Thomas Merton, known in the monastery as Fr. Louis, was
born on 31 January 1915 in Prades, southern France. The young Merton
attended schools in France, England, and the United States.
University in New York City, he came under the influence of some
remarkable teachers of literature, including Mark Van Doren, Daniel C.
Walsh, and Joseph Wood Krutch. Merton entered the Catholic Church in 1938
in the wake of a rather dramatic conversion experience. Shortly afterward,
he completed his masters thesis, “On Nature and Art in William Blake.”
Following some teaching at Columbia University Extension and at St.
Bonaventure’s College, Olean, New York, Merton entered the monastic
community of the Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, Kentucky, on 10 December
1941. He was received by Abbot Frederic Dunne who encouraged the young
Frater Louis to translate works from the Cistercian tradition and to write
historical biographies to make the Order better known.
The abbot also urged the young monk to write his autobiography, which was
published under the title The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) and became a
best-seller and a classic. During the next 20 years, Merton wrote
prolifically on a vast range of topics, including the contemplative life,
prayer, and religious biographies. His writings would later take up
controversial issues (e.g., social problems and Christian responsibility:
race relations, violence, nuclear war, and economic injustice) and a
developing ecumenical concern. He was one of the first Catholics to
commend the great religions of the East to Roman Catholic Christians in
Merton died by accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, while
attending a meeting of religious leaders on 10 December 1968, just 27
years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Many esteem Thomas Merton as a spiritual master, a brilliant writer, and a
man who embodied the quest for God and for human solidarity. Since his
death, many volumes by him have been published, including five volumes of
his letters and seven of his personal journals. According to present
count, more than 60 titles of Merton’s writings are in print in English,
not including the numerous doctoral dissertations and books about the man,
his life, and his writings.
Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO