Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist Monk who was an influential poet, social critic and spiritual writer. He was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. He was born in Prades, France to a New Zealander father and an American mother.
He was educated at Cambridge and Columbia University. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky in 1941. In 1949 he was ordained as a catholic priest.
He was the author of more than 60 books. Including the story of his conversion, Seven Storey Mountain (1948), a modern spiritual classic, earned international acclaim.
Being a Trappist Monk
Merton felt called to be a Trappist monk. He had an Augustine-like conversion to Catholicism. He lived a richly textured life as an author, social activist, philosopher, but the essence of Thomas Merton was undoubtedly his profound spirituality.
He knew he must be open to be molded and formed by the Catholic Church into a man of virtue, prayer, integrity, and holiness.
As a Trappist monk, he felt living a cloistered existence, along with the monastic discipline is the surest path to achieving inner peace and freedom. By eliminating the distractions of daily life he could concentrate solely on God.
Trappists bind themselves to this form of living by taking public vows in accordance with the norms of Catholic Church law. They may additionally profess to obey certain guidelines for living a Christ-like life.
Their intention is to imitate Jesus by living a life based on the vows of evangelical chastity, poverty, and obedience, which are the three evangelical counsels of perfection.
The Seven Storey Mountain
The Seven Storey Mountain reflects on the life of Merton. His quest for his faith in God leading to his conversion to Roman Catholicism at age 23.
He left behind a promising literary career and resigned as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure’s College in Olean, New York. He entered The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky on December 10, 1941.
Merton seems to be struggling to answer a spiritual call. The worldly influences of his earlier years have been compared with the story of St. Augustine’s conversion as described in his ‘Confessions.’
The Seven Storey Mountain
How a book becomes a bestseller there is always an element of mystery when it happens: why this book at this moment? The most essential element is timing.
The ”Mountain” appeared at a time of great disillusion in 1948. We had won World War II, a bloody conflict with millions of casualties. The cold war had started, and the public was looking for reassurance.
Merton’s story was unusual. A well-educated, and articulate young man withdraws into a monastery. And the tale was well told, with liveliness and eloquence. Merton’s prose is clear and he tells the story of a complicated subject simply.
One sign of the book’s impact was the resentment it inspired in certain quarters. Not only with hostile reviewers, but with religious readers, who thought it inappropriate for any monk to write.
Writing is a form of contemplation. Merton talks about the freedom he felt in pursing God. It hit a chord with a public that was tired of war. It was a story of a man changed by his God who wanted to live in a fuller and spiritual life.
In the 1950s, Trappist monasteries experienced a surge in young men presenting themselves for the monastic communal life. A bit of Catholic lore that, after the book’s publication, many priests entered monasteries or seminaries with a copy in their suitcase.
In ‘Confessions of a Guilty Bystander’ Merton was on an errand for his monastery. He had a sudden insight on a corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district in downtown Louisville on March 18, 1958. It allowed him to redefine his monastic identity with greater involvement in social justice issues.
He writes, “…suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people…” He found them “walking around shining like the sun.” He closed by saying, “it is the function of solitude to make one realize such things.”
Merton’s Death and Influence
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 the Vietnam War of the 1960s.
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.
Merton and the Dalai Lama
His views had political implications 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.
On December 10, 1968, Merton had gone to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks in suburban Bangkok, Thailand. He was intending to go on to Japan and explore Zen (a form of Buddhism).
After speaking at the conference, while stepping out of his bath, he was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan. He died 27 years to the day he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. He is buried at the cemetery at the Abbey.
Merton, T. (n.d.). Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.