Thomas Merton (1915-68)
By the time Thomas Merton was twenty-seven year old in 1942, he had lived a life both aesthetically-rich and hedonistic. Born into the Episcopalian faith, Merton had observed Catholicism from a distance. His father, a painter, was not shy in criticizing it as they traveled from one European city to the next before and after World War I.
In 1931, Merton's father died of a brain tumor. At boarding schools, the youth began sowing his wild oats. He studied little and drank much. Virtually all biographies mention that his year at Cambridge was a moral wasteland that included fathering a child with a young woman he had met there. According to Paul Elie who, in 2003, wrote about four modern American Catholic writers, the child's name has never been disclosed. The legal action was discreetly settled by Merton's guardian who promptly ordered him home.
Merton next enrolled at Columbia University where he studied English literature and was introduced to Communism there. He briefly joined the Young Communist League and also became a member of Alpha Delta Phi as well as the Philolexian Society, a literary and debate group.
In 1937, Merton began to take notice of Catholic churches and started to read Catholic literature. He had bought a book by Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which he thought would help him in a medieval French literature course. Apparently, the title did not betray its Catholic orthodoxy. Little did he know what an influence it would exert on him! The poetry of Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins also made a deep impression. Shortly after, Merton asked to be baptized at Corpus Christi Church located near Columbia University.
Following his baptism, life took on a new meaning. He was drawn to the priesthood. But where? Could he cope with "the pitch of active intensity and military routine" of the Society of Jesus? Perhaps the Franciscan Order? He took a teaching position at the Franciscan-run St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY.
In 1941, Merton made a weekend retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, KY. At long last, he had found his home. In 1942, he was accepted as a novice-monk. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, not only became an instant best-seller but also attracted many young men to the Trappist Order.
In religion, he was known as Father Louis, O.C.S.O, but to the world, he was always Thomas Merton, writer, poet, contemplative and activist, and Trappist monk.
During the next twenty years, Merton expanded his writings from strictly religious topics such as contemplative prayer, asceticism, and aesthetics to controversial issues such as violence and war, matters of social justice and ecumenical dialogue.
Thomas Merton's Influence
Merton also gave conferences to the younger monks, and many of the conferences were preserved in his own voice and remastered for CDs. They are from the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY.
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One might expect Merton to speak in ethereal, sentimental platitudes. Nothing is farther from the truth. Merton's voice is sharp but resonant and decisive with a no-nonsense style of delivery. His lexicon ranges from the sublime to the colloquial, yes even to slang-"that's baloney." It is emblematic of an erutdite man who once lived a deeply flawed worldly life while enjoying a broad classical education. He is a savvy spiritual master who gets down to gutsy realities.
Thomas Merton's Legacy
In December, 1968, Merton was in Bangkok attending an ecumenical conference of monks. As he stepped out of his bath on one of those sweltering South Asian days, he died from heart failure due in part to an electric shock.
In his speech to congress last month, Pope Francis said that "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between people and religions."