Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Roman Catholic writer, was a Trappist monk, social critic, and spiritual guide.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915, the first-born child of an American mother, born Ruth Jenkins, and a New Zealander, Owen Merton. His parents, aspiring artists, had met at art school in Paris in 1911 and married in 1914. They seldom were able to earn their living by painting (his mother became an interior decorator and his father worked as a gardener and farmer), but art dominated their lives. Partly because of their opposition to World War I, the Mertons left France for the United States in 1916. There they were received by Ruth's parents in Queens, New York, but soon struck out on their own, trying to live by farming, journalism, and music (for a time Owen was a church organist). A second son, John Paul, was born on November 2, 1918. The profile of the Merton family at this time was one of rather poor, impractical idealists, dedicated to art and peace but not notably religious. Ruth Merton contracted stomach cancer and died in 1921, when Thomas was six.


An Unsettled Early Life

Merton's early schooling was erratic, because his father frequently withdrew the boy to have him alongside during his travels (to Cape Cod and Bermuda, among other places) to paint. Merton's father took a lover, the writer Evelyn Scott, who became young Tom's rival for his father's affections. The father's poverty, and the growing wildness of the son, led in 1923 to Tom's return to New York and the supervision of his grandparents. Owen Merton travelled to the south of France and Algeria, made a success of his painting with a London exhibit, and took Tom (as he was known in the family) back to the south of France with him in 1925. John Paul stayed in New York, while Owen (minus Evelyn Scott, who had left him) and Tom began life in St. Antonin, a rather medieval town. Tom attended a local French Catholic school, was subject to much bullying, and experienced during a reunion with his grandparents and brother in 1926 that bitterness that had become the norm in his family's relationships. He thought of his brother as a rival, and his grandparents, who had never approved of his father, were vocal in their prejudices against the Catholic schooling he was receiving.

Tom was soon moved to the secular Lycée Ingres in nearby Montauban, which he disliked because of its harsh discipline and poor food. In 1927 he was diagnosed as having contracted tuberculosis and was placed with a couple in Auvergne to rest and recuperate. In 1928 Owen Merton had another successful art show in London and, on the advice of friends, moved Tom there for schooling. Owen had been sick periodically, and in 1931 he died, unaware that the paintings he had stored in France, on which he had rested his hopes of acquiring an artistic reputation, had been destroyed by flood.

So at age 16 Thomas Merton was a full orphan. He had been taken in three years previously by an aunt and uncle in London who were connected to the British public school system, and he was sent to Oakham public school. In 1931 his grandfather presented him with a measure of financial independence (stocks and land). London and sophistication became his enthusiasms, although at the end of 1930 he spent a brief time in Strasbourg for language studies. He did well at Oakham, becoming editor of the literary magazine, majoring in languages, and considering a future career in the British diplomatic corps.

Having won a scholarship to Cambridge, Merton finished his schoolboy career reading widely, travelling to Europe and America, and thinking romantic thoughts about poetry and young women. He also became more interested in religion, a subject he had previously approached with hostility. At Cambridge, however, he was so lured by alcohol and women (there were persistent rumors he had fathered at least one illegitimate child) that he neglected his studies and at the end of the first year did not do well enough in his examinations to renew his scholarship. On the advice—if not command—of his grandparents he returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University.


Turn Toward Religion

By 1935 the chief question in Merton's life was the existence of God. This dominated his years at Columbia, where he was a great success. However, at first he was more interested in writing and politics than in formal religion. In politics he felt drawn to socialist and communist political theory (more than their practice). He made good friends with a literary circle, was impressed by the English professor Mark Van Doren, and became editor of the Columbia Year-book.

After graduation he stayed on for a master's degree in English literature (becoming much interested in William Blake), and in 1938 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, culminating months of study of Catholic writers. Among these the philosopher Jacques Maritain was especially influential. He initially planned on a career as a writer, perhaps after a doctoral degree at Columbia, but slowly began considering a vocation in the priesthood. After various struggles, teaching at St. Bonaventure's University, and fear of being drafted, in April of 1941 he made a retreat at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, and in December of 1941 joined the community there, entering what he expected to be a great world of silence.


