Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton
Born January 31, 1915
Prades, France
Died December 10, 1968
Bangkok, Thailand
Occupation Trappist monk and author

Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the American state of Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist. Merton wrote over 60 books, scores of essays and reviews, and is the ongoing subject of many biographies. Merton was also a proponent of inter-religious dialog, engaging in spiritual dialogs with such icons as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and D.T. Suzuki. His career was suddenly cut short at a relatively young age due to an accident when he was electrocuted stepping out of his bath.


  • 1 Biography
    • 1.1 Early life
    • 1.2 France 1926
    • 1.3 England 1928
    • 1.4 Rome 1933
    • 1.5 America 1933
  • 2 College
    • 2.1 Clare College
    • 2.2 Columbia University
  • 3 The Franciscans
    • 3.1 Vocation
    • 3.2 St. Bonaventure University
  • 4 Monastic life
    • 4.1 Writer
    • 4.2 Priest
  • 5 Accidental death
  • 6 Trivia
  • 7 Selected bibliography
    • 7.1 By Merton
    • 7.2 About Merton
  • 8 Notes
  • 9 References
  • 10 See also
  • 11 External links


Early life

Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915 in Prades, France to Owen Merton, a New Zealand painter active in Europe and the USA, and Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker and artist. Merton was baptized in the Church of England, following his father's wishes. Owen, a struggling painter, whose recognition has been mostly posthumous, was often absent during Thomas's upbringing.

In August 1915, the Merton family left Prades because of the difficulties of World War I, settling first with Ruth's parents on Long Island, New York, United States, then Douglaston. In 1917 the family moved into an old house in Flushing, NY, 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 in New York. Thomas was 6 years old.

In 1922, Owen and Tom traveled to Bermuda, having left John Paul with the Jenkins family in Douglaston, Long Island. While the trip was short, Owen managed to fall in love with the American novelist Evelyn Scott, then married to Cyril Kay-Scott. Still grieving his mother, Tom just never quite hit it off with Evelyn. Evelyn's son, Creighton, later said that his mother was verbally abusive to Thomas during their stay.

Happy to get away from the company of Evelyn, in 1923 Tom returned to Douglaston to live with the Jenkins Family and John Paul. Owen, Evelyn and her husband Cyril set sail for Europe, traveling through France, Italy, England, and Algeria. Thomas later half-jokingly referred to this odd trio as "the Bermuda Triangle". During the winter of 1924, while in Algeria, Owen 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 Thomas, and the prospect of losing his sole surviving parent filled him with anxiety.

By March 1925, Owen was well enough to organize a show at the Leicester Galleries, London. That summer he returned to New York and then took Tom with him to live in Saint-Antonin, France. Tom returned to France with mixed feelings, as he had lived with his grandparents for the last two years and had become somewhat attached to them. During their travels, Owen and Evelyn had discussed marriage on occasion, but Owen came to realize after the trip to New York that it could not work, as Tom and Evelyn were irreconcilable. Unwilling to sacrifice his son for the romance, he broke off the relationship.

France 1926

In 1926, at age eleven, Merton and Owen parted ways again. Tom enrolled in a boys boarding school in Montauban, the Lycée Ingres. The stay brought up feelings of loneliness and depression for him, with Merton feeling especially deserted by his father. During his initial months of schooling, Merton begged Owen to remove him. Yet, as time ensued, Merton gradually became more comfortable with his surroundings there. He had made friends with a circle of young and aspiring writers at Lycée and came to write two novels.

Sundays at Lycée Ingres offered nearby Catholic mass, but Tom never went. He typically managed to visit home on such days. A Protestant preacher would come to teach on Sundays at Lycée, for those who didn't attend mass, but Tom didn't show any interest. During the Christmas breaks of 1926 and 1927, Merton spent his time with friends of his father in Murat (a small town in Auvergne). He admired the devout Catholic couple whom he saw as good and decent people, though Catholicism never came up as a topic between them. Owen was off painting and attending exhibits and galleries showing his work. Most of the time he spent in London. In the summer of 1928 Owen came and took Tom out of Lycée, informing him that they were headed to England.

