Thomas Merton

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. — Thomas Merton

In the years following Thomas Merton’s 1968 visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists never forgot Merton or their encounter. In his autobiography, Freedom In Exile (published in 1991), the Dalai Lama described Merton in these glowing words: “More striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see that he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. It was Merton who first introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”

Many regard Thomas Merton as possibly the most influential American Catholic writer of the 20th century. Before his premature death at the young age of 53, Merton would write a best-selling autobiography, an additional 70 books, hundreds of poems and scores of magazine articles, all exploring and expanding what it means to live an authentic spiritual life.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on Jan. 31, 1915. His mother, Ruth, was an American, and his father, Owen, a New Zealanader. Both parents were aspiring but struggling artists. When Thomas was 6, his mother died of stomach cancer. Ten years later, his father also died after a brief illness. By age 16, Merton was completely orphaned and taken in by an aunt and uncle in London.

He received a scholarship to Cambridge. His first year, however, was not devoted to studies but to campus social life. Lured by alcohol and the friendship of women, his grades suffered and his scholarship was not renewed. His family insisted he return to the United States and made it possible for him to enroll at Columbia University where he eventually earned a master’s degree in English literature.

While at Columbia, Merton was drawn to socialist and Marxist political theory, as well as to Roman Catholic mystical theology. In 1938 he was formally received into the Catholic Church, culminating months of serious study and reading of Catholic writers. Three years later he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky where he joined the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (also known as “Trappists”).

A Cistercian Monk

On March 19, 1947, Merton took the vows of a Cistercian: obedience, stability, conversion of life, poverty and celibate chastity. Contrary to common perception, Cistercians do not take a vow of silence. Trappist monks speak only when it is absolutely necessary. Small talk and idle chatter are discouraged.

In 1949, Thomas Merton was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis. At the Abbey, he engaged in daily prayer, meditation and labor. Recognizing Merton’s writing talents and believing that his ideas would be helpful to others seeking spiritual direction, Merton’s superiors permitted him to continue writing.

In 1948 he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It chronicled his conversion to Catholicism and became an unlikely best seller that appealed to a generation of post-war readers thirsting for spiritual values. The success of this book gave him access to a wide range of persons — poets, writers, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sufis, social activists — with whom he began to meet and correspond. These activities kept him engaged with the world while at the same time living a monastic and contemplative life.

Civil Rights and Vietnam

As important issues, such as civil rights and the Vietnam War emerged, Merton felt that he needed to move from silence and solitude to action and mission. In a 1961 letter written to Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, he said: “I don’t feel that I am called in conscience at a time like this to go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues.”

Thus as the Vietnam War expanded and exploded on the American conscience, Merton could not remain silent and became an eloquent voice for peace and non-violence. In No Man Is An Island, Merton discounted the idea of an enemy writing: “Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitation that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for peaceful and harmonious human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love may perhaps show me that my brother is not really my enemy and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible.”

As the Vietnam War intensified, so did Merton’s feelings about the insanity of that war and war in general. Writing for The Catholic Worker, Merton challenged Christians to struggle against war: “What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself to the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how by a ‘first strike,’ the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time? . . . The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed: work for total abolition of war. There can be no question that, unless war is abolished, the world will remain constantly in a state of madness.”

The last three years of his life Merton lived privately in a hermitage on the abbey grounds in order to further deepen solitude in his life and reduce his accessibility to the many people who came to the abbey hoping to visit with him. Though he wrote and spoke out on social issues, Merton also valued meditation, contemplation, reflection and silence.

Writing specifically to a group of students at the University of Louisville, Merton challenged them to discover the power of silence: “We are perhaps too talkative, too activistic, in our conception of the Christian life. Our service of God and of the Church does not consist only in talking and doing. It can also consist in periods of silence, listening, waiting. . . . Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffusive anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be and the distance between the two.”

His Prayer Life

Along with silence, prayer was an all-important spiritual discipline for Merton. When Pakistani Sufi scholar Abdul Aziz corresponded with Merton and asked about his prayer life, Merton explained: “Strictly speaking, I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. . . . My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana (annihilation of the self). There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.”

As a Trappist monk and a Catholic priest, Merton reached out pastorally to individuals in need. For example, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Merton wrote this kind and tender pastoral letter to Coretta Scott King: “Let me only say how deeply I share your personal grief as well as the shock which pervades the whole nation. He has done the greatest thing anyone can do. In imitation of his Master he has laid down his life for his friend and enemies. . . . He will go down in history as one of our greatest citizens. My prayers are with you and with him. May he find the rest and reward which God has promised to all who trust in His mercy. This morning my Eucharistic offering will be for him and for you.”

A similar letter of pastoral concern was written to Ethel Kennedy after the killing of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. “It is hard to say anything that is capable of measuring the shock and sorrow of Bobby’s tragic immolation. Nowadays we tend to expect almost anything but there was something particularly awful and traumatic about this, just because Bobby represented a very real hope for the whole country and for the world. . . . Naturally I have said Masses for Bobby and I remember all of you at the altar. More and more we are forced to realized that God is our only real hope in the stark mystery of what we are all up against. . . . Courage and peace be with you. My love to all the family, and God bless you.”

Increasingly, Merton became curious about Asian religions, especially Buddhism, so he reached out to various Buddhist leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, D. T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama. In November 1968 he traveled to India where he had been invited to speak at a meeting of Asian Catholic monks. He arranged to spend eight days in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and residence of the Dalai Lama, who was then a young man of 33. Merton spent his time there in prayer, meditation and meeting with Tibetan masters. The Trappist monk and the Tibetan leader “spoke almost entirely about the life of meditation.”

It was obvious that Merton was intrigued and impressed by the spiritual similarities between the meditation of Tibetan monks and the meditation practiced by Christians in monastic settings. In his “Letter From Asia To Friends,” Merton said: “My contacts with Asian monks have been very fruitful and rewarding. We seem to understand one another very well. They are specialists in meditation and contemplation. This is what appeals to me most. It is invaluable to have direct contact with people who have really put in a lifetime of hard work in training their minds and liberating themselves from passion and illusion.”

Sadly, Merton died while on that Asian trip. On Dec. 7, 1968, he was in Bangkok, Thailand, attending an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. While stepping out of his bath, he was accidentally electrocuted, the result of a defective wire on a fan. Merton was 53 years old. He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941. Editors of the New York Times thought that Merton’s impact and influence as a spiritual writer merited an obituary on the front page of the newspaper. His body was flown back to the United States on a military plane, and he was buried on the grounds of his beloved Gethesamni Abbey.

REV. PARACHIN, a minister, journalist, and teacher of meditation and yoga with his wife, writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.