For those of us who, from time to time, have searched for some spiritual refuge, Thomas Merton has been one to whom we have often come. After decades of alcohol addiction, when what I believed to be a divinely inspired path opened to me, I sought spiritual refuge. Having always fancied myself as having a somewhat reclusive nature, the idea of a hermit legally hiding in the guise of a monk, had great appeal to me. After literally jumping off the bookshelf, I decided to take Merton home and discovered that he was as human as I.
There is some debate about where Thomas Merton was born, either here in the United States or in the town of Prades, France, but there seems to be no issue as to when; January 31, 1915. Regardless, his early years were spent with his father (mother deceased) in France. Next came a somewhat difficult time at a boarding school (Oakham School, 1929-32) in England, followed by his studies at Cambridge University. By this time, his father had also died, and Merton, while at Cambridge, began to show an intellectual side that bordered on genius. When he moved to his grandparents home in the U.S., and subsequently to Columbia University, Merton began to wrestle with deeper conflicts; conflicts of the soul.
Like most when we're young, Merton began to feel the passions of the soul, stir, but also a restraint that many find hard to recognize. By the time of graduation at Columbia (1938), Merton was aware of a strong "pull", as if God, who might have at one time, abandoned him, had returned. While attending Mass, sitting in the rear of the church, Merton felt, "so drawn to God...I could no more deny it's pull than deny my own identity." Shortly afterward, Merton committed himself to the Catholic Church. Merton stayed on at Columbia, where he taught at St. Bonaventure for the next two years and tried to reckon with the new found impact his faith was having on his life.
Merton began to write journals that chronicled his spiritual development and questioned why,
contemplation ..be reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else. Merton argued, These gifts (contempation, mystical prayer) are given to us at Baptism,...presumably because God wants them to be developed.
It was here that Merton simply made the committment "to a life enlightened by God's gifts of Wisdom and Understanding" and entered the Trappist Order of contemplative religions at Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky in 1941. For the next eight years, he followed the extremely strict Roman Catholic monastic duties. First came communal prayer (at least four hours a day in chapel, chanting the praises of God) and then private prayer and contemplation and study, as well as some manual labor to end the day. Strictly forbidden to speak, except in praise of God, these are silent years. Finally in 1949, Merton was ordained as Father Louis.
In a sense, Thomas Merton, now Father Louis, had arrived. He was where he was meant to be..a cloistered monk with an "all-involving love of God." Early on, adjustment was hard for Merton, the "rigors of monastic life", but in time he was given the opportunity and privilege to write, that which he felt he must, and the rest is history, so they say. He spent inordinate amounts of time in prayer, and contemplation, and reflection and he put it all down on paper. Well, most all...He would then retreat from his cloistered life and give interviews and teach classes and "socialize", enjoying life as best he could, on the "outside." But he would always wrestle with the conflicts of the soul, and he honestly put these "matches" down on paper.
This deeply felt inspiration to write about his spiritual journey, became the subject of volumnes of works on contemplation, meditation, social justice (or injustice) and ecumenism, which brought people around the globe, spiritual guidance, comfort, and much joy. A great concern, of which he wrote, was the civil rights movement and the peace movement of the sixties. He called Martin Luther King's non-violent approach to civil rights,"certainly the great example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." Always deeply concerned with man's treatment of man, Merton studied Eastern religions and was completely enamored in the ways of Buddhism. On a trip to the Far East, where he met with the Dalai Lama, and was preparing for a presentation bringing East and West together, Thomas Merton was accidentally electrocuted in his hotel's bathtub in Bangkok, Thailand. He was 53 years old. In the end, Thomas Merton had written more than 50 books, 2000 poems, numerous essays, given countless lectures and still found time to talk to God.
Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Thomas Merton..1961 Selected Works of Thomas Merton
Dates of publication are often later editions.
- 1948: The Seven Storey Mountain; An Autobiography of Faith
- 1949: Seeds of Contemplation
- 1949: The Waters of Siloe
- 1951:The Ascent of Truth
- 1953: Bread in the Wilderness
- 1953: The Sign of Jonas
- 1955:No Man is an Island
- 1956: The Living Bread
- 1960: Spiritual Direction and Meditation
- 1961: New Seeds of Contemplation
- 1962:A Thomas Merton Reader
- 1963: Thomas Merton on Peace
- 1964: Seeds of Destruction
- 1965: Seasons of celebration
- 1973: The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
- 1977: The Monastic Journey
- 1979: Love and Living
- 1979: The Ascent to Truth
- 1982: Woods, Shore, Desert : A Notebook, May, 1968
- 1990: Life and Holiness
- 1992: The Way of Chuang Tzu
- 1993: Thoughts in Solitude
- 1968: Eighteen poems
- 1971: Thomas Merton: early poems/1940-42
- 1967: Selected poems
- 1977: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton
- 1990: Thomas Merton : the poet and the contemplative
life : an exhibition