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Who is Thomas Merton?

The Man and His Works
From Thomas Merton: The Man and His Works
by Dennis Q. McInerny
Cistercian Publications Consortium Press, Washington, DC


Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915, in a small town tucked away in the Pyrenees called Prades. He mother Ruth Jenkins, was an American, the child of a Long Island couple who had loose alliances with the Quakers and strong feelings for pacifism. His father Owen was a New Zealander and a painter. It was while he was studying in Paris that he had met his wife; she also had aspirations to be an artist at the time. Perhaps one of the unconscious promptings which eventually led Thomas Merton to take a vow of stability in a monastic order was the intensely peripatetic nature of his early life. He was about a year old when his parents brought him to this country, primarily on account of the intrusion of World War One, secondarily because Owen Merton's parents-in-law opposed his desire to enter that war. The next few years were spent in the United States. During that time his brother John-Paul was born, four years younger than himself, and during that time also he commenced his formal education in the local public school.

When he was six years old his mother died of cancer. A strangely strong woman she seems somehow all the more vivid for the little we know about her she apparently decided that it would be harmful for her children to see her in her decaying and dying state, so once she was hospitalized as a terminal patient she would not allow them to be brought to her. Shortly before her death she wrote young Thomas a letter, in which she explained that he would never see her again. For someone his age, it must have been a very disconcerting message about a very disconcerting subject. After the death of his mother, Merton was taken by his father to Bermuda, where they remained a few months while the father painted and the son continued his education on a very sporadic basis. Then it was back to Long Island to live with his maternal grandparents and John-Paul while his father went off to Europe.

When Thomas was ten, in 1925, his father brought him to Europe to live with him. They settled down in Montauban, a town in the south of France and Thomas was enrolled in the nearby Lycee Ingres. After two years there he was sent to England, where he attended first Ripley Court School in Surrey and then Oakham School in the Midlands. It was from Oakham that he matriculated to Clare College, Cambridge, in the fall of 1933, having been awarded an exhibition to read modern languages. The one year he spent at Cambridge was by every account that Merton gives a decidedly unpleasant one. He obviously had no great love for the place, and spent more time raising cane and socializing than he did studying. None the less, he did pass his tripos in modern languages at the end of the year, with a Second, and was planning to return to the University the following fall, which is to say the fall of 1934. At the suggestion of his godfather, a London physician who was acting as his guardian, he had formulated the vague intention of entering the British diplomatic service after getting his degree. Displeased with his dissipation at Cambridge, however, his guardian recommended that he give up the idea and go to live with his grandparents in America. There was really nothing to keep him in Europe now, for his father had died a few years previously, a slow, agonizing death of a tumor on the brain.

So, it was in December 1934 that the young Merton came to live permanently in the United States. He had been reading heavily in Marx at the time and he conceived of himself as a communist. Having decided that study of literature and the arts was hopelessly bourgeois and socially useless, his intention was to enroll in the New School of Social Research once he arrived in New York. What he actually did was enroll at Columbia, where in the spirit of his initial resolve he first concentrated on the social sciences but eventually in great part due to the influence of Mark Van Doren abandoned his temporary and not altogether convincing antipathy for literature and became an English major. Merton was in every way a Big Man on the Columbia campus. A tireless activist, if there was anything to get involved in he got involved in it. He was a fraternity man. He was on the track team, until his heavy smoking, steady drinking and minimal sleeping eventually forced him to sever his ties with not only track but with all collegiate athletics. He wrote, and profusely, for every campus publication; in his senior year he became editor-in-chief of the year book, The Columbian, and art editor of the Jester, a campus literary magazine. The intense social concern he brought with him to Columbia was manifested by his membership in the National Students' League. For a time, until the incongruity of the meetings being held in plush Park Avenue apartments proved too much for even his capacity for the paradoxical, he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He even had a party name: Frank Swift. For all his extra-curricular activity, though, Merton found time to give more than perfunctory attention to his studies. He developed a deep love for and incisive understanding of literature. He took his B.A. in 1938 an his M.A. a year later. His master's thesis was written on a poet who was going to continue to influence him for the rest of his life, William Blake. He had begun work on his doctorate, with the plan to write the dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins, when an event transpired which was to alter radically the whole course of his life.

