Thomas Merton's Life and Work
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at painting school in Paris, were married at St. Anne's Church, Soho, London and returned to the France where Thomas Merton was born on January 31st, 1915.
After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and on December 10th, 1941 he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.
The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.
During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.
A CHRONOLOGY OF THOMAS MERTON'S LIFE & PUBLICATIONS
Brother Patrick Hart,. Merton's last secretary, and Thomas Merton.
Photography by Philip Stark. S.J.
1915 - January 31-born at Prades, France, son of Owen Merton (artist from New Zealand) and of Ruth Jenkins (artist from USA)
1916 - moved to USA, lived at Douglaston, L.I. (with his mother's family)
1921 - his mother dies-from cancer
1922 - in Bermuda with his father who went there to paint
1925 - to France with his father, lived at St. Antonin
1926 - entered Lycee Ingres, Montauban, France
1928 - to England-Ripley Court school, then to Oakham (1929)
1931 - his father dies of a brain tumor
1932 - at Oakham School he acquired a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge
1933 - visited Italy, spent summer in USA, entered Cambridge in the fall - study of modern languages (French and Italian)
1934 - left Cambridge and returned to USA
1935 - entered Columbia University
1937 - at Columbia - editor of the 1937 Yearbook and art editor of the Columbia Jester
1938 - graduated from Columbia, began work on M.A.
1938 - November 16 - received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church
1940 - 1941 - taught English at St. Bonaventure College
1941 - December 10-entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky.
[Note: January 31, 1915 to December 10, 1941-nearly 27 years before entering monastery. Dies on December 10, 1968-the 27th anniversary of his entering Gethsemani.]
1944 - March 19 - made simple vows, published Thirty Poems
1946 - A Man in the Divided Sea
1947 - March 19 - solemn vows, published Exile Ends in Glory
1948 - Publication of best-seller autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain and What Are These Wounds?
1949 - May 26 - ordained priest; Seeds of Contemplation; The Tears of the Blind Lions; The Waters of Siloe
1951 - 1955 - Master of Scholastics (students for priesthood)
1951 - The Ascent to Truth
1953 - The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness
1954 - The Last of the Fathers
1955 - No Man Is an Island
1955 - 1965 - Master of Novices
1956 - The Living Bread
1957 - The Silent Life; The Strange Islands
1958 - Thoughts in Solitude
1959 - The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton; Selected Poems
1960 - Disputed Questions; The Wisdom of the Desert
1961 - The New Man; The Behavior of Titans
1961 - Emblems of a Season of Fury; Life and Holiness;
1964 - Seeds of Destruction
1965 - Gandhi on Non-Violence; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Seasons of Celebration
1965 - 1968 - lived as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery
1966 - Raids on the Unspeakable; Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
1967 - Mystics and Zen Masters
1968 - Monks Pond; Cables to the Ace; Faith and Violence; Zen and the Birds of Appetite
1968 - December 10-died at Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at a meeting of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians
1969 - My Argument with the Gestapo; Contemplative Prayer; The Geography of Lograire
1971 - Contemplation in a World of Action
1973 - The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton; He Is Risen
1976 - Ishi Means Man
1977 - The Monastic Journey; The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton
1979 - Love and Living
1980 - The Non-Violent Alternative
1981 - The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton; Day of a Stranger Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton (reprinted in 1989 under title "Honorable Reader" Reflections on My Work)
1982 - Woods, Shore and Desert: A Notebook, May 1968
1985 - The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (Letters, 1)
1988 - A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965; Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals and Letters
1989 - The Road to Joy: Letter to New and Old Friends (Letters, II)
1990 - The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction (Letters, III)
1993 - The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers (Letters, IV)
1994 - Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis (Letters, V)
1995 - Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (Journals, I: 1939-1941)
1996 - Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer (Journals, II: 1941-1952); A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life (Journals, III: 1952-1960); Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Journals, IV: 1960-1963)
1997 -Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage (Journals, V: 1963- 1965); Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom(Journals VI: 1966-1967)
1998 -The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (Journals VII: 1967-196
1999 -The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals
2001 - Dialogues with Silence.
2003 - The Inner Experience. Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.
2004 - Peace in a Post-Christian Era.
2005 - In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. Cassian and the Fathers.
2006 - The Cold War Letters. Pre-Benedictine Monasticism.
2008 - Introduction to Christian Mysticism.
2009 - The Rule of St. Benedict. Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine De Hueck Doherty.
2010 - Monastic Observances.
Thomas Merton’s Mystical Vision in Louisville
“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 world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Thus, it is not in the kind of activity that I undertake that matters but whether it is God's will that I undertake it. Moreover, its value lies not in its earthly importance but the degree to which I permit God to live and work in me and through me. Thus, it is probable that St Martin de Porres sweeping the cloister was doing something of greater Christian value than the Prior of the Lima Dominicans when he preached to the viceroy.
Thus, we must keep two things in mind: first, that it became a historical necessity for the Church in the West to do tasks which were undertaken exclusively by the Empire in the East; and, secondly, that there is no human activity that cannot become a means of sanctification if it is what God wants us to do. We can now turn to the letter of the holy monk Fr Seraphim and answer his objections, understanding the words of Thomas Merton in the light of his Louisville experience and of his letter to Jim Forrest.
Whether we succeed or whether we fail is not important in itself. If we are in God's hands, then he may lead us to success or failure. If failure, then he will turn the failure to good, even if we don't know how. Thomas Merton wrote:
Father Seraphim Rose, speaking of the total abolition of war, says that it is a goal worthy of secular man.
When England was divided into various kingdoms, war between them was a very real possibility. Then England became one kingdom, and what had been an ideal - peace among the various regions of England - became a concrete fact. The abolition of nuclear weapons is an ideal: but we wish to turn it into a concrete fact. The world is now very different from when Thomas Merton and Seraphim Rose were living in it. The Cold War is over. Third World countries are climbing the economic ladder while our economies stagnate. The struggle to turn peace from an ideal into a concrete fact, in a world where anybody is only the click of a mouse distance from anyone else, is a task that should have the wholehearted support of Christians. It is not "idealistic" to try.
However, as Fr Seraphim implies, such a peace is not "the peace that the world cannot give" and which comes from Jesus Christ. To let the peace sought by political struggle take the place of the peace that Christ bestows would be near idolatry; but Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were in no danger of falling into that trap. As Thomas Merton wrote:
We join in solidarity with the Peace Movement because, as believers in the Incarnation, we know we are one with all sharers in the human nature, and the nearer to Christ we are, the nearer to all human beings. However, as Christians, we participate in a Christian way. We know that our contribution will be successful only to the degree that, through prayer, we make our own the words of the Blessed Virgin, "I am the handmaid of the Lord: let it be done to me according to your word," so that the Holy Spirit can work in and through us. Every other consideration is secondary. Part of our work is to practise the presence of God and to see Christ in all. The more we see Christ in others, the more they will see Christ in us. In this way we will avoid the danger that Fr Seraphim and Thomas Merton allude to, of turning "peace" into a myth that enslaves rather than as a pointer to an even more profound peace that is a gift from Jesus Christ.