Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was a prominent American Trappist monk, poet, and author. A prolific writer, he was among the most recognized monastic figures of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was a literary sensation and catapulted him to celebrity status. He remained true to the vows of his order, despite personal struggles which made him a symbol for humanity's search for meaning in the modern world.
Merton was a leading voice of interfaith engagement. Drawing from early experiences with Asian art and reverence for nature, Merton recognized commonalities in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and Buddhism and encouraged the cross-fertilization of Eastern and Western spirituality.
An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Merton urged the Church to take a more activist stance of social issues. Merton's sometimes strident pronouncements stood in contrast to his writings on faith and inner transformation, for which the Trappist monk is best remembered. "We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves," Merton wrote, "and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."
Thomas Merton was born in Prades in the Pyrénées-Orientales département of France to Bohemian artists. His mother, Ruth Calver Jenkins, was born to a wealthy Long Island American Quaker family and Owen Merton, his father, was an artist and musician from Christchurch, New Zealand. They met while studying art in Paris and Thomas was born within the year. In 1916, Owen refused to join the military in France, and the family moved to the United States. A second son, John Paul, was born. Ruth died when Thomas was six-years-old.
Merton was educated in the United States, Bermuda, and France, since his father was a wanderer by nature and an artist by trade. Owen became the boy's source of religious and aesthetic development. His study of Chinese painters no doubt influenced Thomas to naturally look eastward as a source of further inspiration. At times, the two of them hiked nature trails and the boy's mystic sense of oneness with nature grew. It was difficult, however, for the wandering spirit in Owen to really take care of his son, so Thomas spent his childhood between his father, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and at boarding school.
Owen Merton met the American writer Evelyn Scott in Bermuda in 1922, and lived with her until 1925. She incorporated him into several characters in her books. Thomas and his brother were in a dismal Lycée in southern France, absorbing the medieval Catholicism of the region when Owen told them to pack up and move to England. Thomas was overjoyed, and in England he attended the Oakham School.
Merton developed his writing while there, and was quite popular, joining boys athletics and student publications. Within a few years, however, his father developed brain cancer and suffered a long, painful death, during which time he had a religious conversion experience. The death of his father weighed heavily on Merton, and he and his brother moved to be with their grandparents in Long Island, New York.
Being accustomed to traveling, after several months Merton took trips to Rome, New York, and Cuba. He received a small scholarship to Cambridge University, so under the direction of a guardian, Tom Bennet, he lived in England once again. He led a boisterous life during this period and fathered an illegitimate child with a lower class girl.
Soon after, he moved back to the United States to live with his grandparents, and in 1935, enrolled in Columbia University, where he proceeded to take his bachelor's and master's degrees. There, he became acquainted with a group of artists and writers, including English professor Mark Van Doren, the poet Robert Lax, the publisher James Laughlin, and philosopher Jacques Maritain, who remained his friends for life. His years at Columbia were a happy time, and he wrote for undergraduate publications and played sports.
When both grandparents died within a few months of each other, Merton was devastated. Moved by the mystic poets William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and St. John of the Cross, he turned to Catholicism, doing his senior thesis on Blake. The renewal of Catholic thought regenerated memories of France and the beauty he had experienced there, and spiritual and sensual beauty became important in his literary style.
In the fall of 1938, a close friend, Sy Freedgood, introduced Merton to a Hindu monk, Bramachari, who advised Merton to read Saint Augustine's Confessions. Merton did so, and later was gratified when a part-time lecturer in medieval philosophy commented in class that he saw the spiritual, mystical way of St. Augustine in Merton.
Merton converted to Catholicism at the Church of Corpus Christi. He continued to feel a calling to give his life to God, but was denied entry into the Franciscans, allegedly because of the incident with his illegitimate child.
He taught at St. Bonaventure's College, in Olean, New York, and came to hear of The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. This order, known as the "foreign legion" of the Catholic Church, founded in 1848 by French monks fleeing persecution in France, was especially attractive to Merton. On Easter 1941, as Merton was leaving for a retreat at the Abbey, he was warned, "Don't let them change you," to which he responded, "It would be a good thing if they changed me." Finally, he was accepted as a postulant to the choir (with the intention of becoming a priest) at Gethsemani on December 13, 1941 (the Feast of Saint Lucy).
