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 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 that 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 I will 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

It was the most unlikely of success stories. World War II had just ended only about two and a half years earlier, and America was filled with new hope and optimism even as the chill of the cold war descended around the northern hemisphere. When The Seven Storey Mountain was published in January 1948, expectations were modest; after all, this self-consciously literary autobiography of a young man’s search for meaning — that led him from the Communist Party to the Catholic Church, from the glamorous world of Columbia University to the austere silence of a Cistercian monastery — simply didn’t begin to match the profile of a bestseller.

Several weeks and a hundred thousand copies later, not only had this book become a publishing phenomenon, but its author — the young Trappist monk, Thomas Merton — was launched into a singular role as a cloistered celebrity, a contemplative writer — and for the next twenty years, as he chronicled both his spiritual growth within the monastery and his increasingly trenchant criticism of twentieth century culture and politics, through both his life and his writings he emerged as a powerful and lasting witness to the fact that contemplative spirituality and Christian mysticism remain vitally relevant, even in our post-Enlightenment, postmodern world.

Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915 and lived much of his childhood in Europe. Coming to New York in the 1930s, he immersed himself in the worldly pleasures of the day, embracing the naive optimism of the Communist party and the arty pretensions of the graduate school literary scene. Living a thoroughly secular life, little on the surface suggested that his destiny lay within the cloister; but the gentle influence of a Catholic professor, Merton’s own sense of guilt and disgust at his own hedonistic life, and the poetic romance of medieval philosophy as described in the writings of Etienne Gilson, all conspired to nudge this young man toward a conversion experience. When he finally embraced the splendors of the pre-Vatican II Church, the fires of his conversion impelled him to seek a vocation, first with the Franciscans (who turned him down, suggesting that because he had fathered an illegitimate child he probably didn’t have a vocation to the religious life) and then, with the far more ascetical Trappists, the “strict” branch of the Cistercian Order, who accepted him as a novice in December of 1941. He was not yet 27 years old; he would live another 27 years before dying in a freak accident in 1968, almost on the anniversary of the date of his entrance into the monastery. So he lived slightly more than half of his short life within the cloister.

Thomas Merton, OCSOAs a graduate student, Merton had shown promise as both a poet and a literary critic; he supposed that he had left that all behind with his entry into the strictly disciplined, tightly controlled, and mostly silent world of the Trappists. His abbot, however, had other ideas; recognizing that this young monk had clear talent, he was assigned a variety of writing projects, including translations and essays. Eventually the abbot instructed Merton to write his life story. This the young man did, expertly crafting an intelligent if theologically unsophisticated story of modern meaninglessness trumped by the awesome silence of a centuries-old way of life. Merton tells his story up until the poignant moment when he learns of his brother’s death in action during the second world war; even though the book is over 400 pages long, it proved to be a quick read and clearly struck a chord with a public hungry for its own sense of restored meaning after the trauma of the war.

The Seven Story Mountain launched a boom of vocations in the Trappist order, and also launched Merton’s literary career. While he would never have another book to achieve the kind of popular success that his autobiography enjoyed, Merton’s prolific output only solidified his position as an important twentieth century Catholic author. At first, his books were mostly variations on his twin subjects of Catholic devotion and monastic spirituality: he published extracts from his journals, studies of mystics like John of the Cross or Bernard of Clairvaux, and meditative writings designed to support the reader in his or her own spiritual growth. But after about a decade, Merton’s work began to take on a more urgent, if not radical, tone. Two issues came to bear on his work: first, his growing concern over some of the critical issues of the day, including civil rights, nuclear proliferation, and the conflict in Viet Nam. Just as important, though, was a growing interest in non-Christian forms of mysticism, including Sufism and, in particular, Zen Buddhism. As the excitement of Vatican II spread through the Catholic Church of the 1960s, Merton evolved from a rather garden-variety Catholic writer to a towering authority whose works were filled with spiritually-grounded social and cultural insight.

In many ways, Merton’s life came to a stunning climax when all the various threads of his singular intellectual/spiritual journey coalesced when he delivered a paper on Marxism and monasticism at an interfaith conference on the religious life in Bangkok in 1968. Alas, this would be his final act. Within minutes of delivering the paper, he was electrocuted when he touched a fan in his room at the conference center. His body was flown back to his monastery in Kentucky on a plane that also carried the remains of soldiers, killed in Vietnam.

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering, “Why is Merton considered a mystic?” Certainly he was an authority on the monastic life and monastic forms of spirituality, including contemplative prayer. But this does not in itself warrant seeing him as a mystic. Like so many great mystics, Merton seemed relatively uninterested in his own extraordinary experiences of the presence of God; but here is one instance where he described a singularly profound moment of spiritual encounter:

 

Carl McColman in Louisville, at Thomas Merton Square ("the corner of Fourth & Walnut" — now the corner of Fourth & Muhammad Ali Blvd)

Carl McColman in Louisville, at Thomas Merton Square (“the corner of Fourth and Walnut” — now the corner of Fourth Street & Muhammad Ali Boulevard), March 23, 2014.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us … like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Like so many great writers, Merton’s influence and legacy has only grown after his death. Nearly forty years later, most if not all of his books remain in print, and he is widely regarded as the unofficial founder of the centering prayer movement as well as of serious interfaith dialogue between contemplatives of different religious traditions. As a keen social critic who spoke prophetically not only against racism and violence, but against the consumerism and materialism of western culture, his words remain as relevant and vital here in the twenty-first century as they were when he wrote them decades ago. Although he was himself cloistered (and in the final years of his life, virtually a hermit), Merton’s vision of authentic Christian spirituality is particularly relevant for those who seek to integrate the splendors of the mystical tradition with the challenges of life immersed in the postmodern world.

Here is a partial list of works by and about Thomas Merton:

Fortunately, many of Merton’s lectures given to novices at his monastery in Kentucky were recorded, and are now available on CD from Credence Communications. Click here to explore Merton in his own voice.

This beautiful work of calligraphic art, featuring a quote from Merton, is by my friend Michael Noyes. A framed copy of it graces my home. Visit Michael’s website to purchase your own copy.