Merton, Thomas (1915–1968), Trappist Monk, Activist, Writer

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Merton, Thomas
(1915–1968), Trappist monk, activist, writer.

There is perhaps no American Catholic who has had more written about him and his spirituality in the past thirty years than Thomas Merton. Superficially this publishing phenomenon might seem strange for a man who spent twenty-seven years in the enclosed Cistercian (Trappist) Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. And yet the announcement of his death in 1968, while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok, was reported widely by the press.

During his early years Merton seemed unlikely to choose a life of prayer, work, worship, silence, and solitude in one of the strictest Catholic monastic orders. He was born on December 10, 1915, in France to an American mother, Ruth, and a father, Owen, who was from New Zealand. His parents were not particularly devout and he grew up with little formalized religious education. Merton also experienced great upheavals in his early life. His mother died when he was six. His father then took him from the stable home of his grandparents to live in Bermuda, France, and England, where he spent much of his time in boarding schools. His father died when he was fifteen. In 1933 he entered Cambridge University. His Cambridge education ended because of drinking, the loss of his scholarship, and an accusation that he had fathered a child. He then entered Columbia University, where he received undergraduate and master's degrees in English. He was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1938 and in 1941 entered the monastery.

The public first knew of Merton's writings in 1948, when he published his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. He continued to write about prayer, spirituality, and monastic life. Then, in the late 1950s, he began to correspond and meet with a diverse number of persons—poets and writers, persons from other religious traditions, including those of Asia, advocates of peace and justice, and ordinary people. These interactions were grounded by a deepening life of prayer. Gradually he began to respond to others, not only with acts of mercy and compassion, which he had practiced previously, but also in written protest against conditions that marginalized and depersonalized human beings. This position was reflected in his writings, in which he advocated the need to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and welcome strangers. In addition, he stressed the necessity for personal transformation in preparation for changing those institutional structures of the culture, church, and monastery that contributed to injustice, violence, and the inability of persons to become responsible members of the human community.

His stances against nuclear weapons, racism, war and violence, consumerism, and materialism were not based on social, political, or economic principles. They were founded in his loving, prayer-filled relationship with God, which overflowed in a love for other persons and a protest against all that diminished their human dignity, freedom, and life itself. Although the specific concerns of our day may be different, Merton's transformative prophetic stance of prayer, protest, and action continues to challenge new generations of his readers who also face the realities of injustice, violence, and the marginalization of human persons.

See alsoCentering Prayer; Conversion; Meditation; Mysticism; Prayer; Religious Communities; Spirituality.


Cunningham, Lawrence, ed. Thomas Merton:SpiritualMaster: The Essential Writings. 1992.

Mott, Michael. The Seven Mountains of ThomasMerton. 1984.

Shannon, William, ed. Passion for Peace:The SocialEssays of Thomas Merton. 1995.

Dorothy J. LeBeau