Saturday, December 10, 2011

In Memory of Thomas Merton

His death 43 years ago today, on December 10, 1968, was a tragic one. I am speaking of the accidental death of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk.
Merton (b. 1915) had gone to Thailand for an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks, a meeting held in a Red Cross Conference Center in a suburb of Bangkok. While stepping out of his bath in the cottage where he was staying, Merton reached out to adjust an electric fan, apparently touching an exposed wire, and was accidentally electrocuted. A tragic loss of life!
Merton died 27 years to the day after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, south of Louisville. That was just three days after, but not directly related to, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He became well known through his bestselling autobiography, which is mostly about his life before entering the Trappist monastery.
The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s story of his early life, was first published in 1948, when he was only 33 years old. By May 1949, 100,000 copies were in print, and that year it became the first religious book to make the New York Times bestseller list. The cover of the 1978 edition I just finished reading proclaims that over one million copies have been sold—and that was 33 years ago.
25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics was published earlier this year, and Merton’s autobiography was the 23rd of those 25 books. It was followed by C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (1952) and Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992).
In much of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton describes his rather unhappy childhood and young manhood. He narrates how he lived a rather undisciplined life, mainly seeking pleasure. But he didn’t find peace and contentment. After a year a Cambridge University he wrote, “. . . all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and . . . everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in my hands, and that I myself . . . had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of person—vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene and proud” (p. 132).
From this confession we see that Merton’s story is similar in some ways to that of Augustine. Accordingly, his autobiography is often compared to Augustine’s Confessions, the second work listed in 25 Books mentioned above.
To be honest, I enjoyed reading Daniel Berrigan’s autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, much more than Merton’s The Twelve Storey Mountain. That was mainly, I think, because Berrigan was exactly twice as old as Merton when he wrote his autobiography and included much about his many experiences as a peace activist. How I wish Merton had lived to write another autobiography in 1981, when he would have been 66 years old!
Beginning on January 1, I plan to start reading Through the Years with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Writings (1983). At some point one of those meditations will surely be Merton’s words that I have often quoted:
If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another(New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961, 2007; p. 122).


  1. The first response today was from a local Thinking Friend. She wrote,

    "I copied off that last quote to keep at my desk. What challenging words to keep in my mind and heart every day."

  2. How I love my association with you and those who you have called to be 'Thinking Friends!'

  3. Cécile Claire DaoustDecember 10, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    The return of the prodigal son has been one of my favourite books for a long time

    I would love to go to St. Petersburg at the Hermitage to see Rembrandt's masterpiece .
    I read The seven story mountain and found Thomas Merton quite chauvinistic..........I much prefer Peter Nouwen more sympathetic and unassuming

  4. Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, an esteemed Thinking Friend who was once my professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he taught for over thirty years, wrote:

    "'The Seven Storey Mountain' embarrassed Merton somewhat by the time I took my first class of students to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1960. Your comments are no more critical than some I heard him make. He hoped the book would not turn him into a myth for Catholic school children, he once said. It was his ability to look critically at everything he wrote or said, however, that would account for a deepening in his thought as he wrote and rewrote. His lasting contribution, I think, rested in trying to teach all of us the value of contemplation in our world of often poorly considered action."

  5. I must confess I have only read one book by Merton, many years ago. I have held it as sort of a mirror image to Karl Barth's Romans. Barth's book is my self-warning that even if a book is compelling for 500 pages, it can still fall short at the end, while Merton's book never grabbed me, until I was officially through with it, and stumbling into an epilogue. Then the epilogue took wing and soared, much to my amazement.

    I must also confess I forgot the title of Merton's book, but by the power of the internet, I plugged in "fire watch" and quickly was reading a recent discussion of its epilogue by Rev. Christopher M. Mahar, complete with Merton's missing title, The Sign of Jonas. See

    "Fire Watch, July 4, 1952" is an amazing essay. On the surface, Merton is merely double-checking the premises before retiring to bed, but underneath he explores that late-night sensibility where reality morphs and identity becomes problematic. Neat categories lose their dependability. Poetry flows through the essay.

    Rev. Mahar may have dissuaded me from putting The Seven Storey Mountain on my reading list. He says The Sign of Jonas it more or less a continuation of it, and I am not sure I want to read the prequel!

  6. Anton, who often posts comments on this blog, is traveling, but he sent me the following by e-mail:

    'Marvelous, Leroy. A wonderful tribute to Merton. Craig's comments, too, are gripping: '...he explores that late-night sensibility where reality morphs and identity becomes problematic. Neat categories lose their dependability. Poetry flows through the essay.' I must read that epilogue."