Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)

Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915- December 10, 1968) was an American Trappist monk and author, born in Prades in the Pyrenees-Orientales departement of France.

Merton wrote more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and a countless number of essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published.

Merton was educated in the United States and France before attending Oakham School in England. His father was an artist from New Zealand and his mother, a Quaker, was from the United States. His mother died when he was six and his father when he was sixteen. After a disastrous first year at Cambridge University, during which time he fathered an illegitimate child, Merton moved to the United States to live with his grandparents. He proceeded to take his bachelor's and master's degrees at Columbia, where he made the acquaintance of a group of artists and writers who would remain his friends for life.

Merton converted to Catholicism in his early twenties during the period he was writing his master's thesis on William Blake. His desire to enter the Franciscans being thwarted, he taught at St. Bonaventure's College, in Olean, New York and, following a retreat at the Trappist (Cistercian of the Strict Observance) Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky during Easter 1941, he came to a crisis with call up looming and was finally accepted as a choir novice (with the intention of becoming a priest) at Gethsemani on December 10th, 1941.

During his long years at Gethsemani (where he was encouraged to write) Merton changed from the passionately inward-looking young monk of his most famous book, the autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, to a contemplative writer and poet who became well known for his dialogue with other faiths and his stand on non-violence during the race riots and Vietnam War of the 1960s, and finally achieved the solitude he had long desired in a hermitage in 1965. During these years he had many battles with his abbot about not being allowed out of the monastery, balanced by his international reputation and huge 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 memorably 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. However, he died in Bangkok on 10th December 1968, having touched a badly-grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath. His body was flown back to Gethsemani where he is buried. Since his death, his influence has continued to grow and he is considered by many to be a twentieth century American mystic.

Merton put a ban on publishing much of his work until 25 years after his death. After that time his diaries were published.

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, Pennsylvania, USA.

Books by Thomas Merton