Thomas Merton
December 29, 2011 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.
posted by Trurl (8 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I love the Trappists in general, and Merton in particular, but I think the title of 'most ascetic' order has to go to the Carthusians.

That said, one of my favorite books is New Seeds of Contemplation, a series of short texts that Merton wrote while in the hermitage at Gethsemani. There's also Merton's prayer:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
posted by jquinby at 6:34 PM on December 29, 2011 [14 favorites]

Thanks jquinby....that prayer is now copied/pasted/printed and now on my wall.
posted by snap_dragon at 6:37 PM on December 29, 2011

I am so glad to see this here. Thank you for posting. I was prompted to unearth a copy of my letter to a young friend about Thomas Merton. I began with one of his poems:

"Pardon all runners, 
All speechless, alien winds, 
All mad waters. 

Pardon their impulses, 
Their wild attitudes, 
Their young flights, their reticence. 

When a message has no clothes on 
How can it be spoken." 

— Thomas Merton

A favorite mystic was the poet and author Thomas Merton, a man whose parents were artists.  He was born in France, spent his early childhood on Long Island, lived in Bermuda, went to school in France and England, to university at Cambridge and Columbia. He grew up agnostic and, apart from a discovery of Byzantine Christian architecture while on holiday in Rome, did not think about religion much at all. 

During his time at Cambridge he also sowed some wild oats, drinking too much and becoming involved with women. He fathered an illegitimate child with one of them and was sent down for it. His guardian settled the matter quietly, dealt kindly but sternly with the young man, and packed him off to New York at the end of term. Although he was always looked after, his life must have been quite lonely. He had a brother but spent few years with him. He lost his mother from cancer when he was six and his father from a brain tumor when he was 16. It was not just his disgrace and his guardian's stern counsel that effected a change in him. His much loved grandfather died when Merton was only 21. 

He applied himself more seriously at Columbia and when he graduated Merton became a Catholic. He worked on his MA and taught during the next few years while he also became a religious person. He entered a Trappist monastery at age 27. He chose the Trappists because they would have him and the Franciscans would not because of his past. He was a monk for 27 years and died in an accident at age 54. He wrote 70 books. He was a gorgeous and talented man, deeply intelligent and sensitive, a very attractive and passionate person. Fame and worldly success likely would have pursued him in any theatre except the monastic and it pursued him even there. He was a visionary, as poets can be and he was treated with suspicion for not being Catholic enough, for pursuing an ecumenical view before its time, for the friendships he made with monks and leaders of other religions. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama said that it was Merton who came to mind when he thought of Christianity.
posted by Anitanola at 7:07 PM on December 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

I love Merton's 1965 abridged version of the Chuang Tzu aka Zhuangzi. (He said that it was the book he most enjoyed writing.) Not only do the words ring true and deep in English, but his taste in selection is excellent.

Most scholars think the "Inner Chapters" (the first 7) are the most authentic, or at least oldest, and so nearly all English editions are limited to those. But Merton went through the entire rambling thing and found some wonderful neglected gems, such as The Joy of Fishes (17.13), The Fighting Cock (19.8), Cracking the Safe (9.2, though ch. 10 in Watson), and Means and Ends (the "man who has forgotten words" chapter, 26.2).
posted by msalt at 10:58 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Although I love any excuse to hear about Merton, I wonder what motivated this post. Is there an occasion I am missing?
posted by cross_impact at 11:55 PM on December 29, 2011

cross_impact, who needs one? :7) After yearsandyears of Catholic education, Merton was one of the first religious whose writings actually spoke to me. I wish he was introduced to kids earlier, and a few years ago I told my (still working) high school teacher as much when he asked for suggestions about curriculum.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:20 PM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just finished Mystics and Zen Masters and I was blown away by how well and how fluently he wrote about Buddhism. And as much as he knows, he still spent a lot of the book apologizing for not being able to fully explain all of the subtleties.
posted by puckupdate at 2:06 PM on December 30, 2011

For those new to Merton, this article discusses the circumstances that preceded his death.
posted by stuartcw at 10:01 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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