Thomas Merton, 51 Years Later

 

Many of you know I’ve enjoyed the work of Thomas Merton for some years now. To a degree, I echo the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan: “I can’t remember a time when Thomas Merton wasn’t a piece of my mental furniture.”

Enjoying the writing of Thomas Merton does NOT mean I enjoy ALL or agree with ALL of what he’s spoken and written. In fact, one thing I’ve openly disagreed with him about are his brief writings on sexuality. That being said, as Jim Forest said to me, “If Merton were still at the other end of a postage stamp, he would welcome your insights and revise his views, as happened more than once in my own correspondence with him.”

Today, however, is about the significance of December 10th in his life.

78 years ago, on December 10th of 1941, Thomas Merton entered monastic life at Gethsemani Abbey “after a long journey by train and bus from Saint Bonaventure College in Olean, New York, where he had been teaching for a year and a half… He was formally accepted as a postulant on St. Lucy’s Day, December 13.” (Journals Volume 2, edited by Jonathan Montaldo).

51 years ago, on December 10th of 1968, after reading a paper on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” Thomas Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand. He was flown back to the US with the dead bodies of American soldiers killed in Vietnam––a war he was outspoken against. The funeral took place seven days later.

In Jim Forest’s biography on Merton, he explores the day of Merton’s funeral, writing:
“One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton ‘now knows more theology than any of us.’ The brother responded, ‘Well, Reverend Father, he always did.'”

 

“It is five years since I came to the monastery. It is the same kind of day, overcast.”

–Thomas Merton, December 10, 1946

 

“Totally new perspectives on solitude…”

–Thomas Merton, December 10, 1960

 

“Celebrating my twenty-third anniversary of arrival at Gethsemani. Came straight up to the hermitage after Sister Luke left. Cooked myself some oatmeal (first supper I have cooked here) and ate alone, looking at the hills, in great peace. Long quiet evening, rain falling, candle, silence: it is incomparable!”

––Thomas Merton, December 10, 1964

You can read an excellent account of Thomas Merton’s final three days by Jim Forest, here.

 

An excerpt from Merton’s final talk in Bangkok, Thailand: December 10, 1968.

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3 comments

  1. It comes as something of a surprise to say this, but while I’m aware of Merton’s life and legacy, I’m very unfamiliar with his actual work. Do you have favorite pieces, or suggested starting points you’d be willing to share?

    1. Yes! New Seeds of Contemplation is a great book of essays to begin with. But, of course, it depends on what you’re looking for! I can send you a copy of New Seeds if you’d like! Just email me your address.

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