Who Was Thomas Merton and Why He Still Matters

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

Let me start with the first question — Who was Thomas Merton? — and hope that my answer will also explain why he still matters.

I think it is accurate to say that Thomas Merton was the most widely read and best-known Christian monk of the 20th century and one of the rare Christian writers whose readers include many non-Christians. If you were to gather together all the people who would say Thomas Merton had played a direction-changing role in their lives, you would probably fill a sports stadium.

Merton had a rare gift with words and also a talent for stepping out of the box. He has become hugely famous, but fame was not a fate he intended. At age 26, when he began his monastic life, he intended to disappear from view. He had, after all, opted to belong to the most silent — some would say the most medieval — of monastic brotherhoods, the Trappists.

But I am jumping ahead. Let’s start at the beginning. Thomas Merton was born in the town of Prades in the south of France on the 31st of January 1915. Here’s how he describes that event in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain:

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.

It’s a remarkable opening, poetry as much as prose, with the horror of war a major theme. The leitmotif of war became still more intense in the last decade if his life, making him a man of controversy.

His parents were artists who had met in 1911 while art students in Paris. His mother, Ruth, was American, his father, Owen, came from New Zealand. They married three years later — 1914 — and moved to Prades, a cheaper place to live and thus attractive to artists. Unfortunately the First World War had started just months before their son’s birth. Living in France suddenly presented a problem for Owen. Even though not a French citizen, merely being a resident in France made him subject to the draft. The three of them took refuge in the U.S., living not far from Ruth’s parents in Douglaston, Long Island.

Tragically Ruth’s life was cut short by cancer — she died when Tom was six. There were frequent moves for Tom and his father in the years that followed — Cape Cod, Bermuda, back to Long Island, back to France, then some years in England. Tom, an exceptionally bright student, went to good schools. All seemed to be going well in his life until, when Tom was 14, it was discovered that his father had a brain tumor.

As his father lay dying in London, Tom read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and labored over Greek verbs at a school in Oakham north of Cambridge. The chapel life at school that had blossomed for him earlier in his student life abruptly perished. The chaplain, a man who liked to insert the word gentleman into biblical texts, didn’t help. In one of his sermons the first verse of chapter 13 of First Corinthians became: “If I talk with the tongues of men and angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass.” This celebration of the English class system had nothing to offer a boy about to become an orphan.

“St. Peter and the other Apostles would have been rather surprised,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen.”

Tom couldn’t stomach the vacuous theology behind such a vandalizing of the New Testament. For him the real questions had to do not with class and manners but with human suffering. How could any God worth worshiping allow first one and then another parent to suffer such horrible deaths? In the school chapel, while other students recited the Creed, Tom kept a tight-lipped silence. His counter-creed was now “I believe in nothing.”

Tom’s father had lost the ability to speak but still managed to communicate. Visiting the hospital in London one day, Tom discovered Owen was drawing again, expressing in images what was on his mind. The drawings, Merton later wrote, “were unlike anything he had ever done before — pictures of … Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” In his months of desperate illness, it seemed Owen had found his way to an earlier Christianity in which wordless icons played a major role. The drawings made clear to Tom that his dying father was a religious man. “Behind the walls of his isolation, his intelligence and his will … were turned to God, and communed with God…. [My father was finding a way] to understand and make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul.” The small icons Owen had drawn proved to be his last words. On January 18, 1931, Owen Merton died. Tom was eleven days short of his sixteenth birthday.

Merton continued his education, doing well academically but feeling abandoned. He also did some solo traveling. In 1932, on one of his school holidays, he had a near-death experience while on a hike along the Rhine River in Germany. His excursion happened to coincide with Hitler’s campaign for the German chancellorship. Along the way he witnessed villagers hurling bricks and fighting with pitchforks as political passions spilled over. The trip reached its nadir one morning when, while walking down a country road lined with apple orchards, he was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, injuring his foot, while the car’s amused occupants showered him with Hitler leaflets as they passed.

