In the late 1940s, in the aftermath of a terrible war and
as the world struggled to rebuild itself, confident in technology's
capacity to help in the task, a surprising thing happened:
a young monk's autobiography quickly became a bestseller.
Not only did it attract a wide reading audience, it awakened
vocations too: the Trappists as well as other religious
orders were overwhelmed by the number of postulants to the
monastic life who responded to his narrative. Thomas Merton
shared his story with the world in The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. From that time until his death in 1968, he continued
to write voluminously.
His writings on the life of the spirit, on prayer, contemplation
and inner life, solitude, and humanity's alienation from
and possible reconciliation with God, never failed to strike
a responsive chord in his diverse reading public. A monk's
austere and demanding existence was apparently fertile ground
that produced the fruits for which many hungered in the
midst of their plenty.
It may be that the primary factor in the appeal of Merton's
writings is his characteristic of penetrating in clear language
to truth. His works lead the reader to a depth of self-understanding
through a sharing of his own inner discoveries.
Merton's diligent studies of Christian saints, mystics,
and theologians was never expressed in his writings as a
sterile erudition. The reader always gets the impression
that "here is something alive, Merton is telling me something
real, he is sharing profound discoveries that have significance
for my life here in the 20th century." In the same way,
his eremitic calling did not separate him from his fellow
humans who toil in the world, but in fact united him with
them. The body of his published works chronicles a growing
contact with the ground of being, and he makes it clear
that the inner life of the spirit is the heritage of all
Although there were many apparent obstacles to walking the
path he perceived as being his path-that of a contemplative
monk-all elements in his life added up to create in him
a fully realized human being. His European beginnings, his
wild youth and rebellious college days, his vocational self-doubt,
the growing awareness that the mere form of religious dogma
was insufficient for his spiritual unfolding, the struggles
with the Church censors over his writings, the prolonged
delay of being allowed to go into hermitage, the demands
placed upon a solitary monk by a world hungry for his words,
the physical deprivations he had to suffer as the price
of his hermitage, and, finally, the trip to the East and
meetings with monks and spiritual leaders from non-Christian
traditions-all contributed to the message he felt so naturally
compelled to share with his fellow sojourners in the modern
He was a monk in a Christian religious order dating from
the Middle Ages, yet he was modern. He was a contemplative
who treasured solitude, yet he knew this world very well
and shared not only his "thoughts in solitude" but also
his observations on contemporary times. His purpose among
us was to report on the deepest meaning of human existence,
and he did it with wit and humor and always with love.
Given the depth of his writings and the response they evoked
in hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries, it should
serve as a useful purpose to look at some of the factors
that were involved in his awakening to the spiritual vocation.
Having arrived at a turning point of his life, Thomas Merton
made the decision to become a Trappist monk. This was not
done on a whim nor was it an instantaneous conversion. In
his autobiography, published when he was thirty-two, he
details some of the chance fortuitous events that prepared
him for his spiritual vocation. Merton's discovery of his
vocation involved a process of self-recollection that was
kindled by seemingly unimportant or irrelevant events. Some
people consider such ultimately poignant encounters to be
miracles, others consider them to be coincidence, while,
for most people, these potential turning points in life
go largely unnoticed or ignored. Merton himself came to
view these fortuitous events as the work of grace.
The first example of these fortunate events is related by
Merton as having happened even before his birth: his father
had been tempted to join an Antarctic exploring expedition
that passed through the town in France where he lived with
his wife, but he ended up not going. This "circumstance"
resulted in Thomas' birth in 1915. His mother was a devout
Quaker, yet was also open-minded in her child's religious
upbringing. She consciously tried to keep from molding him
according to her own ways. Merton's comment in his autobiography
on this is probably accurate: "My guess is that they thought,
if I were left to myself, I would grow up into a nice quiet
Deist of some sort and never be perverted by superstition."
An example of her singular approach to assure that her son
thought for himself is the way she used her own death as
a teaching for him. Thomas was six years old when she died,
and she would not allow the child to see her in the hospital
in the last few weeks. Instead, she wrote him a note telling
him about what was happening, which he read after her death.
He was thus left to contemplate this major event in his
life on his own and without the immediate emotional confusion
that might have accompanied a closer participation.
His father was an artist and an independent man, and his work meant a meager existence for his family. He taught Thomas that art was not for entertainment nor for the pleasure of the senses but that it was a means of contemplating the wholeness of creation. At age eleven, Tom attended school at the Lycée Ingres at Mountauban, France. Among the rough children there, he assumed the fashion of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. But, characteristic of his quick intelligence, he shed those biases readily when he met Catholic and Jewish youngsters who were much more refined than his classmates. He was already writing by this time, having written three romance novels with some of his schoolmates.
In the summer of 1927, he met Monsieur and Madame Privat,
who were the people with whom he and his father boarded
in Murat, France. Merton's description of them from The
Seven Storey Mountain is that "they were saints in that
most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary
lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by
obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine-but
skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form
from grace within, and from the habitual union of their
souls with God in deep faith and charity." The Privats were
deeply concerned at young Merton's lack of faith. Although
he was only 12, he argued with them that it was a matter
of individual conscience, and they did not contend with
him. Later, he wrote that he owed much to them because of
their silent and patient prayers for him.
Thomas, with his father and his brother, went to England
in 1929. His father got very sick and had to be hospitalized,
seeing little of his boys in the months which preceded his
death in 1931. Thomas suffered very much those years and
it was hard for him to recover from such a loss. He was
then quite alone in the world, a young man left on his own.
