Collection: Thomas Merton

ARTIST: Julie Lonneman


Through his writing, Trappist monk Thomas Merton addressed the social problems and issues of his time, such as racism, war and peace, and consumerism, from the Abbey of Gethsemane. An acclaimed spiritual writer and poet, Merton also promoted inter-religious dialogue, meeting with spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and D.T. Suzuki.

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."
—Thomas Merton

France/United States, 1915-1968.

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A monk and a prominent writer, Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, Jan. 31, 1915. He died Dec. 10, 1968. Thomas became one of the most famous American Roman Catholics of the 20th century. As a young man Merton traveled with his artist parents (his father was a New Zealander, his mother an American) in France and studied briefly at Cambridge University, England, before he went to the United States and earned (1939) a master's degree from Columbia University. During those years he gradually changed from an agnostic to a devout Roman Catholic.

After teaching English for a while and working in a Harlem settlement house, Merton decided (1941) to become a monk, choosing the Trappist order for its discipline of silence and solitude. Within the monastery he served for years as master of students and novices. Outside it, his writing, which included poetry, meditations, and works of social criticism, brought him prominence in American letters.

His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), became a bestseller. Merton's social criticisms burned deeply into public awareness of racism, economic injustice, and militarism.

Thomas Merton was a contemplative Trappist monk and a widely acclaimed writer on topics ranging from spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race. He was an early, influential voice in the movement for non-violence and civil rights in the 1950's and 1960's. During his last years, Merton became deeply interested in eastern spiritual traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting dialogue between the East and West during the Vietnam War.

Seeing parallels between Oriental mysticism and Western tradition, Merton gained permission to attend an ecumenical conference of Buddhist and Christian monks held in Bangkok, Thailand. He died in Thailand at the conference on Eastern faiths in 1968.While attending that meeting, he was accidentally electrocuted. His obituary was printed on the front page of the New York Times.

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. ­

"Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude"

"More striking than his outward appearance, which is memorable itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity..."

"The Dalai Lama on Thomas Merton

"Excerpts from articles at The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and The Thomas Merton Foundationin Louisville, KY.