The monks were aware of Merton's talent, and wanted him to write so that they could better communicate to outsiders. In 1948, at 32 years-of-age, he wrote his renowned spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The overwhelming success of the book elevated the monk, bound to a vow of silence, into a world-wide celebrity overnight. Over the following years he received visits at the Gethsemani Abbey from noted people such as Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, Erich Fromm, and Joan Baez. Many of the sequestered monks, however, remained unaware of his impact on the world.
Following his emergence as an international figure, Merton changed from a passionately inward-looking young monk to a contemplative writer and poet known for dialogue with other faiths. During the 1960s he became a passionate advocate of nonviolence and critic of the American government during the race riots and Vietnam War protests.
Merton grew increasingly critical and was sometimes strident in his commentaries. When Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris, Merton gained hope that there was a place within his calling to speak politically with passion. It was always a puzzle to Merton how the church could be so adamant about contraception and the destruction of one life, and largely silent about things like the nuclear bomb, which could destroy many lives.
Merton had worked in Harlem when young and was interested in jazz and the experience of blacks in America. He later became a strong supporter of the nonviolent American Civil Rights Movement, calling it "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States."
During the 1950s, Merton had naively presumed a moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. He also wrote that the United States could see the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racist regime in the United States. When his friends Daniel and Philip Berrigan were convicted in Federal court, he exploded, "This is a totalitarian society in which freedom is pure illusion." In a letter to the Latin-American 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."
Despite these harsh views, Merton also saw serious contradictions within the "peace" movement. He rebuked those who claimed to be pacifists, yet advocated armed revolution in the Third World. In 1965, as the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were beginning to peak, a young member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship burned himself alive, causing Merton to observe that both the country and the peace movement had an air of absurdity and frenzy.
Merton translated many Latin poems during these years, and was aware of liberation theology. During these years, he reputedly rebelled against his self-chosen vows and had many battles with his abbot, James Fox, by all accounts as an intelligent and kind man, about not being allowed out of the monastery. He developed a friendship with the poet and monk Ernesto Cardenal, who would later serve in the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This friendship prompted Merton to seek re-assignment in Latin America, a request which was denied.
In the mid-1960s, while at a Louisville hospital for back surgery, Merton met a student nurse, and they began a correspondence. Under the cover of a "matter of conscience" to avoid monastic censors, he declared his love for her and contemplated a chaste marriage. The Abbot came to know of these things, and Merton chose to keep his vows in the traditional cloister.
A new Abbot allowed him the freedom to undertake a tour of Asia at the end of 1968, during which he met the Dalai Lama in India. 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.
Merton was in Bangkok, Thailand, at a cross-faith conference on contemplation when he touched a badly-grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath. His life was cut short and he died on December 10, 1968. His body was flown back to Gethsemani, where he is buried.
During years his years as a Trappist, Merton's writing had become a matter of some concern and debate within his order. His superiors were anxious for the talented writer to explain monastic life to the uninitiated, yet both they and Merton himself feared that writing could encourage pride and self-centeredness. The Seven Storey Mountain, recounting his dramatic turn from a life of artistic self-indulgence to monastic silence and penance, was compared to the Confessions of St. Augustine, and it made Merton a household name among those interested in religious, especially Catholic, literature.
Merton wrote familiarly of monastic life and Christian mysticism, and in later years he turned to social questions, above all civil rights and the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. Based on his travels in Asia, Merton wrote with great sympathy about Eastern religions, especially Buddhist monastic life and Taoist spirituality.
Merton's writings helped his monastery financially in the late 1950s and also attracted more applicants to the Order. Merton disliked the business entanglements relating to his writings and was at odds with his abbot about the management of reproduction rights to his books.