One of the most important events in Tom’s young life occurred soon after his 18th birthday. Following graduation from high school and before beginning his studies at Clare College in Cambridge, in 1933 Merton went to Rome. At first he was bored — the city’s top guidebook attractions left him cold. But when he began to visit the city’s most ancient churches, some of which went back to the fourth century, he found himself amazed. “I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found….. Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

The mosaic icons served as windows through which he felt Christ’s gaze. “For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ…. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs … the Christ of St. John, and of St. Paul…. It is Christ God, Christ King.”

Decades later icons continued to play a vital role in Merton’s spiritual life. In letters written in 1967 and 1968 to a Quaker friend, he said that he wasn’t drawn to a Christ who was merely a historical figure possessing “a little flash of the light” but to “the Christ of the Byzantine icons” who “represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us…. What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.”

Alone one night in his pensione room, trying to record in his journal his thoughts about the churches and iconography that impressed him so much, he suddenly sensed his father’s invisible presence “as real and startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me.” The experience was over in a flash, but “for the first time in my whole life,” he wrote later in life, “I really began to pray … praying out of the very roots of my life and my being, and praying to the God I had never known.” The Byzantine mosaic icons he had been searching out must have reconnected Tom to the icon drawings of Byzantine saints Owen had been drawing at the end of his life.

The next day, Tom climbed the Aventine Hill to visit the Church of Santa Sabina, one of Rome’s most ancient churches. Once inside, he knew that he had to pray there. It was impossible to play the guidebook-studying tourist any longer. Yet public prayer was intensely embarrassing. All he could manage was to cross himself with blessed water as he entered the church and to recite the Our Father over and over again as he knelt down at the altar rail. “That day in Santa Sabina,” he recalled, “although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” For all his fears, he walked out feeling reborn. His final week in Rome was a time of joy such as he hadn’t known since his father’s death.

The joy didn’t last long. Once at Cambridge, he was drawn into the darker, more self-destructive side of student life. He drank a great deal and, becoming sexually active, fathered a child with one of the local women. Tom’s guardian, a well-to-do London physician, had to make financial arrangements to provide for the single mother. Washing his hands of Tom, he was sent him packing to his grandparents’ home on Long Island.

Being back with family seems to have been a factor for the many positive things that happened to Merton in the next few years. He became a student at Columbia University and loved it. The friendships he developed and the classes he took opened new doors for him. He partied hard, as he had in Cambridge, but he also studied hard. In 1936, when his grandfather died, the religious spark that had been struck in Rome gradually began producing a fresh flame. He began reading books that in past he would hardly glanced at, for example Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Christianity. Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means made him take mysticism and asceticism seriously. A Hindu monk from India convinced Merton to read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’Kempis and also St. Augustine’s Confessions. Going on to do his master’s degree, he decided to write his thesis on the poet, artist and mystic William Blake. In his own time Blake had stood in opposition to those who saw nothing more in the mystery of life than the puzzles of chemistry and who regarded mysticism as madness. With the searing conviction of a biblical prophet, Blake rejoiced that

The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red-Sea Shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

The religious skepticism that had been so deeply rooted in Merton since his father’s death was giving way to a deep sense of the presence of God and a need to worship. One weekend in August 1938 it struck Merton that he had “been in and out of a thousand Catholic cathedrals and churches, and yet I had never heard Mass.” On those occasions when he happened to a find the liturgy was being celebrated, he had fled, as he put it, “in wild Protestant panic.” Now he began to feel “a sweet, strong, gentle, clean urge in me which said: ‘Go to Mass! Go to Mass!'” He did so, and it quickly became part of the pattern of his life. Three months later he was received into the Catholic Church by baptism.

Had we time, it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the next three years of his life (teaching, dating, partying, writing, doing volunteer service at a house of hospitality in Harlem), but let me cut to the chase. On the 10th of December 1941, Merton began monastic life at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He had expected to give up writing, but his abbot noticed Merton’s ability to write and also knew of the exceptional life Merton had lived before becoming a monk. With the abbot’s encouragement Merton began to write an autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The title was inspired by the seven-tiered mountain of purgatory that Dante describes in The Divine Comedy. The book was published in 1948 and, to everyone’s surprise, not only sold well but became a best seller. Seven decades have passed and it has never gone out of print.

