About Thomas Merton

About Thomas Merton

When Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress in 2015, he caused a research frenzy of sorts among news organizations. The Pope lauded four Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—as people who had “made America a better place because of their dreams of justice, equal rights, liberty, and peace.” The reference to Merton by the Pope led to numerous articles in the press that explained to a curious American public just who this Merton person was. 

Here is a very brief overview of Thomas Merton’s life: 

  • Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in Prades, France. 
  • His American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, died in 1921 when Thomas was only six.
  • His New Zealand-born artist father, Owen Merton, died in 1931 when Thomas was only sixteen.
  • He was a student at three different boarding schools, in France and England. 
  • In 1933, he attended Cambridge University where he majored in French and Italian. 
  • In 1934, he left Cambridge and moved to America. 
  • In 1935, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York.
  • At Columbia, he became the editor of the 1937 Yearbook as well as Art Editor of the Columbia Jester.
  • He graduated in 1938 and began work on a master’s degree.
  • On November 16, 1938, he was baptized and received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi in New York City.
  • He taught English at St. Bonaventure College in 1940-41. 
  • On December 10, 1941, he entered the Trappist Monastery south of Bardstown, Kentucky, known as The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

  • Merton wrote over 70 books about spiritual life, including journals and poetry.He taught the novice monks at the monastery.
  • For many years he lived alone in a hermitage on the Abbey’s grounds.
  • He died in 1968, on December 10th, the exact same day of the year on which he had entered Gethsemani, twenty-seven years earlier. 

As Merton rode the train to Kentucky in 1941, he hoped he would be accepted into the monastery at Gethsemani, a hope tempered by the reality of the looming World War II and the very real possibility that he might be drafted into the military. 

“Mile after mile my desire to be in the monastery increased beyond belief. I was altogether absorbed in that one idea. And yet, paradoxically mile after mile my indifference increased, and my interior peace. What if they did not receive me? Then I would go to the army. But surely that would be a disaster? Not at all. If, after all this, I was rejected by the monastery and had to be drafted, it would be quite clear that it was God’s will. I had done everything that was in my power; the rest was in His hands. And for all the tremendous and increasing intensity of my desire to be in the cloister, the thought that I might find myself, instead, in an army camp no longer troubled me in the least”. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt, Inc., 1948, 1996, 1998) p. 406.

To me, the above quote from the very young monk, published in his seventh year at Gethsemani, confirms that he was then already living the precepts of The Merton Prayer, knowing that the Lord was “leading him on the right road” though that was not at all clear to him as the train lumbered toward the monastery. The Merton Prayer, first published in 1958, was likely created by Merton during his early years at the monastery, in the mid-1940s, during his well-known search for more solitude. Indeed, The Merton Prayer may have been first written down by him while praying in St. Anne’s, a tiny chapel-hut at Gethsemani. 

The gate at Gethsemani, which reads in bold permanent print “GOD ALONE,” was indeed opened to Merton, and he lived there for the next twenty-seven years. It absolutely boggles my mind to think what the world might have missed had his “road” taken him into the military and not the cloister at Gethsemani. 

In 1968, after lecturing to Buddhist monks in Thailand, Merton was accidentally electrocuted by a fan that fell into his bathtub as he showered. His body was returned to the U.S. on a transport plane that was carrying many American soldiers who had been killed in Viet Nam (the irony of which is ripe and often noted, given Merton’s anti-war writings). He was buried in the Gethsemani cemetery with a white cross which says simply “Father Louis.” I have been told, and have not confirmed, that his body may be the only embalmed body buried at Gethsemani, and one of only two bodies buried in a casket. (From Steven A. Denny, The Merton Prayer: An Exercise in Authenticity, ACTA Publications, 2022, pp. 11-16)

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