Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most famous monastic and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. While a student at Columbia University in New York City, he converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of twenty-three, and in 1941, at the age of twenty-seven, he entered Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. As a monk at Gethsemani for twenty-seven years, he engaged the world of his times with prayer, writing and visual arts until his death in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. He is widely recognized as a Spiritual Master for the 20th century and beyond.
A writer of personal journals at least since he was sixteen years old, a writer of novels and poetry in his twenties before becoming internationally famous, Merton wrote his autobiography, after having spent four years in the monastery. The Seven Storey Mountain, a classic American coming-of-age story, remains a worldwide best seller since its publication in 1948. He published over thirty books during his lifetime and editors have presented over thirty more volumes since 1968. In addition to his autobiography, among the most popular of his titles are New Seeds of Contemplation, The Sign of Jonas, No Man Is An Island, Thoughts in Solitude, Disputed Questions, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander, Faith and Violence, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Mystics and Zen Masters, The Way of Chuang Tzu, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, The Climate of Monastic Prayer, Contemplation in A World of Action, and The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton.
During the 1960s, struggling to keep intact his contemplative vision that God was “the hidden Ground of Love” who unites all beings, Merton wrote effectively on issues of peace, non-violence, social justice, and the need for continuing dialogue among religious traditions. Since his death in 1968, editors have presented his personal journals in seven volumes and selected letters from his correspondence in five volumes. He edited a poetry magazine, Monk’s Pond, and his published articles for magazines have been gathered into fifteen volumes. Merton communicated his contemplative vision both as a line artist and photographer. There are over 1000 drawings and 1200 photographs in his official archives at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, only a portion of which have been published. 600 audiotapes of Merton teaching at Gethsemani are archived at the Merton Center.
Thomas Merton was a multi-faceted intellectual, artist and religious seeker who engaged a wide range of human issues. His international reputation continues to increase. The International Thomas Merton Society, with over forty Chapters throughout the world, including chapters in Poland and Russia, promotes the study of Thomas Merton and the preservation of his legacy for succeeding generations. Merton’s works are translated in over twenty languages.
Both within and ahead of his time, yet faithful to the traditions of contemplative wisdom in the past, Merton’s writing crystallizes around many issues that confront us individually and corporately today. He remains a witness to our need for inner work as we confront issues of social justice, world peace and a decline in public and private ethics. His liteary legacy sustains and mentors those who wish to lead what Plato called “an examined life”: a contemplative life whose fruit is solidarity with all beings.
All of Merton’s writing, but particularly his personal journals and private correspondence, pierces religious veils (the corporate and theoretical “beautiful pictures” presented as reality within institutional religious self-presentations). His writing exposes the shape and struggle of what it costs to lead an authentic and personal religious life in an increasingly more secular world culture that benignly relegates the religious search to personal preferences. Merton’s honesty and his “compassionate transparency” for his readers in facing his own weaknesses on his spiritual journey, his enthusiasm for an intense search for a religious meaning in human life based on his studies and personal experience, his inclusive appreciation of western and eastern traditions of monastic practice, and his still relevant criticism of materialistic cultures are continuing testaments that draw readers to identify with Merton’s concerns and to utilize his teaching for the conduct of their personal and corporate lives.
Why I read Thomas Merton
What has moved me most personally in Merton’s text, after over fifty years of reading his books, is his love of learning, his continuing education to expand his experiences and knowledge of what it means to live and love as a hopeful and courageous human being.
I have been moved by Merton’s authentic prayerfulness, his consistency in maintaining his dialogues with God until the end of his day.
I have been moved by his courage to buck systems and swim against currents by his public support of racial justice, non-violence and peaceful coexistence with all nations and religions.
I have been moved by Merton’s affirmation of the rights of the unique person existing within institutions, which often approach the diversity of human relationships with inflexible ideologies. Merton consistently struggled with his own prejudices and projections; he never ceased to do the inner work necessary to walk away from habitual states of consciousness whenever he discovered himself still too non-inclusive to be a thoroughly catholic human being.
I have been moved by Merton’s vocation as a monk and writer to be a witness to the unity of all beings. Although he fully realized that the unity to which human persons are called would never be finally realized in his life time, he lived by faith that at a future “end and redeemed time” the entire universe of beings would finally know together that they have been eternally without exception loved by God.