I have in my library more books written by Thomas Merton than by any other author. I was in my late twenties or early thirties when I discovered his writings and his person. On January 31st of this year he would have been 100 years old. He inspired me like few people have in my life. He was larger than life. His thought process was breathtaking, provocative, global. He was one of the most prolific writers I have ever known.
Thomas Merton was born in France to two wandering, American artists. His mother died when he was six years old. He became an orphan at fifteen when his father died. His grandparents, who lived in Douglaston, Long Island, took care of him and his younger brother. While studying literature at Cambridge University in England he lived quite a wild social life. He fathered a child out of wedlock. Both the child and the mother died later during a London air raid.
He returned to the United States in 1935 and studied at Columbia University in New York. There he met a Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton wrote about a singular piece of advice the monk gave him: “ ‘There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and The Imitation of Christ’ … “Now that I look back on those days, it seems to me very probable that one of the reasons why God brought him (Brahmachari) all the way from India was that he might just say that.” Merton took his advice and later that year the former atheist was baptized Catholic in November 1938 in a small church near Columbia University. At the time he was writing regular book reviews for the New York Times.
He accepted a position as a teacher of English Literature at St. Bonaventure’s College which was run by the Franciscans in the Upstate New York town of Olean. There he became very interested in the poetry of the English writer, Gerald Manley Hopkins, who later became a Jesuit priest. Two years later one evening he was with his friends and announced to them that he was not only going to become a priest, but that he was going to enter a Trappist Monastery outside Louisville, Kentucky, which was arguably the toughest religious order in the Catholic Church. He told them he would be taking a vow of silence, he would never leave the grounds of the Monastery, he would never write again, and in the end he would dig his own grave and be buried there. He would be allowed though to have visitors come and see him from time to time.
In 1941 he was accepted in the monastery. He took the religious name of Brother Louis. Because of his literary background the Superior of the Monastery allowed him to write poems and short religious books for the other members of the community. Finally the Superior suggested to him to write an autobiography. He finished writing The Seven Storey Mountain in 1946. The title was taken from the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Even before it was published Harcourt Brace begun to suspect that the book could be a success. They had planned to print 5,000 copies. They increased that to 12,000 copies. The book was finally printed on October 4, 1948 at $3 a copy. It exploded onto the literary world. On one day alone 5,000 copies were sold. The book had a higher weekly sale than any other book Harcourt Brace had published. The original clothbound edition of The Seven Storey Mountain sold 600,000 copies. What made it so special and why the fascination? Monica Furlong in her book Merton, A Biography says it was “the parallel fascination that he (Merton) can tell us at first hand, and with the eye of the writer, about what it was like to live a medieval life in twentieth-century America.”
Merton continued to write for the rest of his life. He wrote some 50 books during the 27 years he lived as a Trappist monk. He wrote on spirituality, contemplation, literature, Zen, and social and political issues. His books were translated into at least 30 languages. Since his death some 180 books have been published on Merton in English alone. He was not afraid to tackle the contemporary issues of the times. He wrote on the immorality of the war in Vietnam, the dangers of nuclear warfare, the need for interracial justice and racial equality, nonviolence and interreligious dialogue.
At one point in his life he felt the need for deeper silence and solitude, and requested that he be allowed to move from the monastery building to a small one-room hermitage close to a lake that was separate from the monastery though on the property.
He loved to communicate with leaders of Eastern religions such as Buddhists, Hindus and Sufi Muslims during that period of his life. One day he went to the Superior of the monastery and requested that he be allowed to attend a meeting of some of the authorities on Oriental mysticism that was to be held in Bangkok. He had been invited to make a presentation at the meeting. His request was granted.
He arrived to Bangkok on December 9, 1968 tired from the long trip and with a cold. The next morning he gave a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives”, certainly a fascinating topic! After lunch he went to his room saying how much he was looking forward to having a siesta. No one knows exactly what happened subsequently. It seems like he turned on a fan and was electrocuted. He was only 58 years of age. That day we all lost someone special. But he has left us a trove of wonderfully provocative books. He had a way with words : “We are already one, but we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are”.
Some years ago Deborah and I visited the monastery outside Louisville, Kentucky, and saw where he was buried with a small sign over the plot which read simply “Brother Louis, 1915-1968”.