England 1928

Merton and his father moved to the home of Owen's aunt and uncle in England, in Ealing then a suburb on the outskirts of London. Merton soon enrolled in another boarding school in Surrey, Ripley Court School. Merton enjoyed his studies here as there was more a sense of community than at the Lycée. On Sundays all students attended services at the local Anglican church. Routinely Merton began praying, but discontinued the practice after leaving the school.

During his holidays, Merton stayed at his great aunt and uncle's home where occasionally Owen would come. During the Easter vacation, 1929, Merton and Owen went to Canterbury. Merton enjoyed the countryside around Canterbury, taking long walks there. After the holiday ended, Owen returned to France and Merton, to Ripley. Towards the end of that year, he learned the news that his father was ill and living in Ealing. Merton went to see him, and together they left for a friend's house in Scotland who offered a place for Owen to recover. 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 the hospital, the latter seemed to be recovering. This helped ease some of Merton's anxiety.

In 1930, Merton went to Oakham Public School, a boarding school located 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 his hospitalized father, who was so ill he could no longer speak. This caused Merton a lot of pain. On January 16, 1931, just as the term at Oakham had restarted, Owen died. Tom Bennett, Owen Merton's physician and former schoolmate in New Zealand, became Merton's legal guardian, and let Merton use his house in London, which was unoccupied, during the Oakham holidays. Merton appreciated this gesture.

That same year, Merton visited Rome and Florence, Italy 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. In 1932, he took the college admissions exam for Clare College, Cambridge and passing, left Oakham. On his 18th birthday, tasting new freedom, Merton 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 finally he boarded a train to Genoa and traveled to Florence. From Florence he left for Rome, a trip that in some ways changed the future course of his life.

Rome 1933

Upon arriving in Rome in February 1933 Merton had a severe toothache. So he went to a dentist who extracted the tooth the next day. He spent the remainder of the day recuperating in his hotel room. By morning he felt much better, and moved to 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, his autobiography (much praised by Evelyn Waugh), 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.[1]

Merton began going to the churches, not quite knowing why he felt so drawn to them. He didn't attend any masses, he was just observing and appreciating them. It began at The Forum, at the foot of Palatine Hill, where Merton happened upon one of the churches nearby. In the apse of the church, he set his eyes upon a mosaic of Jesus Christ that transfixed him. Merton had a hard time leaving the place, though he was unsure why. Merton officially had 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 basilica sites in Rome, such as Lateran Baptistery, Santa Costanza, 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 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.[2]

America 1933

Merton took a boat from Italy to America to visit his grandparents in Douglaston for the summer, before entering Clare College in Cambridge. Initially he retained some of the spirit he had in Rome, continuing to read his Latin Bible. He wanted to find a church to attend, but still had not quite quelled his antipathy towards Catholicism. So he went to Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston. He didn't come to appreciate his experience there, so he went to Flushing, NY and attended a Quaker Meeting. Merton appreciated the silence of the atmosphere but couldn't feel at home with the group.

Quickly he melded in with life in New York City and became swept up in her ways. By mid-summer, Merton had lost nearly all interest in organized religion that he had found in Rome. Before he could regain that interest, he would nearly lose it altogether. He was off for England again, this time to attend Clare College.


Clare College

In October 1933 Merton entered Clare College in Cambridge as a freshman, a place where he came very close to losing himself. Merton, now 18, entered the school full of optimism with a streak of independence in his step. Feeling somewhat groundless and free since his father's death, he seems to have viewed Clare College as the end-all answer to his life without meaning. His year there was anything but. 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 more than he would study. 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 this time Bennett had had enough and, in a meeting in April, Tom and his guardian appear to have struck a deal: Tom 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.