That event was his conversion to Catholicism in 1938. Despite the manner in which he plays up the errant "paganism" of his youth, Merton was throughout his life an essentially religious person, which is to say that he was always possessed of an irrepressible sense of wonder at and passion for ultimate reality. In Catholicism he found a home where both his vibrant intellectual curiosity and wide-ranging mystical tendencies could live at peace and be assuaged. It was not long after his conversion that he began seriously to think of becoming a priest. He applied for admission to the Franciscan order, was accepted, and was on the verge of entering their novitiate when he was overpowered by a sense of unworthiness after reviewing the escapades of his past life. He explained his qualms to the Franciscans and they suggest he put off entering the novitiate, perhaps indefinitely. Merton was crushed, but he accepted the decision with courage, deciding that if he could not live in a monastery he would live as a monk in the world. Among other observances he scheduled for himself, he prayed the full Divine Office every day just as if he were ordained. Since his conversion Merton had been teaching English at the Extension Division of Columbia University and, later, at St. Bonaventure's University in Olean, New York. It was while he was at St. Bonaventure's that he met Catherine de Hueck, who had recently established a settlement house in Harlem. He seriously considered leaving teaching to go to work with her there. As it happened, he did leave teaching, in December 1941, not to go to Harlem but to become a Trappist monk.

Merton had first heard of the Trappists from Daniel Walsh, a man from whom he had taken a course in scholastic philosophy at Columbia and now is himself now a priest. At Father Walsh's suggestion, he journeyed to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky to make a retreat. It was a matter of love at first sight. Harsh and secluded though it was, Merton saw in the life of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance the life he wanted to lead. Back in Olean he made quick preparations to wrap up his worldly affairs. St. Bonaventure agreed to get someone to take his courses so he could leave in mid-year. Registered with his draft board as a Noncombatant Objector, he wrote to them and requested that they delay his induction pending his possible acceptance by the Trappists. Then, holding his breath, fearing that they might find in him the same objections which disconcerted the Franciscans, he wrote to the Trappists and asked permission to join their order. They told him to come.

On December 10, 1941, three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he passed through the gates of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. After Merton entered the monastery there were very few "events" other than the death of his brother John-Paul, killed in action in 1943, and perhaps the publication of his book which marked his life, which is precisely how he intended it to be. A man becomes a monk not to do things but to become someone, and becoming someone is not announced by superficial eventfulness. In 1947 he made his solemn vows, which is to say he committed himself to the monastic life for good. Two years later he was ordained a priest. In 1951 he became an American citizen, a step which he was prompted to take, he explained later, because of his admiration for Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. If it was all right for them it was all right for im. For four years he served as the Master of Scholastics, the director and counselor of those monks who are studying for ordination. Then, in 1955, he was appointed to the position of Master of Novices, one o the most critical posts in any religious order. It is the duty of the Master of Novices to introduce the newcomers to the monastic life, and to make the difficult and touchy decision of who should and should not stay on. He held this post until 1965 when, after many years of effort, he obtained permission from his abbot to live the life of a hermit. Aided by fellow monks, and a local contractor, he built a small heritage in a wooded area about a mile from the main buildings and it was there he spent most of the remaining threes years of his life.

The greatest recognition which Thomas Merton received during his lifetime was in the large number of people who read his works and were impressed and guided by his thought. But there were also more specific forms of recognition. In 1961 Columbia University named him a recipient of the Medal of Excellence, given to distinguished graduates. In 1963 the University of Kentucky conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Once Merton entered the monastery he very rarely left it, and seldom did he travel further than Louisville, fifty miles away. It was all the more unusual, then that he embarked in the fall of 1968 on an extensive trip to the Far East. The length of his stay was undetermined. He had been asked to come to the Far East by various Trappist abbots, first, to attend a conference on monasticism to be held in Bangkok in December, second, to visit several Trappist monasteries in the orient in the capacity of a consultant and advisor. It was anticipated that he could stay at any one of these monasteries for several months. Before going to Bangkok he traveled extensively in India, where he met and talked with the Dalai Lama. At the conference in Bangkok he gave in the morning an informal talk on the relationship between Marxism and monasticism. He was scheduled to return that afternoon for a panel discussion on the subject, but he never did. Around 4 p.m. he was found dead in his room. Though the fact that he died alone makes it impossible to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt the exact cause of death, all indications seem to point to the conclusion that he was killed accidently, electrocuted by a defective electric fan. It was Dec. 10, 1968, twenty-seven years to the day since he had entered the monastery. He was fifty-three years old.