No less interesting than the story of Merton’s pre-monastic life is what happened once he became a monk. But we have time only for a few highlights.

One of the main turning points happened in March 1958, ten years after publication of The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton happened to be in Louisville on an editorial errand. Standing at a busy intersection in the heart of the city, Merton had an intense experience of the hidden God-stamped beauty of the many strangers he was surrounded by. Here’s how he describes it in one of his later books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other…. the gate of heaven is everywhere.

Fourth and Walnut in Louisville has since been renamed Thomas Merton Plaza. Standing there Merton was able to let go of one of the main illusions that had survived his first seventeen years of monastic life: the idea that sanctity required radical separation within “the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” The experience did not suggest to him that he ought to give up his monastic vocation, but his understanding of what it meant to be a monk was expanded: authentic solitude must be a place where opposites meet — both contemplation and action, non-presence and attendance, non-participation and engagement, attachment and detachment, hiddenness and hospitality, disappearance and arrival. The opposites need each other as birds need two wings.

In Merton’s own case, his deepening engagement with the world was linked with a search for greater solitude. When I first visited him early in 1962, he was living part-time is a newly-built cinderblock hermitage in the woods about a mile from the principal monastery buildings. Three years later it became his full-time home.

That little building was not just Merton’s hermitage but also a place of many meetings. For example Merton occasionally would welcome small groups of Protestants from a Baptist seminary in Louisville where, at a time when inter-Christian dialogue was rare, unfettered dialogue could occur. At the time of my own first visit, a rabbi had just been Merton’s guest. In 1964 Merton hosted a retreat of peacemakers — I was one of them — from various Christian traditions.

During the last decade of his life, after the shift that occurred at Fourth and Walnut, Merton’s correspondence greatly expanded. He was in contact by letter with a wide range of people, believers and non-believers, fellow writers, social activists, students, scholars, poets, and was doing so in English, French and Spanish. The English novelist, Evelyn Waugh, was so impressed with Merton as a letter writer that he suggested he ought to give up authoring books and focus even more on correspondence.

Merton’s religious life became less bordered. He drew a great deal from the Orthodox Christian Church. As he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

His search for connections also carried him into the non-Christian world. He read Buddhist texts and was in dialogue with various Buddhists. He also corresponded with Moslems, especially Sufis. It wasn’t that he was searching for an exit door from Christianity. As he wrote, “The Christian life … is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places.”

He paid a great deal of attention to issues connected with war and peace and for this got into trouble. His order’s Abbot General in Rome regarded Merton’s writings on that subject as inappropriate for a monk. Merton was silenced but in fact found ways to continue speaking out. His banned writings were circulated in mimeographed editions. Sometimes he wrote under pseudonyms. One was Benedict Monk, another was Marco J. Frisbee. Among the readers of Merton’s peace writings was Pope John XXIII. The secretary to the pope has since written that Merton was an influence on the encyclical Pope John wrote at the end of his life, Pacem in Terris — Peace on earth. As a gesture of friendship and solidarity, this much loved pope sent Merton, by the hands of a friend, a papal stole. You will see it if ever you visit the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

Merton did very little traveling once be became a monk but his life ended on pilgrimage far from home in Asia. After visiting Christians, Hindus and Buddhists in India, including several days with the Dalai Lama, he flew to Thailand to take part in a conference of Benedictine and Trappist monks and nuns. On the 10th of December 1968, shortly after giving a lecture, he died of accidental electrocution. His body was flown back to the U.S. in an Air Force plane whose main cargo was coffins containing the bodies of American soldiers killed n Vietnam. If you ever visit the Abbey of Gethsemani, get one of the monks to show you his grave. It has become a place of pilgrimage.

Let me finish this too-brief introduction to Merton’s life with one final quotation from Merton. It’s from a talk he gave to his fellow monks in 1965:

Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it. What is it that makes the world opaque? It is care.

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prayer by Merton to use at the close of discussion:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

— Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (p 83)

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text as of 25 March 2013
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