Columbia University

In January 1935 Merton enrolled as a sophomore at Columbia University in Manhattan, NY while living with the Jenkins family in Douglaston and taking 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 a man and an equal among his peers.

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 time bonding with one another for their summer breaks, 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 also the Columbia Review. He 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 was conceived of by Columbia and the Italian government as a "university within a university", established in 1926. 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 Etienne 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. As with his grandfather, Merton prayed for her.

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. Merton, curious, expected Brahmachari to espouse 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. Mass was foreign to him, he knew nothing of the rituals that make the service, so all he could do that first visit is try his best and listen 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.

The Franciscans


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 secular 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 he was being called to.

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 of 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 at a cottage he had visited previously. This was a tough time for Merton, and he wanted to be in the company of friends. Merton now needed a job. Nearby the cottage 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. As luck would have it there was an opening for Merton in the English department and he 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, Merton's 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 materials. In his own way he was undergoing a kind of lay renunciation of worldly pleasures. In April 1940, Merton went to a retreat he had booked for Holy Week at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani for near Bardstown, KY. At once Merton 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. Merton appreciated the mission of Hueck and Friendship House, which was racial harmony and charity, and 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 implies he is not good enough for her organization. Merton soon let Hueck know in early December that he would definitely not be joining Friendship House, explaining his persistent attraction to the priesthood.

Monastic life

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, Merton received a letter from his brother John Paul stating he was soon to leave for war, that he 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, KY, leaving the following day. This would be last time the two would see each other. John Paul died on April 17, 1943 while flying over the English Channel when his plane's engines died. Those interested can find a poem by Merton to John Paul 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 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 that Merton continue writing. New Directions published another poetry collection in 1946 for Merton titled A Man in the Divided Sea, which combined with Thirty Poems attracted some recognition for him. The same year Merton had his manuscript for The Seven Storey Mountain accepted by Harcourt Brace & Company for publishing. 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 with his role as writer. On March 19 Merton 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 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 finally 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. Saint Mary's College (Indiana) published a booklet by Merton that year also, titled What Is Contemplation?. Merton also published a wonderful biography that year titled 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 came to look at the Abbot as a father figure and spiritual mentor. Dunne was replaced by Dom James Fox on August 15, 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) Merton was ordained as 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. By November Merton started teaching novices at Gethsemani in mystical theology, a duty he greatly enjoyed. Through subsequent years Merton would author many other books and amassed himself a wide readership. He would come to revise ‘’Seeds of Contemplation’’ several times, viewing his early edition as error prone and immature. One's place in society, views on social activism, and various approaches toward contemplative prayer and living became constant themes in his writings.

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." (Letter, November 17, 1962, quoted in Monica Furlong's Merton: a Biography, p. 263)

Gethsemani benefited greatly from Merton's royalties, and his writings attracted much interest in Catholicism and the Cistercian vocation, an influence which continues.


Marker commemorating Merton in Downtown Louisville
Marker commemorating Merton in Downtown Louisville

On May 26, 1949 (on Ascension Thursday) Thomas Merton was ordained as a priest, saying his first mass that following day in honor of Our Lady of Cobre. In November, Merton began teaching the novices in mystical theology. By this time Merton was a huge success outside the monastery, The Seven Storey Mountain having sold over 150,000 copies. As a humorous side note, 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 it 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. 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 some battles with some of his abbots about not being allowed out of the monastery, balanced by his international reputation and voluminous correspondence with many well-known figures of the day.

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. There is speculation that Merton wished to remain in Asia as a hermit. It is also said that Merton had planned to visit Cid Corman in Kyoto, Japan but never achieved that goal.

Accidental death

He died in Bangkok on 10 December 1968, having touched a poorly grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath. His body was flown back to Gethsemani where he is buried.

