Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Thomas Merton

Growing up in rural northwest Missouri, I didn’t have much opportunity to know people who belonged to the Catholic Church.
And then during my years in two Baptist colleges and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that didn’t afford much possibility of getting to know Catholics, either.
Actually, as I think back, I guess my first Catholic friend was Zénon Yelle, a Canadian priest who lived in the same city in Japan. In the 1970s he became a member of a book discussion group that June and I attended monthly.
Fr. Yelle was a thoughtful man and a good scholar, and getting to know him helped me gain a more positive idea about Catholics.
It was also probably in the 1970s that I first became aware of, and then read a book by, Thomas Merton, an outstanding Catholic thinker and prolific author who was born 100 years ago tomorrow, on January 31, 1915 (exactly six weeks before my father).
The first of Merton’s more than 70 books that I read was “New Seeds of Contemplation” (1962), and I have read it a time or two since. And then a few years ago I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948), his highly acclaimed autobiography.
Partly in honor of his memory, this month I have read Merton’s “No Man Is an Island” (1955), one of his most widely-read books on what he calls “the spiritual life.” These books are quite beneficial for Protestants as well as Catholics.
In 1941 Merton became a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. That was his home for the next 27 years before his untimely death.
Dr. E. Glenn Hinson was one of my teachers at Southern Seminary in the spring semester of 1960—and after all these years I still exchange emails with him regularly.
In the fall of 1960 Dr. Hinson (b. 1931) began taking students to Gethsemani. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in any of his classes that did that, so I never had the privilege of meeting Merton or hearing him speak—or of learning more about Catholics then.
But the contact with Merton was quite meaningful to the seminary students who did go to Gethsemani with Dr. Hinson, and in a recent email Dr. Hinson wrote, “Merton had a very profound impact on my life and ministry.”
Through the years, Merton became a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, engaging in deep discussions with Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In December 1968, Merton went to Thailand to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. From there he intended to go on to Japan to learn more about Zen Buddhism. After speaking at the conference in Thailand, though, he suddenly died.
It is generally concluded that while stepping out of his bath, he was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan. It was a tragic loss to the religious world and to all who knew him.
It is impossible to know how much more good he could have done if he had lived 39 more years as my father did.
One chapter in “New Seeds of Contemplation” is titled “The Root of War is Fear.” Several times I have quoted the concluding words of that chapter, and they are words worth remembering and worth considering over and over again:

If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another (p. 122).


  1. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson in Wisconsin writes,

    "I studied Merton and St. John of the Cross one summer at UND from some scholars who also had some contact with him. He had an interesting grasp of Islam and Buddhism. . . . .

    "Merton's large book of poetry ["The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton"] is a powerful witness as well, one that gets marked up a lot."

  2. Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen shares these comments:

    "Leroy, I first read Merton when I was studying Sociology, I thought he was a sociologist. I only learned later that he was a monk. I later read "The Seven Story Mountain and went to the monastery where he had lived."

    "As I'm sure you know, there is speculation that his death was not an accident."

    1. Thanks for writing, Ed.

      Yes, I have heard that speculation, but have not investigated it. In my article I spoke of what is "generally concluded" about his death, and at this point I don't have any reason not to accept that conclusion.

      But most things are more complex than they appear on the surface, and it would be interesting to know the whole story behind Merton's untimely death.

    2. Michael Mott, in his mammoth biography _The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton_ (1984), weighs all of the theories about Merton's death (murder, conspiracy, CIA, etc.) and concludes that it probably was just a bizarre accident. I tend to agree. I don't know a more recent discussion, though.

  3. When I was growing up in the 60s, I remember a popular saying was "The good die young." As I have grown older, I have been struck by the irony in that line. Time teaches us to see more shades of gray, more good in the bad, and bad in the good, even in ourselves. I guess it is hard to be old and die good.

    Trying to find the source for the quote, I first stumbled over Billy Joel's 1977 "Only the Good Die Young." Memorable chords, but not the right song. Finally I remembered the name "Abraham, Martin and John." There was Dion, in 1968 no less, telling us the good die young. Merton had some exalted company that year. I remember it as the year I graduated from high school, wondering what on earth was going on. Eventually I discovered Paul Tillich's "The Shaking of the Foundations," and started finding out. If anything, today the foundations are shaking harder than ever.

    For anyone needing a pilgrimage to 1968, here is a link to Abraham, Martin and John:

    1. Craig, thanks for sharing the link to the song, which I just now listened to for the first time (as far as I can remember). Quite impressive!

  4. My first memories of the Catholics was in Kindergarten with the Sisters of Charity, I believe. Coastal Louisiana in Summer, with their full habits and constant scowls. Later I learned that Catholics were not real Christians because they were a salvation of works, and broke the 11th and 12th of the 10 Commandments.

    However, during high school, Fr. Phillipe started to build bridges to bring all Christians under the same umbrella of the Gospel of Jesus Christ within our area. Through him I met Fr. Phil, Fr. Helmut, Sr. Cory (some of the most Godly people I have ever met - and very fun to be around), and our Bishop and his secretary (two of the most vile men I have been around - these two died in a helicopter crash a couple of weeks later, and Fr. Helmut became interim Bishop).

    One of my current spiritual mentors is a married, former Evangelical Free pastor and missionary to eastern Europe, who became priest under Pope Benedict, and who has completely changed my thinking of the holy catholic Church by having me read the works and catechisms of the early Church fathers. I am grateful to these good men and women in my life. Each from the same root, but so different from Merton. I am grateful to have grown up outside the American Church, and to have seen the true catholic nature of the Church which extends through Rome, Orthodoxy, and the Protestants.

  5. Glenn Hinson was still doing those field trips when I got to Southern in 1978, and like you, Leroy, I wasn't in his class, but I was quite intrigued by the comments of those who went and investigated Merton on my own. I had Bill Leonard for church history, and he took us to a Shaker village. See Mike Ashcraft's article on field trips,, in which he discusses one such excursion there.

  6. I see that you have repeated the popular myth that Merton was electrocuted by a faulty fan while emerging wet from a shower. Hugh Turley and I have shown in our new book, which is the first honest investigation ever made of Merton's death, that there is no truth to that story. See