As a result, his freshman year, spent at Cambridge, was
a dizzy and boisterous one. He felt the only thing of value
that he got out of Cambridge was an acquaintance with Dante's
He returned to his maternal grandparents in Long Island
and went to Columbia in the winter of 1935. Merton had been
attracted at this time by the Socialists who were on campus.
He relished the idea of a classless society. His course
selection the next year reflected this intellectual social-political
concern. One day, thinking he was in the room where the
first meeting of his history course was to be held, he found
that it was actually a course on Shakespeare and he started
to leave. But, just by chance, he reconsidered, and ended
up taking the course. It was this "coincidence" that led
to his friendship with Professor Van Doren. Merton was immediately
impressed with the "heroic humility" of his English professor.
Van Doren was one of several people at Columbia who influenced
him in the direction of using the mind to penetrate the
meaning of things through perfect honesty and objectivity.
From Van Doren, Merton was weaned from the narrow perspective
of philosophy and economics through studying Shakespeare,
which dealt with human drama in the fundamental realms of
life, death, sorrow and eternity. It was also in this class
that Merton became acquainted with Bob Lax, who became his
good friend and was to have a pivotal influence on his life.
Merton describes Lax as being born a great contemplative.
He had a deep spirituality but, lacking practicality, he
followed Merton's lead in activities. It was Bob Lax who
inspired Merton with the desire to read Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means. In the entry for November 27, 1941, The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, Merton declares,
"until I read this book, Ends and Means, four years
ago, I had never much heard of the word mysticism. The part
he played in my conversion, by that book, was very great."
The main thrust of the book was that evil means will not
accomplish good ends. One needs detachment in order to act
with conscious will rather than be subject to the inferior
material and animal forces of one's nature. Asceticism and
prayer are the means to freedom.
For Merton this was revolutionary. Yet he was not ready
to end his wild, playboy ways. Indeed, as a result of being
so busy with his various forms of socializing, he became
It was also through his friendship with Bob Lax that he
encountered a shy little man with a huge smile, a yellow
turban with Hindu prayers written all over it in red, and
on his feet, sneakers. Bramachari was his name, and he earned
Merton's respect quickly by his good humor and his inability
to criticize in a judgmental way, even when making statements
about the hypocrisy of most western sects. When Merton told
Bramachari of his difficulty in relating to the eastern
mysticism he had studied as a result of Huxley's book, Bramachari
referred him to the beautiful Christian mystical tradition.
He specifically told Merton he should read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ by
St. Ignatius. Aside from putting Merton in touch with the
western mystical tradition, Bramachari left an impression
on him that contributed to Merton's openness to all kinds
of spirituality, resulting in his later works bridging eastern
and western mysticism.
Merton felt the call to a spiritual vocation with increasing
intensity in his last year as an undergraduate. He was drawn
to the Catholic Mass and had an intimate feeling for the
mystical body of the Church. He had just suffered a personal
life crisis, and all his activities drained him to the point
of exhaustion. At one point in his reading of Lahey's Gerard
Manley Hopkins, the questions in the text asking the
reason for Hopkins' hesitation about converting to Catholicism
seemed to be a movement within himself. Merton felt a voice
moving him to take the decision he knew he must. He went
to the church where he had obtained some books and told
the priest he wanted to become a Catholic. Yet a few months
after his baptism, he realized that he was living in the
same manner as he had before. He pleased himself before
all else, all his acts interfering with the work of grace
in his soul. His "conversion" consisted in an intellectual
The state of the world at the end of the 1930s, no less
than the state of his own soul, led Merton to a vocational
crisis. As he and Lax were walking down the street arguing
about something, Lax asked Tom what he wanted to be anyway.
Thomas responded not that he wanted to be a well-known book
reviewer for the New York Times, or a successful businessman,
or some such profession, but he said that he wanted to be
a good Catholic. Unable to explain what he meant by that,
he was told by Lax that what he should say is that he wanted
to be a saint. Merton protested, asking how it would be
possible for him to be a saint. Lax, who was not a Catholic,
remarked that all that is necessary to be a saint is to
want to be one.
By September of that year, Merton was thinking, "I am going
to be a priest." One evening, he went to a church service,
feeling that he was called there to answer a question and
that his whole life depended on his decision. Thus, he answered
in prayer: "Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart
I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest." He wrote
about these prayers in his autobiography: "When I had said
them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those
last four words, what power I had put into motion on my
behalf, and what union had been sealed between me and that
power by my decision."
However, it was a few years before his decision was actualized.
He talked to people about his vocation and investigated
several religious orders in the Catholic Church. He decided
upon the Franciscan Order, for he did not believe he was
capable enough to follow the rules of a strict order like
the Cistercian. Within a few weeks of entering the novitiate,
he was beset with many anguished doubts. He spoke with the
superior, expressing his concern that his past life made
him unworthy. His superior suggested that he withdraw his
application. Confused and feeling miserable, he went to
a church for confession. He wasn't able to explain himself
and the priest got his story all mixed up. The priest was
very hard with Merton, telling him in very strong terms
that he certainly did not belong in the monastery, still
less in the priesthood. When Thomas went out of that church,
he felt completely broken in pieces. The only thing he knew
was that he shouldn't consider the vocation to the cloister
as a possibility.
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
Bhagavad Gita. 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