Since his death, Merton's influence has continued to grow, and he is considered by many to be an important 20th century Catholic mystic and thinker. Merton's letters and diaries (and, to a lesser extent, the books published during his lifetime) reveal the intensity with which their author focused on social justice issues, including the civil rights movement and proliferation of nuclear arms. Merton blocked publication of his letters and diaries until 25 years after his death.

In recognition of his close association with Bellarmine University, the official repository for Merton's archives is 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.


According to The Seven Storey Mountain, the youthful Merton loved jazz, but by the time he began his first teaching job, he had foresaken 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.

Thomas Merton is quoted by the character Leo McGarry in the popular television series The West Wing (tv series), in the episode Posse Comitatus (The West Wing)

Selected bibliography

By Merton

  • Thirty Poems, 1944, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • A Man in the Divided Sea, 1946, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0-15-601086-0, (All Libraries)
  • The Tears of the Blind Lions, 1949, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • Waters of Siloe, 1949, ISBN 0-15-694954-7, (All Libraries)
  • Seeds of Contemplation, 1949, ISBN 0-313-20756-9, (All Libraries)
  • The Ascent to Truth, 1951, ISBN 0-86012-024-4, (All Libraries)
  • Bread in the Wilderness, 1953 (All Libraries)
  • The Sign of Jonas, 1953 (All Libraries)
  • The Last of the Fathers, 1954 (All Libraries)
  • The Living Bread, 1956, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy (All Libraries)
  • No Man is an Island, 1955 (All Libraries)
  • The Silent Life, 1957 (All Libraries)
  • Thoughts in Solitude, 1958 (All Libraries)
  • The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, 1959 (All Libraries)
  • Disputed Questions, 1960 (All Libraries)
  • The Behavior of Titans, 1961 (All Libraries)
  • The New Man, 1961, ISBN 0-374-51444-5, (All Libraries)
  • New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962, ISBN 0-8112-0099-X, (All Libraries)
  • Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave, 1962, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • Emblems of a Season of Fury, 1963 (All Libraries)
  • Life and Holiness, 1963, Herder and Herder (All Libraries)
  • Seasons of Celebration, 1965, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (All Libraries)
  • Seeds of Destruction, 1965 (All Libraries)
  • Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966, ISBN 0-385-01018-4, (All Libraries)
  • Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966 (All Libraries)
  • Redeeming the Time, 1966, Burns & Oates, (All Libraries)
  • Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-52001-1 (All Libraries)
  • Selected Poems, 1967, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • Cables to the Ace, 1968, New Directions (All Libraries)
  • Faith and Violence, 1968 (All Libraries)
  • Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968, New Directions Publishing, ISBN 0-8112-0104-X (All Libraries)
  • My Argument with the Gestapo, 1969, Doubleday (All Libraries)
  • The Climate of Monastic Prayer (1969). Cistercian Publications, (All Libraries), republished as Contemplative Prayer, 1996 by Image Books, with foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh, ISBN 0-385-09219-9
  • Contemplative Prayer, 1969, Herder and Herder (All Libraries)
  • The Geography of Lograire, 1969, New Directions Publishing (All Libraries)
  • The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1969, New Directions Publishing, ISBN 0-8112-0103-1 (All Libraries)
  • Contemplation in a World of Action, 1971 (All Libraries)
  • The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973, New Directions Publishing, ISBN 0-8112-0570-3, (All Libraries)
  • Ishi Means Man, 1976, Unicorn Press, ISBN 0-87775-100-5 (All Libraries)
  • Alaskan Journal of Thomas Merton, 1988 (All Libraries)
  • The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, 1999 (All Libraries)
  • Peace in the Post-Christian Era, 2004, Orbis Books, ISBN 1-57075-559-0 (All Libraries)
  • A Book of Hours, 2007, Sorin Books, ISBN 1-933495-05-7 [: (All Libraries)

