Thomas Merton

(1915 – 1968)

Trappist Monk

Robert Ellsberg
The Catholic Worker in Christchurch has named one of its houses of hospitality in honour of Thomas Merton who wrote occasional pieces for the New York Catholic Worker newspaper in the 1960s and became a source of inspiration to generations of Catholic Workers worldwide. His grandparents, Alfred and Gertrude Merton, lived in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Alfred played the organ at Christchurch Cathedral (Anglican) and taught music at Christ’s College for forty years. Thomas Merton’s father, Owen, a painter, was born in Christchurch in 1887 and left 17 years later for England and France, where he met and married Ruth Jenkins, also an artist, in 1914 in the Anglican church in Soho, London. On 31 January 1915, Thomas Merton was born in Paris – during a snowstorm and at the beginning of World War I. After the relatively early deaths of both parents, he went to boarding school in England and later to Columbia University in America.

The Christian life, and especially the contemplative life is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places.
Thomas Merton

In 1949 a surprising title made its way onto the best selling lists. The Seven Story Mountain was not a mystery or a tale of alpine adventure. It was the autobiography of a clever young man named Thomas Merton who had turned his back on the modern world to adopt the austere, medieval regime of a Trappist monk. What made the book so fascinating was that Merton appeared to be, as he described himself, “the complete twentieth-century man”. He had enjoyed a life of freedom, excitement and pleasure only, in the end, to reject it all as an illusion.

Merton told a story – by turns funny and sad – of the search for his true identity and home: of his orphaned childhood, his education in France, England and Columbia University, of the pride and selfishness that brought nothing but unhappiness to himself and others. And he told of how his search had led him ultimately to the Catholic Church and finally, on the eve of World War II, to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. On viewing the silent monks, dressed in their white habits and kneeling in prayer in the chapel, Merton had exclaimed, “this is the true centre of America.’

It was in some respects a classic tale of conversion. And yet, for many readers, encountering Merton’s book in the post war years his story struck a very contemporary note. It fed a widespread hunger for spiritual values in a world poised between war and the empty promise of ‘happy days.’ Suddenly Merton was the most famous monk in America. He had become a Trappist in part to escape the claims of ego, the anxious desire to ‘be somebody.’ And yet his superiors felt his writing had something to offer the world and they ordered him to keep at it. And so he did. Yet for all the books he would go on to produce, he remained firmly identified with his autobiography. It became a painful burden. ‘The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I’ve never even heard of,’ he would later protest.

One aspect of the book that he particularly came to regret was the attitude of pious scorn directed at ‘the world’ and its citizens. He had seen the monastery as a haven set apart from the massa damnata. Only with time had he come to realise that ‘the monastery is not even an escape from the world. On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.’

In one of his journals he recorded a moment of mystical insight that marked a critical turning point in his life as a monk. It occurred during an errand in Louisville, ‘at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district.’

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation 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 the waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.

Merton suddenly experienced a sense of solidarity with the human race – not simply in sin, but in grace. ‘There is no way of telling people that they are all walking about, shining like the sun…There are no strangers!…The gate of heaven is everywhere.’

For years Merton had devoted creative thought to the meaning of monastic and contemplative life. But from this point on he became increasingly concerned with making connections between the monastery and the wider world. Scorn and sarcasm gave way to compassion and friendship. This was reflected in his writing. Along with the more traditional books there appeared articles on war, racism, and other issues of the day. Long before such positions were commonplace in the Church he was a prophetic voice for peace and non-violence. In fact, his writings were so controversial that for some years he was ordered to remain silent on ‘political’ topics. Only after the Second Vatican Council was he freed from such censorship.

Ironically this increasing engagement with the secular world and its problems was accompanied by an increasing attraction to an even more total life of contemplation. In 1961 he was given permission to move into a hermitage on the monastery grounds. There he continued to perfect the delicate balance between contemplative prayer and openness to the world that had become the distinctive feature of his spirituality.

Merton maintained a wide circle of friends. Many of them knew something of the tensions at times which characterised relations with his religious superiors. In the spirit of the 1960s some of them frankly questioned whether his vocation wasn’t an anachronism and challenged him to ‘get with it.’ In fact Merton’s personal temptations were all in the direction of even greater solitude among the Carthusians or in some other remote setting. But in the end, he always returned to the conviction that his best service to the world lay in faithfulness to his monastic vocation, and that his spiritual home was at Gethsemani.

In his last years, a more liberal abbot did encourage Merton to venture forth. In 1968 he accepted an invitation to address an international conference of Christian monks in Bangkok. Merton was particularly excited about the prospect of exploring his deep interest in Eastern spirituality. In this respect, as his journals show, the trip marked a new breakthrough, another encounter with ‘the gate of heaven’ that is everywhere.

On 10 December he delivered his talk and later retired to his room for a shower and nap. There he was later found dead, apparently electrocuted by the faulty wiring of a fan. For all his restless searching he had ended exactly as he had foreseen in The Seven Story Mountain. The book had concluded in a mysterious speech in the voice of God.

I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude….Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand away in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things. Then you will be all alone….That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.

(Taken from All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.)

Selected bibliography

Thomas Merton, The Nonviolent Alternative, (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1971, 1980)

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love –The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, selected and edited by William H. Shannon, (Farrer, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1985)

Thomas Merton, The School of Charity, The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, selected and edited by Brother Patrick Hart, (Farrer, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1990).

Thomas Merton on Zen, (Sheldon Press, London, 1976)

Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1968)

Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1984) The authorised biography of Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948)

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