The parents of Thomas Merton were artists, his father, Owen Merton, a New Zealander, and his mother, Ruth Jenkins, an American. His mother died when Thomas was six. Thomas’ family life thereafter was complicated and he at various times was with his father, his grandparents in New York and at boarding schools in France and England. Owen Merton died in 1931. Thomas was accepted into Clare College, Cambridge, in 1933. On entering Clare College he indulged in a fairly dissipated life-style, to the extent that his guardian stepped in and persuaded him to go back to New York.
In 1935 Thomas entered Colombia University where he studied English literature. He also discovered an interest in Catholicism and began to engage with issues of social justice. Reading Étienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy gave Thomas a profound sense of the appropriateness of faith in God. He graduated in 1938 and shortly afterwards met a Hindu monk who impressed him not only as a deeply spiritual person but because he encouraged Thomas to read not Hindu classics but Christian ones such as Augustine’s Confessions, and Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Later that year, Thomas engaged seriously with becoming a Catholic, and after reading about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ decision to become a Catholic and a priest, Thomas felt called to follow the same path. He was baptized in November 1938.
Thomas hoped to join the Franciscans, but they were uncertain of his vocation and did not accept him. Thomas took up a teaching position at the Franciscan University of St Bonaventure. His prayer life developed significantly at this time. In April 1940 he arranged to go on retreat to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky and there discovered what would become his spiritual home for the remainder of his life. The Order that lived at Gethsemani were Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known as Trappists. It was a strongly ascetic order. Thomas was accepted into the order in December 1941 as a postulant. Shortly before that he spent time working in Harlem and this opened his eyes to issues of justice and poverty.
Merton’s initial work at Gethsemani was translating various texts, but he was also encouraged to embark on his own spiritual writing. This was the beginning of a prolific outpouring of works on spirituality, beginning with some poems and then his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. This was widely read, and Thomas Merton became one of the best known and most deeply respected spiritual writers of the 20th century. Other books on the spiritual life followed in a steady stream. By the time of his death, he had written over 60 books as well as poems and articles. His major themes were spirituality and issues related to civil and human rights. He was deeply committed to peace, racial harmony and social equality.
Merton was ordained priest in May 1949, and from the end of that year was engaged in teaching mystical theology to the novices at Gethsemani. As part of his pursuit of reconciliation and understanding, Merton also engaged with other faiths. By 1965 he was living as a hermit in the grounds of Gethsemani, but in 1968 was permitted by the abbot to travel to Asia. He met the Dalai Lama, visited Sri Lanka and intended to visit Japan. Merton may have wished to become a hermit in Asia. However, he died tragically of electrocution caused by a faulty electric heater in Bangkok.
BORN: 31 January 1915, Prades, France.
DIED: 10 December 1968, Thailand.