Life of Thomas Merton

A Brief Summary 

Thomas Merton was born on 31 January 1915 in Prades, France, and died on 10 December 1968 in Bangkok Thailand.  His father, Owen, was an artist from Christchurch, New Zealand, and his mother, Ruth Jenkins, was an American.  They had met at an Art School in Paris and married on 7 April 1915, at St Anne's Church in Soho, London. 

The newly-married Mertons returned to France to continue with their life as painters and Thomas was born in the idylic Pyrenes mountains near Prades in the south-east of France.  Because Owen was a pacifist and refused to enlist at the start of World War I, the young family moved  to the United States in 1916 and lived with Ruth's parents at Douglastown, Long Island, in New York State.  Thomas' brother John Paul was born in 1918.  It was during these very early years that their mother soon took ill and died from cancer in 1921. 

After Ruth Merton's death, Owen went to Bermuda in 1922 and took young Thomas with him.  John Paul stayed with his grandparents on Long Island.  By 1925 they had moved to St Antonin, France and Thomas entered the Lycee Ingres at Montauban in 1926.  By 1928, the family had returned to England and Thomas was enrolled at Ripley Court School.  The following year he moved to Oakham School. 

It was not long until Thomas' father became ill and died of a brain tumour in London in 1931.  In 1932 Thomas acquired a scholarship to enrol at Clare College, Cambridge, in the autumn semester of 1933.  Having grown up in a multilingual family, he had decided to study French and Italian. 

Thomas' year in Cambridge was marked more with social activities than with studying.  After obtaining poor grades and a complaint about his extra-curricular behaviour, his grandfather ordered him to return to New York.  His academic talents developed after he enrolled at Columbia University in 1935.  He graduated in 1938 and began work on a Master of Arts Degree.

His years of restless searching and desire for stability eventually saw him received into the Catholic Church on 16 November 1938.  It was a spiritual homecoming which helped to provide guidance and direction in his life.  He taught English for awhile at St Bonaventure College, near Buffalo New York. 

Merton's moment of grace came when he visited the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville Kentucky, for a retreat in Advent.  Here he found the security and disciplilne he had been craving for so many years.  On 10 December 1941, he entered the Trappist monastery, to live a life he thought would be hidden from the world.

On 19 March 1944, he made simple vows and lived as a young scholastic (student for the priesthood).  In 1947, he made solemn vows and continued working on his autobiography under the watchful eye of his Abbot.  Finally in 1948, The Seven Story Mountain was published and thus began Merton's fame as a spiritual writer of great depth and insight.

He was ordained as a priest on 26 May 1949.  The writings continued with Seeds of Contemplation; The Waters of Siloe, and The tears of the Blind Lions.  He became the Master of Scholastics in 1951, a position he held until 1955 when he became the Master of Novices for ten years.  During these years, his writings continued unabated:


1951 - The Ascent to Truth
1953 - The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness
1954 - The Last of the Fathers
1955 - No Man Is an Island
1956 - The Living Bread
1957 - The Silent Life; The Strange Islands
1958 - Thoughts in Solitude
1959 - The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton; Selected Poems
1960 - Disputed Questions; The Wisdom of the Desert
1961 - The New Man; The Behavior of Titans
1961 - Emblems of a Season of Fury; Life and Holiness;
1964 - Seeds of Destruction
1965 - Gandhi on Non-Violence; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Seasons of Celebration

In 1965 Merton was given permission by his Abbot to live as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery. 

During these years of seclusion, Merton produced some of his most beautiful writings which continue to inspire to this day.

1966 - Raids on the Unspeakable; Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
1967 - Mystics and Zen Masters
1968 - Monks Pond; Cables to the Ace; Faith and Violence; Zen and the Birds of Appetite

Merton died on 10 December 1968, the 27th anniversary of his entering Gethsemani.  He had traveled to Bangkopk Thailand to speak at a meeting of the Asian Benedictines and Cistercians. During a short break after lunch, he died by being accidentally electrocuted as he stepped out the bath in the hotel.  He was 53 years old.

Today, Merton continues to be recognised as America's most influential mystic of the 20th century.  He has been acclaimed as a pioneer in interfaith dialogue.  His profound understanding of Buddhism has been recognised by the Dalai Lama.  Research continues on Merton's understanding of Islamic Sufism and its parallel concepts in Christian mysticism.