Thomas Merton, Monk, Poet, Spiritual Writer
10 December 1968
Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in France, of American parents. His early education was in France (Lycee de Montauban 1927-8) and England (Oakham School, 1929-32; Clare College, Cambridge, 1933-4). He came to America and attended Columbia University, graduated in English in 1938, worked there one year as a teaching assistant, and got his Ma in 1939. In 1939 he joined the Roman Catholic Church, and taught at St Bonaventure for the next two years. In 1941 he entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. The Trappists, called more formally Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are (or were before Vatican II) an extremely strict Roman Catholic monastic order, devoted to communal prayer (they spend at least four hours a day in chapel, chanting the praises of God), to private prayer and contemplation, to study, and to manual labor. Except for those whose special duties require otherwise, they are vowed not to speak except in praise of God. Thus, when not singing in chapel, they are silent.

Toward the end of his life, Merton developed an interest in Buddhist and other Far Eastern approaches to mysticism and contemplation, and their relation to Christian approaches. He was attending an international conference on Christian and Buddhist monasticism in Bangkok, Thailand, when he was accidentally electrocuted on 10 December 1968.

His published books include the following. I have starred those that one biographer of his considers his best work. After some titles, I have inserted quotations from the work (from a selection made by another reader).

1944 Thirty Poems.

1946 a Man in the Divided Sea.

1947 Figures For an Apocalypse, a book of poems. * 1948 Seven Storey Mountain, a spiritual autobiography. This is the book that made him famous.

1949 Exile Ends in Glory.

* 1949 Seeds of Contemplation, about prayer.
* 1949 Waters of Siloe, a history of the Trappist order. "Siloe,"
More commonly spelled "Siloam," is a pool in Jerusalem. Jesus healed A blind man by daubing clay on his eyes and sending him to wash it off in the pool of Siloam.

1949 Tears of the Blind Lions.

1950 What Are These Wounds?

1951 the Ascent To Truth * 1953 Sign of Jonas

1953 Bread in the Wilderness

1954 Last of the Fathers * 1955 No Man Is an Island

"Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe."

1956 the Living Bread, about the Lord's Supper.

1957 the Silent Life

1957 the Strange Islands

1958 Thoughts in Solitude

1959 the Secular Journal of Thomas Merton

1959 Selected Poems of Thomas Merton

1960 Disputed Questions

1960 Spiritual Direction and Meditation

1961 Behavior of Titans

1961 Wisdom of the Desert

1962 a Thomas Merton Reader

1962 New Seeds of Contemplation

1962 Original Child Bomb

1963 Life and Holiness

1963 Emblems of a Season of Fury

1964 Seeds of Destruction

1965 Seasons of Celebration

1965 the Way of Chuang Tzu

1966 Raids On the Unspeakable * 1966 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

"Businesses, are, in reality, quasi-religious sects. When you go to work in one, you embrace A New Faith. And if they are really big businesses, you progress from faith to a kind of mystique. Belief in the product, preaching the product, in the end the product becomes the focus of a transcendental experience. Through 'the product' one communes with the vast forces of life, nature, and history that are expressed in business."

"Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments."

"Technology is not in itself opposed to spirituality and to religion. But it presents a great temptation."

1967 Mystics and Zen Masters

1968 Cables To the Ace

1968 Faith and Violence

1968 Zen and the Birds of Appetite

(His death occurs here. Later works were presumably edited by others after his death, and are either previously unpublished material or anthologies of work already published.)

1969 My Argument With the Gestapo

1969 the Geography of Lograire

1969 the Climate of Monastic Prayer

1969 Contemplative Prayer

1970 the True Solitude: Selections From the Writings of Thomas Merton. * 1971 Contemplation in a World of Action, a series of essays.

1971 Thomas Merton On Peace

1971 Opening the Bible

1973 the Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, a collection of his writings about Oriental philosophy and mysticism.

1980 Love and Living, a collection from his writings.

"A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions (in Pascal's sense) is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of 'choice' when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses."

"The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to the mass production of uneducated gradtuates--people literaly unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired to call 'life'."

"The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms."

"Anyone who regards love as a deal made on the basis of 'needs' is in danger of falling into a purely quantative ethic. If love is a deal, then who is to say that you should not make as many deals as possible?"

"[A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused.] If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. ... If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves."

"War represents a vice that mankind would like to get rid of but which it cannot do without. Man is like an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him but who always has a reason for drinking. So with war."

PRAYER (traditional language):

O God, who by thy Holy Spirit dost give to some the word of Wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise thy Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Thomas Merton, and we pray that thy Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

O God, who by your Holy Spirit give to some the word of wisdom, To others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Thomas Merton, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.