Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915, in Prades, France. He worked as an English teacher before entering a Trappist abbey in Kentucky and later becoming a priest. He published a variety of works as a poet, essayist and novelist and is known for his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton had an embracing spiritual vision that went beyond traditional doctrine. He died in 1968.
As Europe was embroiled in the Great War, Thomas Merton came into a world that was in sharp contrast to the spiritualism and quiet pacifism he wrote about through most of his adult life. His parents had met while attending art school in France in the early 1900s. His father, Owen Merton, was an immigrant from New Zealand, and his mother, Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker.
A few months after Thomas was born, his parents left France and moved to the United States. The family eventually settled in Douglaston, Queens, a neighborhood of New York City. Ruth died of stomach cancer in 1921 when Thomas was only six. Through much of his youth, Thomas traveled with his father, with periodic visits to America to live with his grandparents. During his teenage years, his father enrolled Thomas in private schools in France and England, where he attended Clare College, Cambridge. In 1934, Merton left Cambridge and returned to the US to live with his grandparents in New York and attend Columbia University.
Conversion to Catholicism
In 1938, while at Columbia, Thomas Merton converted to Roman Catholicism and after graduation taught English at St. Bonaventure's College. It was during this time that a number of influences, including charity work, books on Catholic conversion and his study of the spiritualism of William Blake, began to move Merton closer to religion and a possible life in the priesthood.
In December 1941, Thomas Merton resigned from his teaching post and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky, joining a population of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. There, Merton took on the life of a scholar and author. He also became an American citizen.
Life as a Monk and Spiritual Intellect
Thomas Merton’s years spent at Gethsemani had a profound effect on his self-understanding and spiritual consciousness. He read extensively and kept several journals. His superior, Father Abbot Dom Frederic Dunne, took note of Merton’s intellect and talent for writing and encouraged him to follow his passion, saying it was within the will of God. Merton started translating religious texts and writing biographies of saints for the monastery.
A prolific writer, from 1947 until his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton wrote and published more than 70 books, 2,000 poems, and numerous essays, lectures and reviews. In 1948, Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography and the story of his early quest for faith in God that led to his conversion to Catholicism. The book’s title refers to the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The tome went on to receive critical and popular acclaim. During his years at the Gethsemani monastery, Merton also published several other works that reveal his growth from a passionate introvert to a more expansive intellectual. His ongoing development also led him into the political arena, where he wrote about other faiths and took a nonviolence stance during the 1960s race riots and Vietnam War. He encouraged dialogue among people of different religions to achieve understanding. His positions on social activism and his broad views on religion led to severe criticism from some Catholics and non-Catholics, who questioned his true devotion and integrity.
Later Life and Death
Merton's ongoing conversion led him to the study of Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, in the later years of his life. He received praise from the Dalai Lama for his efforts in promoting a greater understanding of East-West monastic life and teachings.
On December 10, 1968, while attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Merton stepped out of the bath and was electrocuted by an electric fan that had either short-circuited or had a break in the cord.
A Papal Tribute
Thomas Merton was the subject of a speech given by Pope Francis during a joint session of Congress in 2015. The Pontiff referred to Merton as “a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. . . . Merton was 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.”
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