Born In: Prades, France
Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, theologian, social activist, mystic, and poet. He was a prolific writer and a scholar of comparative religion. He primarily wrote on topics pertaining to spirituality, pacifism, and social justice and published more than 50 books within a period of 27 years. He was born in France to a New Zealander father and an American mother, both of whom were artistically inclined. He had a difficult childhood after losing his mother to cancer. He graduated from Columbia University in Manhattan with an English degree. It was during his college years that he developed a keen interest in religion and spirituality. He underwent baptism at Corpus Christi Church and was later ordained as a Catholic priest. He was affiliated with the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Among all his books, his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain is the most popular one. His spiritual journey has inspired millions of people across faiths to explore their own inner spirituality. Besides Christianity, he also studied other religions and faiths, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Sufism. He is today recognized as an influential 20th-century Catholic mystic.
Died At Age: 53
father: Owen Merton
mother: Ruth Jenkins
siblings: John Paul Merton
Born Country: France
place of death: Samut Prakan, Thailand
education: Columbia University, Clare College Cambridge, University of Cambridge
Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915, in Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales, France. His father, Owen Merton, was a New Zealand painter who spent several years in Europe and the United States. His mother, Ruth Jenkins Merton, was an American Quaker and artist. His parents first met at a painting school in Paris.
The family moved to USA during the First World War. Owen was often absent during Thomas’ childhood. Owen and Ruth had another son in 1918. Ruth became ill with stomach cancer and died in 1921 when Thomas was six years old and his brother wasn’t yet three.
In 1926, at the age of 11, he got enrolled in a boys' boarding school in Montauban, the Lycée Ingres. His father withdrew him from the school in 1928, and the family moved to England. Soon after, his father died of cancer. Young Thomas was now under the guardianship of a family friend.
In 1933, he entered Clare College as an undergraduate and studied modern languages (French and Italian). He enrolled as a sophomore at Columbia University in Manhattan in early 1935. His 18th-century English literature teacher, Mark Van Doren, had a deep impact on his thinking. He was also influenced by Daniel Walsh, a part-time philosophy instructor.
At Columbia, he developed a profound love for literature and writing. He also developed long-term friendships with painter Ad Reinhardt, poet Robert Lax, commentator Ralph de Toledano, and lawyer John Slate.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in January 1938. The following year, he earned his master’s degree with a thesis on the English mystical poet William Blake.
In the late 1930s, Thomas Merton met a Hindu monk named Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who was visiting New York from the University of Chicago. The two men formed a rapport, and Merton was much impressed by the monk’s spiritual beliefs deeply centered in God.
Merton expected the Hindu monk to recommend Hinduism, but Brahmachari told him to reconnect with the roots of his own faith, Christianity. He asked Merton to read The Imitation of Christ and The Confessions of Augustine.
After reading these books, Thomas Merton was inspired to explore Catholicism further. He decided to attend Mass in 1938 and visited Corpus Christi Church, located in Morningside Heights. He listened attentively and started to read more about Catholicism.
He was baptized on November 16, 1938, at Corpus Christi Church and received Holy Communion. He wanted to join a Franciscan order but his application was turned down due to his apparent “youthful indiscretions.”
He spent a year teaching at St. Bonaventure University in New York but wasn’t happy there. His heart longed for a monastic career.
In December 1941, he went to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, where he spent a few days at the monastery guest house. He spent his time polishing floors and cleaning dishes. He was soon accepted into the monastery as a postulant after being approved by Frederic Dunne, Gethsemani's abbot since 1935.
Thomas Merton’s initial days in the monastery were difficult. He fell sick from the cold and had to study the complicated Cistercian sign language. He also had daily chores to do. During the first Sunday of Lent in March 1942, he was accepted as a novice at the monastery.
His younger brother, John Paul, wrote to him stating his desire to meet him. It was mid-1942 and John Paul was supposed to leave for the World War II. The two brothers met in July and shared details about each other’s lives. John Paul wanted to become Catholic and was soon baptized at a church. This was to be the last meeting between the brothers; John Paul would die in the war.
Thomas Merton was a prolific writer. He maintained journals during his stay at Gethsemani. His superior, Dunne, recognized the young man’s talent for writing and encouraged him. He was asked to translate religious texts for the monastery. He also wrote biographies on monks.
In November 1944, his book of poetry titled Thirty Poems was published by James Laughlin at New Directions. As always, Dunne was in full support of Merton’s writing career.
In 1946, another of his poetry collections, A Man in the Divided Sea, was published. The same year, his manuscript for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was accepted by Harcourt Brace & Company. He wrote this book during intervals from his work at the monastery.
The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1948. The same year, he also published many other books, including Guide to Cistercian Life, Figures for an Apocalypse, and The Spirit of Simplicity. Saint Mary's College (Indiana) also published his booklet, What Is Contemplation? that year.
In 1949, his books Seeds of Contemplation, The Tears of Blind Lions, and The Waters of Siloe were published. The British edition of The Seven Storey Mountain under the title Elected Silence was also published that year.
In March 1949, Thomas Merton became a deacon in the Order. In May that year, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood. On the occasion of the monastery’s centenary in June, he authored the book Gethsemani Magnificat. He would write several other books in the coming years.
Thomas Merton’s 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain is his best-known work. It was exceptionally successful and was among the best-selling non-fiction books of the year in America. It has been translated into more than 15 languages.
Thomas Merton fell in love with a student nurse assigned to his care after he underwent surgery in 1966. Her name was Margie Smith. He wrote poems on her and struggled to maintain his chastity vows as a man in love. It is not known whether their relationship was ever consummated.
On December 10, 1968, he was attending a monastic conference at a Red Cross retreat center in a province near Bangkok, Thailand. He gave a talk in the morning, and in the afternoon, he was found dead in his room, lying on his back. There was a short-circuited Hitachi floor fan lying across his body. There was also a wound in the back of his head. No autopsy was conducted.
While some believed he died of accidental electrocution, others felt it was probably murder. The actual cause of his death remains a mystery even after five decades.
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