His poetry contains great spiritual depth, and often is quite beautiful. Spiritual and sensual beauty are important in his literary style, both prose and poetry. Much of his aesthetic sense was influenced by his father as well as the Medieval Catholicism he absorbed while in southern France. His honesty and humility before his monastic calling often surfaced in his writings:
In the unpublished work entitled, The Inner Experience, Merton expressed that the highest mysticism is quite simple: One must first journey to the soul's center and then move beyond self to God. Not only are human beings exiled from God, they are also exiled from their inmost selves. The way to contemplation is still the way to reality, but that reality consists in human wholeness restored to the image of God.
In The Inner Experience Merton succeeded in synthesizing the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Rhenish, English, and Spanish mystics with modern psychology and existential philosophy. Few have had such an ability to integrate such seemingly diverse materials, leading some to view The Inner Experience as his best work.
Merton also integrated Zen Buddhist and Eastern thought with Christian theology. Merton's focus on "experience" was not simply in relation to the individual self, but on unifying Christ within individual experience.
Merton put a ban on publishing much of his work until 25 years after his death, after which most his diaries and correspondence were published. Many of these works reflect Merton's processes of thought rather than final resolutions.
Probably because of advice and criticism from his order, the intensity of his feelings on political events is revealed mostly in posthumous publications. The moderation and thoughtfulness he showed in his spiritual writings, however, rarely appears in his social commentary.
Merton never commented on Saint Augustine's influence on his own work, perhaps because of his objection to Augustine's notion of "right-intention" in his theory of Just War, expressed in The Seeds of Destruction. For Merton, in the context of the 1960s, "right-intention" could become rationalization. He suggested that Christians should rid themselves of "Augustinian assumptions and take a new view of man, of society, and of war itself."
Thomas Merton, or Father Louis by his monastic name, was cloistered at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani for 27 years. He took vows of chastity, poverty, and silence, with the exception of praise to God and to his superior with permission. The chronicle of this difficult journey inward bore the fruit of joy. He wrote, "The only true joy is to escape from the prison of our own selfhood ... and enter by love into union with the life who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our minds."
Merton's works helped a modern world re-think concepts of "contemplation in a world of action," also the title of one of his works. Merton was well-rounded but not trained academically in theological issues, and he was more strictly a popular writer than a theological one. All his works come from the intensely personal view of contemplation, and all deal with the question, "how do I respond?" Perhaps this drove his enormous popularity and helped him gain such an original perspective on secular issues.
He pioneered the inter-faith view of monasticism, contemplation, and religious experience. The Dalai Lama commented that he knew of no other Christian who understood Buddhism so well. He enjoyed much communication with D.T. Suzuki, the renowned expert on Zen Buddhism, asking him to write the introduction to the translation of his autobiography in Japanese, although Merton was prevented by his censors from publishing the translation. In spite of these and other difficulties, Merton remained faithful to his discipline.
In a world just recovering from World War II and the Great Depression, where Communism seemed to be confidently advancing and the atomic bomb threatened to destroy the world, hope came from an unlikely source—a contemplative monk from a Medieval tradition. Merton's natural spirituality and joyous religious experiences helped others regain interest and confidence in a spiritual approach to life.
Perhaps Merton's true greatness was his ability to be transparent in his struggles of faith. This has acted as a catalyst and source of courage for others to engage in the spiritual path. Merton's struggles were universal. He was very human and yet tasted the joy of the divine, giving hope that a path to spiritual fulfillment was available for all.
He also was a pioneer in promulgating a vision of God not bound by narrow orthodoxies. He had ecstatic states of realization when viewing Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka. Near the end of his life, he is reported to have said that the goal of his life was to become a good Buddhist.
Though part of the anti-war movement, he was also highly critical of it. He held positions that were liberal and conservative, traditional and avant garde. In these things, he also taught one to think, not only with the intellect but with the heart, seeking spiritual understanding and relationship with God.
In 1967, one year before his death, Merton established the Merton Legacy Trust, naming Bellarmine College as the repository of his manuscripts, letters, journals, tapes, drawings, photographs, and memorabilia. Since 1972, The Thomas Merton Award, a peace prize, has been awarded by the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Social Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
All links retrieved October 16, 2014.
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