Trappist Monk and Author

Thomas Merton's fame stems from the autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, that he published in 1948. In the first seven years of his life as a Trappist he had completed the novitiate and been allowed to write poetry. Indeed, his writing had become a matter about which both he and his superiors were of several minds. On the one hand, the superiors put him to writing works designed to explain the monastic life. On the other hand, both they and Merton himself feared that writing would encourage self-centeredness and eccentricity. The Seven Storey Mountain was a great success, being compared to The Confessions of St. Augustine, and it made Merton a name in households interested in religious, especially Catholic, literature.

Merton was ordained a priest in 1949, and he continued to write books, mainly on the monastic life and contemplation, that received good press. Most notable of those from the time of his ordination are Seeds of Contemplation and The Sign of Jonas. Already his concrete, readable style and his mixture of poetic and monastic sensibilities were winning him a wide audience. He was praised for being able to escape the technical vocabulary of theology and to communicate the substance of Christian experience of prayer, community life, manual work, sacramentality, and the like. At this point his spirituality was rather traditionally monastic. In later years he would win a wider audience by venturing into social questions, above all racial justice and the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. In his final years his interests broadened to Eastern religions, especially Buddhist monastic life and Taoist spirituality. But from the time of the appearance of The Seven Storey Mountain he was famous as the man who had been converted from a dramatic life of artistic self-indulgence to an equally dramatic life of monastic silence and penance (out of which, paradoxically, came a torrent of books).

These books helped his monastery financially in the late 1950s and they attracted more applicants to the Order. Merton assumed greater responsibilities within the monastery, serving as master of novices, but he disliked the turn toward business (dairy and food products) the monastery had taken. Through many years he was at odds with his abbot about these matters and the management of reproduction rights to his books. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1951.

During the 1950s Merton continued to turn out good books on the spiritual life, and he continued to study subjects, such as psychoanalysis and zen, that he thought would help him better counsel the young monks of whom he had charge. He read widely: the fathers of the church, modern literature, Latin American history (in view of the possibility of his monastery's founding another establishment there). He also went more deeply into the Bible. In addition to his books, he wrote copiously in diaries. Some of his works on secular subjects were rejected by Church censors, and Merton felt increasingly attracted to living apart from his community as a hermit. Although he had many friends in the monastery, rules against intimacy, and increasingly conflicts with his abbot, made life there a trial.

Eventually he did win permission to live apart at Gethsemani. Through the 1960s Merton expanded his wide correspondence with eminent figures (which already included the Zen authority D. T. Suzuki and the Russian writer Boris Pasternak). He continued to write poetry, with his major themes increasingly concerned with violence and injustice. He intensified his opposition to nuclear warfare, supported Catholic pacifists (until one burned himself in protest), and received a stream of distinguished visitors to Gethsemani. Merton was encouraged by the changes within the Catholic Church under Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. He expanded his already wide range of interests: photography, Muslim and Jewish cultures, and a deepening interest in Buddhist and Hindu monasticism.

In 1966, during a stay in the hospital, he fell in love with a student nurse and felt transformed by this wonderful yet painful experience. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, published in 1966, was one of his most influential works and won praise for illuminating the connection between monastic solitude and social conscience. His Asian Journal of 1968, which recorded impressions of a trip he made to give lectures and study Asian monasticism, was also influential. Merton died of accidental electrocution on December 10, 1968, in Bangkok, where he was participating in a conference on monasticism and ecumenism.


Further Reading on Thomas Merton

Of Merton's own works, The Seven Storey Mountain, The Sign of Jonas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton form a representative collection. Two posthumous collections, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (1977) and The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (1985), complement these works. Three useful biographical studies are Elena Malits's The Solitary Explorer: Merton's Transforming Journey (1980), Monica Furlong's Merton: A Biography (1980), and Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984).

Additional Biography Sources

Forest, James H., Living with wisdom: a life of Thomas Merton, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991.

Grayston, Donald, Thomas Merton, the development of a spiritual theologian, New York: E. Mellen Press, 1985.

Kountz, Peter, Thomas Merton as writer and monk: a cultural study, 1915-1951, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Pub., 1991.

McInerny, Dennis Q., Thomas Merton; the man and his works, Spencer, Mass. Cistercian Publications; distributed by Consortium Press, Washington, 1974.

Nouwen, Henri J. M., Thomas Merton, contemplative critic, New York, N.Y.: Triumph Books, 1991.

Woodcock, George, Thomas Merton, monk and poet: a critical study, Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1978.