Yet, as happens so often in life, what seems a tragic moment
ends by redirecting one's life for the better. When reading
his autobiography, one has the impression that a black curtain
closes before him at this moment of his life. Yet, after
that everything was a step forward to the discovering of
his true vocation. The first thing he did was to buy the
breviaries and decide: "I am going to live like a religious."
And he did.
Not long afterwards, Merton went to the Cistercian monastery
at Kentucky for a couple of retreats. After that he knew
what his vocation was. Not without fear of not being accepted,
he asked to enter the monastery. This time he was accepted.
At last, in December, 1941, he entered the Cistercian Trappist
monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, taking vows of Stability,
Obedience, and Conversion of Life; thus, undertaking a life
in the strictest of the monastic orders in the Catholic
He submerged himself in spiritual life with all his love.
He penetrated into the path of contemplation with the security
and happiness of the ones who know what their vocation is,
of the ones who know where they are called. He demonstrated
how much he loved his vocation during the next twenty-seven
years of his life.
He continued to have a weak constitution and was sick for
long periods, yet he never left the strict routine of the
monastery or complained. And he had to wait many years before
he was allowed to follow his yearning of solitude in hermitage.
He was faithful to his vow of obedience by accepting the
function of Master of Novices at Gethsemani and fulfilling
the responsibilities of that office for ten years, all the
while his soul yearning for complete solitude. He joked
about this situation but never complained about it. He finally
was allowed his hermitage if he would build it himself.
Community life was the norm at Gethsemani and the Abbot
did not want Merton's eremeticism to be too appealing. So
his cabin had only a small fireplace for heat against the
harsh Kentucky winters. Even though sickly, Merton did not
complain during the three years he spent in hermitage there.
He found his solitude.
It is more than interesting to note that the succeeding
Abbot himself made use of the hermitage and that the eremitic
is once again a respected vocation among the Cistercians.
During those three years, Merton deepened his spiritual
search, especially his studies in Zen which he had begun
seriously in the late 1950s. He continued to write, and
much of his correspondence was extensive and worldwide.
One of those with whom he corresponded was Dr. D. T. Suzuki,
the Zen authority. Merton desired to learn Chinese, but
the pressure of his other work made him give it up. He read
voraciously all the books supplied to him by various sources-librarian
friends, Dr. Paul K. T. Sih (who supplied him with the Legge
translation of Chinese Classics
), and other scholars.
One of his close brothers at Gethsemani, Patrick Hart, comments
that Merton's growing knowledge and interest in the East
was clearly "providential preparation for his Asian trip."
As with Merton's other realizations and understandings,
he had shared his discoveries about Eastern thought with
the reading public through numerous books on various topics:
The Way of Chuang Tzu
, Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Mystics and Zen Masters
, The Significance of the
. According to Dr. Suzuki, Merton had become
one of the few Westerners who really understood Zen.
Merton was drawn to his studies in Eastern mysticism and
religion and understood them so well because of his intimate
affinity for, understanding, and personal experience of
the mystical tradition of his own Christian heritage. At
any rate, by August of 1968, he was engaged in planning
for his trip to Asia. He had received permission to travel
away from Gethsemani (a dispensation from the rule that
a monk does not leave his monastery because of his vow of
stability) to attend a fall conference in Bangkok organized
by a Benedictine group aiming for monastic renewal. The
conference was to be a gathering of all Asian monastic leaders,
and Merton had been invited to deliver one of the principal
addresses. This trip was the culmination and fulfillment
of his studies of the Eastern traditions. His itinerary
included visits to many Buddhist monasteries as well as
Christian missions. He accepted another invitation to speak
at an interfaith Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta
shortly before the Bangkok meeting and also hoped to be
able to meet with the Dalai Lama and other Eastern religious
The publication of his journal kept while he traveled throughout
Asia on that occasion, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
reveals his excited enthusiasm in encountering not only
the leaders but the monks, the countryside, the hermits,
and the teachings. It is evident that he continued reading
during the trip; there are numerous entries in the journal
summarizing thoughts and quoting from texts of various different
religious approaches to the spiritual life. In it we also
learn firsthand the insights he gained from the people and
places he encountered along the way. This material reveals
why his ecumenicism was so comprehensive of all religious
Immediately after delivering his talk entitled "Marxism
and Monastic Perspectives" in Bangkok on December 10, 1968,
Thomas Merton died of an accidental electrocution in his
hotel room. Thus, his life had begun in Europe and ended
in Asia. The first twenty-six years of his life were spent
in gathering experiences, many of which were painful, and
from which he learned disattachment and came to the renouncement
of his outmoded ways of relating to the world and his own
life. The last twenty-seven years of his life were spent
in applying that same renouncement in fulfilling the vows
he had made as a member of the Trappists and in realizing
his unique individual way of knowing the divine. He died
in the East that he had come to know through its mysticism,
his last actions involving efforts to bridge the East-West
chasm that his own understanding had transcended.
Merton's life and written work rings with authenticity,
almost continuously, like a bell: clear, precise, unadorned.
His words announce again and again that inner call that
all human beings receive to unite with the divine. The radiance
of his work emanates from the essential message of his life:
in a continuous process of perfecting his relationship with
life and with God, Merton disappears. His life was a work
which transformed the man into the message.
Merton yearned for solitude, he loved souls, he loved the
divine. All he really wanted in life was to fulfill his
contemplative vocation. Yet, he was told to write and, faithful
to his vow of obedience, he shared his experiences and the
fruits of his contemplative life with the world. This was
his great sacrifice, which he happily accepted out of love
for souls. His clear revelations about the spiritual and
mystical life answered and continually answer a need of
us all in this century: to make contact with the divine
through our own means.
But the full extent of his practical self-effacement is
not readily noticed in his writing. He removes himself so
effectively that even in his numerous journals, it is the
voice of all humankind that speaks from them. We learn remarkably
little about his personal life.
Perhaps our best understanding of Merton comes from the
way he related to his vows. As a Cistercian monk, his vows
are probably summed up in the vow of Conversion of Life.
Merton made of this vow a living reality-disappearing as
a separate personality and transforming his life into a
testament for humankind.
Through the fidelity to his vocation and the humility that
nourished his spiritual insight, his writing continues today
to answer the great spiritual needs of our modern age.
Reprinted from Walking