Sunday, February 11, 2007

Thomas Merton 1915-1968

"We are called to create a better world. But we are first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task: that of creating our own lives."

Thomas Merton

He was a Trappist monk who for twenty-seven years, between 1941 and 1968, rarely stepped outside of the rural monastery in which he lived. So what could such a person possibly teach us about ourselves? As it turns out, a whole lot. From the opening paragraph of his autobiography:

"On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in the year of a great war and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers."

The oldest of two sons of an American mother and a father from New Zealand, both of his parents would be dead by his sixteenth birthday and his life and education would be financed by his maternal grandfather, a successful American businessman. After a disastrous year at Cambridge in England, where his excessive consumption of alcohol and sex resulted in a poor academic performance, he was sent back to America to finish his studies at Columbia University in New York City. After a brief flirtation with radical politics and the American Communist Party, he found himself drawn to the writings of several Catholic writers and philosophers. Responding to the world of 1939, a world which seemed to be headed toward utter destruction and chaos, he had an almost unexplainable desire to convert to Catholicism - but more than that - he wanted to become a priest. On November 16, 1938, he was baptized a catholic.

On December 10, 1941, three days after America declared war on Japan, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. He became a Trappist Monk.

"I rang the bell at the gate....the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars...
'Hello, Brother', I said.
He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase and said: 'This time have you come to stay?'
'Yes, brother, if you'll pray for me', I said.
'That's what I've been doing," he said, "praying for you'....
So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom."

In 1948, he was encouraged by the Abbot of the monastery to write his memoirs. Incredibly, the resulting effort, The Seven Storey Mountain, turned out to be one of the best selling books of the year. As Merton had been inspired by the events of the prewar world to enter a life of contemplation, so were thousands of people of all faiths inspired by the events of the post war world to question the very tenets of the so-called "American Century." Tom Merton not only planted the seeds that would eventually bear the fruit of what would evolve into the anti-war movement, he spoke out against racism at a time when most people didn't even know the definition of the word. From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

"Blaming the Negro: this is not just a matter of rationalizing and verbalizing. It has become a strong emotional need of the white man. Blaming the the white a stronger sense of identity, or rather it protects an identity which is seriously threatened with pathological dissolution. It is by blaming the Negro that the white man tries to hold himself together...The Negro could really wreak havoc in white society by psychological warfare if he knew how to use it. Already the psychological weapon of nonviolence has proved effective as an attack on the white man's trumped-up image of himself as a righteous and Christian being."

He was vehemently anti-war even in times of relative peace. It should come as a surprise to no one that, like all voices of reason and sanity in the era in which he lived, he had a file in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Through the machinations of various operators within the Catholic church and without, they even managed to have him censored for a period.

"A letter arrives stamped with the slogan 'The U.S. Army: Key to peace.' No army is the key to peace, neither the U.S. Army nor the Soviet Army nor any other. No "great" nation has the key to anything but war. Power has nothing to do with peace. The more men build up military power, the more they violate peace and destroy it."

His wisdom and correspondence were sought out by a broad range of people: from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Boris Pasternak and Martin Luther King. Toward the end of his career, comedian Lenny Bruce would end his nightclub performance with a recitation of a Merton poem which was a "defence" of concentration camp commandant, Adolf Eichmann:

I was a soldier,
a good soldier.
I saw the end of a conscientious day's effort.
I saw all the work that I did.
I, Adolf Eichmann,
watched through the portholes.
I saw every Jew burned
and turned into soap.
Do you people think yourselves better
because you burned your enemies
at long distances
with missiles?
Without ever seeing what you'd done to them?
Hiroshima...Auf Wiedersehen...

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Merton was developing a profound interest in Islam, Hinduism and, specifically, Buddhism; trying to find a way to bridge the gap between eastern and western religions. In the autumn of 1968 he was invited to attend a conference of monks and nuns in Bangkok. It was here, on December 10, 1968, within an hour of having addressed the group, that his life ended in the room in which he was staying. He was electrocuted after touching a stand-up fan that had faulty wiring. He was fifty-three years old.

There is no question that in the year of 2007, nearly forty years after his untimely death, Thomas Merton still matters. He reaches out to us across the decades, an articulate and passionate advocate of Peace and Love and Silence. It was his prayerful belief that only by obliterating the noise of our lives - whether it be the electronic noise of our immediate surroundings or the noise of our minds - could we achieve a pure communion with God.

It would be nice if he were still here. Come to think of it: he is.

Pray for peace.
Meditate for peace.
Shout for peace.
Be silent for peace.

Tom Degan

Goshen, NY

"Everyone who has read the gospel realizes that in order to be a Christian, one must give up being a fanatic, because Christianity is love. Love and fanaticism are incompatible."


Seven Storey Mountain

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

The Sign of Jonas

New Seeds of Contemplation

Disputed Questions

The Waters of Siloe

The Ascent to Truth

Thoughts in Solitude



"The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton" by Michael Mott

There are a few good books about Merton's life. This one is the best. It is the mountaintop of biographies.


Listen to the Voice of Thomas Merton

To read more recent postings on this site, please go here:

"The Rant" by Tom Degan

Political satire and commentary. It's a hoot!


At 1:52 PM, Anonymous fearless flower said...

Dear Tom,

Thank you for sharing this information. I'd like to read more about this fascinating man who clearly is timeless in his insight and wisdom. I loved the opening quote about creating our own lives and being called to make a better world.

Having lived in the deep South for several years, I agree with his assessment of white prejudice. The things white people still say down there about blacks (and other races) made my jaw drop. I could see they were doing it to make themselves feel superior. These were all Christians by the way who justified their remarks with Bible quotes.

The Catholic Church deserves credit for protecting and encouraging him to write even when he was controversial. I wish churches today would take a controversial stand against the war. Have they and maybe I just missed it?

Every once in a while a person comes along who reaffirms my belief in a Supreme Being of goodness. Where else could this kind of wisdom come from? One thought troubles me, however concerning his death. I hope he didn't leave this world prematurely simply because we didn't deserve him.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Amolibri said...

Hi Tom,
Many thanks for the Thomas Merton piece. He was.. and is.. truly a man for all seasons. (and I remember that you are named after him!) ;o)

At 3:33 AM, Blogger larkrise said...

I have read The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. I recommend both books. I wish I could have met Thomas Merton. He was an inspirational figure. We could certainly benefit from his wisome now.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger biddo said...

All great men and women of different faiths and creeds have always promoted peace and dialogue over war. And, yes, the Catholic Church does and has come out multiple times against the war in Iraq and for peace. However, that doesn't play well in the popular media so most folks never hear about it.
Peace to all!

At 10:02 AM, Blogger sherando1 said...

Have you seen this site on Thomas Merton. You may well enjoy it.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Catharine said...

Lovely... thank you.


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