Thomas Merton was born on 31 January 1915. Worldwide seminars and gatherings are planned on this date and throughout this year to commemorate his centenary and honour his spiritual legacy.
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His father was an artist from New Zealand, and his mother, also an artist and diarist, was American. He suffered much bereavement and isolation in his younger years, losing his mother to illness at age 6, and his father at age 15. His only sibling, a younger brother, died serving in the second world war when Thomas Merton was 28, shortly after joining the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky as a Trappist monk. He also had health troubles from time to time, and was once gravely ill with sepsis.
He had grown up with very little faith or religious training, though his father possessed a deep faith from his Church of England upbringing in New Zealand. Thomas Merton had always admired the ruins of the many monasteries surrounding him in rural France, and at the age of 18 was suddenly engrossed by a visit to the many churches and basilicas in Rome, and even remarked during his visit to a Trappist monastery there, that he would like to become a Trappist monk. Around this time also, he began a lifelong resonance with the poetry of William Blake.
He moved numerous times with his father in his early years - from France to New York, Bermuda, back to France, and then settled for a period in London. His writing endeavours began as a young teenager in a French boarding school where he wrote two novels, and continued once in London by becoming one of the editors of the school magazine. After his father died, he went through a wreckless phase partying and socialising, adjusting to his independent life, and travelling around Europe.
He attended Cambridge University under the support of his guardian, a friend of his father. He had very little sense of faith at this time, and even held the Catholic Church and institutional Church structures generally, in disdain. His guardian elected to send him back to New York in an effort to curb his excessive ways, and after he had finished his exams, he duly relocated back near his maternal grandparents and enrolled at Columbia University in New York.
He became quite dedicated to his studies there, and had some prominent and inspiring lecturers, including Mark van Doren and Dan Walsh, who became lifelong friends. This was also a time when he began studying the philosophies and theologies of the world in great depth. He also began to truly explore Catholicism and mysticism in earnest during this time, and began to pray again. He was greatly impacted by the writings of Étienne Gilson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, CS Lewis, the lives of the saints, and meeting with lecturers and philosophers such as Jacques Maritain.
During this period, he followed a strong internal pull to join the Catholic Church, and in 1938 he was baptised and received Communion in Corpus Christi Church in New York, followed by his Confirmation there the following year. This strengthened his vocation and he began to speak to religious advisers about the prospect of joining an order and becoming a priest. Partly due to his wreckless phase in England, he was initially rejected by the Franciscans, causing him much grief. However, his faith and prayer life continued to deepen and with it the certainty that he wanted to become a priest.
Having completed his MA in English from Columbia University, he began teaching at St. Bonaventure University in New York. The University still holds a volume of Thomas Merton's materials. He also became briefly involved as a volunteer with Friendship House in Harlem, working with its founder, Catherine de Hueck, and was greatly affected by the poverty and conditions there. He was very impressed with the impact Friendship House was having, especially on the children.
In 1941 Thomas Merton went on an Easter retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a Trappist Cistercian Abbey, which impacted him profoundly. He felt drawn to the Silence of the contemplative order there, in spite of the severe Trappist traditions, and finally, on 10th December that year, he arrived at the Abbey and applied to join the order. After three days in the guesthouse, Thomas Merton was accepted, and so began his monastic journey and his development as one of the world's most profound thinkers and communicators of Contemplation and spiritual wisdom. He was ordained Fr. M Louie in 1949.
It is a great thing when Christ, hidden in souls ... manifests Himself unexpectedly by an unplanned expression of His presence. Then souls light up on all sides with recognition of Him and discover Him in themselves when they did not even imagine He could be anywhere.
From The Sign of Jonas
He was a prolific writer, and has written over 60 books as well as hundreds of poems, essays, journals and letters. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became a bestseller, and inspired many others to seek out their own vocation. Other popular works include New Seeds of Contemplation, No Man is an Island, The Secular Journal, Mystics and Zen Masters, and The Way of Chuang Tzu. There have been numerous posthumous publications and it is believed there is still an enormous body of work as yet unexamined, which will hopefully be published in the future. His topics ranged from Contemplation to monastic spirituality, interdenominational faith, peace, non-violence and civil rights. I have found his most inspiring material to be his own self-reflections in his body of personal journals, and books such as The Sign of Jonas and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He is one of the most influential Catholic writers, and his relevance and inspiration in today's world is exemplified by the publication of over 40 books about him in the past two years.
A year before he died suddenly from accidental electrocution in Bangkok where he spoke at an inter-faith conference, he set up the Merton Legacy Trust, naming Bellarmine College (now University) in Louisville, Kentucky as the repository of his material. A Thomas Merton Centre was set up there in 1969 and is now located in the Library at Bellarmine University, and houses over 50,000 items in a vast collection of his written works and memorabilia. He died on 10th December 1968, exactly 27 years to the day since he entered the Abbey at Gethsemani. At that time, he was in a profound place of good health, expansion, clarity of mind, with a tremendous contemplative heart.
... the greater grace for each individual is the one God wills for him. If God wills you to die suddenly, that is a greater grace for you than any other death, because it is the one He has chosen, by His love, with all the circumstances of your life and His glory in view.
From The Sign of Jonas
He was a true academic, with the patience and determination to write to experts in all fields across the US and the world, to get the deepest possible understanding of matters philosophical, theological, psychological, religious, and linguistic. He also had skills in photography, poetry, calligraphy, drawing, and languages, and translated many manuscripts from Latin, and French.
He corresponded, researched and examined the mystical dimensions of the other world religions, including Buddhism, Zen philosophy, Sufism and Hinduism. He wrote books on Buddhism and Taoism, and many Buddhist monks were invited to visit him at the Abbey. He corresponded in writing and became friends with DT Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. In 1968, having received permission from his Abbot, he embarked on an extensive Asian tour, including a visit to Dharamsala in India to meet the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama felt he had found in Merton what it meant to be a true Christian, and concluded that there were very few Christians to have as deep an understanding of Buddhism and Zen as Thomas Merton. He was fascinated to recognise the depth of spiritual experience present in these Eastern traditions, and equated it with his own. He could recognise and saw examples of the contemplative life in these traditions.
What characterised him most in his latter years was tenderness and holiness. He taught the novice monks, and strengthened a bond of brotherhood. He championed the saints - St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing. He had been transformed internally from a wreckless youth to a contemplative, prayerful monk. He was quick to admit his failures. He felt tremendous pain for his failings, but through it showed his humanness and humility to re-affirm his faith, time and time again. He was very restless for many years, and battled with an internal pull to leave the Cistercians and join the Carthusians. He struggled constantly with the call to write, eventually realising his very Being, his very Peace depended on continuing to write. He understood that sanctity for him was precisely through the challenges and difficulties he faced with writing. He had many arguments with his early Abbot regarding a desire for his own Hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey. This was finally granted in his final years, and is now preserved for visitors to the Abbey. I think it is his failings and struggles which most inspire and help me, knowing that he too struggled with his weaknesses, knowing God's emptying process was taking place in him.
He warned against spiritual self-indulgence, quietism, and retreating from life. That is not contemplation. It is the bearing with life, the surrender to life as it is, day by day, and the courage to go through the challenges and joys, which allow ourselves to be utterly emptied out of our superficial exterior selves, and to finally rest in God, in Being, in Truth.
No life requires a more active or more intense formation, a more ruthless separation from dependence on exterior support, than the life of contemplation.
From The Inner Experience
His was a fully questioned life. His experiential awareness brought him from a place of no faith, to a place of surrender, tenderness, clarity and ultimately to a place of deep love.
Photograph by John Howard Griffin