Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at a painting school in Paris, married at St Anne’s Church in Soho, and returned to France where Merton was born on 31 January 1915.
After a troubled and raucous adolescence in England, he emigrated to the United States and converted to Roman Catholicism while at Columbia University. On 10 December 1941, he entered a community of Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Trappists are, arguably, the most ascetic of all Roman Catholic monastic orders.
Merton spent twenty-seven years in Gethsemani. He kept several journals and read extensively. His superior noticed Merton’s talent for writing and intellectual gifts so, in 1943, Merton was tasked to translate religious texts and write biographies on the saints for the monastery. He took this assignment seriously. In 1948, he published his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which describes the quest for faith in God that led to his conversion to Catholicism.
During his time as a monk, Merton published more than 70 books, 2,000 poems, and numerous essays, lectures and reviews. He wrote over sixty books, hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, non-violence, and the nuclear arms race. Merton endured severe criticism for his social activism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who said his political writings were ‘unbecoming of a monk’.
A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.
A principal theme of Merton’s writing was ‘free dom’: how is it possible for a person to become the child of God they were born to be? After years of trying, in 1965, the Abbey permitted Merton to live as a solitary in a hermitage in the grounds of the monastery.
Being a hermit gave him greater solitude and allowed him more time to pray and write. He became perhaps the foremost spiritual writer of the later twentieth century. His classics include Thoughts in Solitude, No Man is an Island, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Seeds of Contemplation and Solitude and Love of the World.
We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.
During his last years, he became interested in Asian religions such as Zen Buddhism. The Dalai Lama visited him in 1968. It was during this trip to a conference on East–West monastic dialogue that Merton was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok on 10 December 1968 — the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.
Since his untimely death, Merton has been widely recognised as a prophet and one of our century’s most significant writers on the spiritual life