About Merton

  • Paul Wilkes, ed., Merton, by Those Who Knew Him Best, 1987, Harper & Row, ISBN 0-06-250952-7 (All Libraries)
  • The Merton Annual: Studies in Thomas Merton, Religion, Culture, Literature & Social Concerns., 1988–, Fons Vitae Press, ISSN 0894-4857 (All Libraries)
  • Rob Baker, Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, 1999, Fons Vitae Press, ISBN 1-887752-07-2 (All Libraries)
  • Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision, 1999, W.B. Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-0222-2 (All Libraries)
  • Jonathan Montaldo, Merton and Hesychasm-The Prayer of the Heart, 2003, Fons Vitae Press, ISBN 1-887752-45-5 (All Libraries)
  • Beatrice Bruteau, Merton and Judaism - Holiness in Words, 2003, Fons Vitae Press, ISBN 1-887752-55-2 (All Libraries)
  • Victor Kramer, Thomas Merton, 1984, Boston: Twayne Publishers, ISBN 0-8057-7402-5
  • Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, 1984, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31324-4
  • Roger Lipsey, Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, 2006, Boston New Seeds, ISBN 1-59030-313-X
  • William Henry Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O'Connell, et al., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, 2002, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, ISBN 1-57075-426-8
  • Gerald S. Twomey, Thomas Merton Prophet in the Belly of Paradox, 1978, New York : Paulist Press, ISBN 0-8091-0268-4
  • Ross Labrie, The Art of Thomas Merton, 1979, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, ISBN 0-912646-48-9
  • William Shannon, Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story, 1992, New York: Crossroad, ISBN 0-8245-1166-2
  • Samuel Willard Crompton, Thomas Merton, Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004 ISBN 0-7910-7862-0
  • Patrick Hart, Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute, New York] Sheed and Ward [1974] ISBN 0-385-11244-0
  • James Thomas Baker, Thomas Merton, Social Critic: A Study, University Press of Kentucky [1971] ISBN 0-8131-1238-9
  • M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Brother Monk: The Quest for True Freedom, San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1987 ISBN 0-06-066497-5
  • James H. Forest
    • Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991 ISBN 0-88344-755-X
    • Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography, New York: Paulist Press, 1980, ISBN 0-8091-2284-7
  • George Woodcock, Thomas Merton, Monk and Poet: A Critical Study, New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978 ISBN 0-374-27635-8
  • Ross Labrie, Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination, Columbia : University of Missouri Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8262-1382-0
  • Thérèse Lentfoehr, Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton, New York : New Directions Pub. Corp., 1979 ISBN 0-8112-0712-9
  • Anthony T. Padovano, The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century, Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1982 ISBN 0-385-17879-4


  1. ^ Seven Storey Mountain. 107
  2. ^ Seven Storey Mountain. 114
  • Forest, Jim, "Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton" (1991), Orbis Books, ISBN 0-88344-755-X, 226 p. illustrated biography.
  • Mott, Michael, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), Harvest Books 1993: ISBN 0-15-680681-9, 710 p. authorized biography.
  • Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O'Connell The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (2002), Orbis Books, ISBN 1-57075-426-8, 556 p.
  • Shannon, William H., "Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story" (1992), The Crossroad Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8245-1281-2 biography
  • Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain (1978), A Harvest/HBJ Book, ISBN 0-15-680679-7. (see notes for pages)

See also

  • Christian Meditation
  • Friendship House
  • List of Christian mystics
  • Thomas Merton Academy
  • Hermit
  • Book of the First Monks
  • Thomas Merton Center and International Thomas Merton Society.
  • Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • Thomas Merton Series - Books and Resources.
  • The Abbey of Gethsemani Home Page.
  • Knight, Jim, 1998, "The Thomas Merton we knew."
  • A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton
  • Persondata
    NAME Merton, Thomas
    SHORT DESCRIPTION Priest and author
    DATE OF BIRTH January 31, 1915
    PLACE OF BIRTH Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
    DATE OF DEATH December 10, 1968
    PLACE OF DEATH Bangkok, Thailand
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