Thomas Merton Biography

A modern pilgrim, Thomas Merton the Catholic mystic, explored and recounted the quinessential spiritual journey in books and works that have lasted many years and served as spiritual guide to thousands.

For the great Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, religion was not always a source of endless joy and contemplation. Young Merton, born in France in 1915 and raised by his father after his mother died, was often torn by conflicting energies""zeal both for the sensory life around him in scenery, buildings, great art and food, and for the something more that dwelt in the spiritual realm. Tortured by a hard, cruel life in an ascetic private boys' school in England, Merton also studied at Cambridge University where he began to develop an amazing capacity for knowledge, learning, and understanding, and by the time he entered Columbia University, was ripe for being challenged by the deeper conflicts that had simmered in him for a long time.

He was a passionate young man, ready for love both sensual and divine and drawn to quick and fervent expressions. By the end of his student years at Columbia he felt an almost physical overpowering of his person, as if God, like Thompson's Hound of Heaven, had fled him and found him. According to Merton's own early autobiographical memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, just sitting n the rear of some Manhattan church one day at Mass, he felt so drawn to God as expressed in the Catholic faith he could no more deny its pull than deny his own identity. He studied for commitment to the Catholic faith and was received in the church as a young man.

But Merton's struggles with faith's call were not over. He continued on at Columbia, teaching and exploring the impact of his faith upon his life. He also worked at the Roman Catholic Center in Harlem, always being moved by the civil rights and peace movements in this country and elsewhere. As a young man he wrote articles and journal pieces that keep us abreast of his spiritual development in a startlingly clear way. Early on, Merton believed it odd that "we think of the gift of contemplation. Infused contemplation, mystical prayer, as something essentially strange and esoteric reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else?"

Instead, Merton was convinced that, "These gifts are part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity. They are given to us at Baptism, and if they are given it is presumably because God wants them to be developed." He began making a commitment to a life enlightened by God's gifts of Wisdom and Understanding in order to "increase and perfect our love for Him." To this end he entered the Trappist Order of contemplative religious at Our Lady of Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, and in 1949 was ordained as Father Louis.

The vibrant, outgoing, virile and passionate young man became a cloistered monk who clearly found a surprisingly right venue for his all-involving love of God and his desire to perfect that love of God within him.

In the early days of his time at Gethsemane Merton suffered through privation, loneliness and the rigors of monastic life. It was only when his superiors allowed him to express himself onthe printed page and even fostered his amazing ability to chronicle and comment on spiritual development that he became more free, happiest in a curious rhythm of writing in solitude, then coming "out" for interviews, discussions, classes, then withdrawing again for further reflection and commitment to paper. Those who met him were amazed to find him such an earthy, hale and hearty husky fellow, with a loud sense of humor and a taste for beer and the everyday things of life.

Over the next 20 years, from 1948 when Mountain and Seeds of Contemplation were published, he wrote countless other books and essays, and volumes of poetry, which he often continued to rewrite and perfect, even while producing more and better and refined writings on similar topics. Fourteen years after writing Seeds of Contemplation, for example, he produced a startlingly fresh version of the book called New Seeds of Contemplation, which has become a classic in the genre of Christian writing. Other favorite works by Merton include The Waters of Siloe, 1949, The Sign of Jonas, 1953, and The Silent Life, 1957. He also wrote fervently about liturgical renewal in the Catholic Church.

Merton's spiritual journey within became the subject of tens of tracts and books on meditation and contemplation, social justice and ecumenism that have guided believers ever since. His books still sell, and commentators who write on his writings continue to sell, as well. For example, James Finley's Merton's Palace of Nowhere deals with Merton's understanding of spiritual self-identity. Merton's whole spirituality, Finley says, pivots in the question of human identity, his message is that "we are one with God."

Toward the end of his life Merton grew increasingly interested in bringing people together, both in the communal sense, and in bridging obvious differences, such as race and religion. He studied Eastern religions and became enamored of the philosophies of Buddhism. On a trip to the Far East he met several times with the Dalai Lama as he prepared to give a presentation geared for bringing together East and West in a major world conference. A few hours before he was to speak, Merton died by being accidentally electrocuted in his bathtub in the hotel in Bangkok where he was staying. He was 53 years old.

Another Merton associate at the monastery at Gethsemane, writes that whatever Merton was doing, whether talking or writing on prayer, monastic life, liturgy, the psalms or on civil rights, peace and war, nuclear disarmament or ancient cultures, "he was expressing the fullness of the nature of contemplation. For contemplation for Merton was not simply one aspect of life, still less some esoteric phenomenon attainable by only a few in life. For him, contemplation was the fundamental reality in life. It was what made life real and alive. It was what makes us to be truly human."

In one of his last works, The New Man, Merton wrote that contemplation is the perfection of love and knowledge, and "the highest and most paradoxical form of self realization, attained by apparent self-annihilation." His radical voice for faith and humanity continues to echo in the world of mystical and spiritual writing.

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