years since Merton’s death, a considerable number of critical and biographical works have been published. Most of Merton’s papers are housed at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, but the library of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia and St. Bonaventure University also have important Merton collections.
A number of Merton’s works were published posthumously, including his Asian Journal, The Geography of Lograire, and his one surviving novel, My Argument With The Gestapo.
Merton’s reputation has continued to rise through the years, and his life and career continue to be studied. He has left us a rich body of writing and the example of a life dedicated to peace, interfaith understanding, spiritual centeredness, and love of God and one another.