Merton’s legacy looms large four decades after his death

TRAPPIST, Ky. (RNS)—This month, many contemplative Christians—including an ever-growing number of evangelicals—are remembering the life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who died 40 years ago in a freak accident.

Merton, who influenced generations of believers with both his monastic lifestyle and his prodigious writings—some 60 books were published during his lifetime, and about as many in the 40 years since his death—is especially noted for bringing spirituality to the laity.

“The essence of Merton’s spirituality is, I think, the humanity of it, that he really speaks to ordinary people,” said Paul Pearson, director and archivist of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.

Thomas Merton

“He knows so well the great classics of Christian spirituality, but he can interpret them in a way that people in our world today can understand and relate to.”

At the time Merton rose to prominence, the Roman Catholic Church did not encourage personal study of Scripture and meditation on it apart from the church.

“Spirituality really belonged to the monks and nuns and bishops and what have you,” Pearson said, “whereas your ordinary lay person went to Mass on Sundays, the Mass was in Latin, they said the rosary, and that was the extent of it. And Merton, I think, really opened up the whole realm of contemplation and spirituality for people.”

Merton’s own spiritual journey was complex. He was an aspiring writer and had—by his own account—lived a rootless and hedonistic life.

He converted to Catholicism in 1941 and shortly thereafter arrived at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills outside Louisville. In 1948, when he was 33, he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, an overnight bestseller now considered a Christian classic.

Merton’s fame allowed him to correspond with presidents, popes and Nobel Prize winners. But as his public reputation grew, he retreated further and further into solitude and silence. Later, his abbot gave Merton permission to live for lengths of time as a hermit in a small cottage about a half-mile from the monastery.

In the 1960s, Merton’s spiritual journey found him taking on the issues of the day—civil rights, materialism, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War.

His superiors blocked the publication of some of his most strident anti-war writings.

“As he changed from the world-denying monk to the world-embracing monk of the ’60s, people began to think: ‘Why should he be writing on these issues? He’s away in a monastery. What does he know about them?’” Pearson said.

In 1968, Merton was electrocuted in a Bangkok hotel room after touching a fan with faulty wiring. Since then, Merton’s reputation and influence have continued to grow. Scholars have published about 60 more of his books, including seven volumes of his personal journals.

As a monk, Merton left behind just a few personal possessions—his work shirt, a cup, boots and his eyeglasses.

“With the death of Thomas Merton,” Pearson said, “we lost … one of the great prophetic figures within the Catholic Church, and I think that’s why his books are still selling, why they’re still being translated, because that message is as relevant today as when he wrote it.”


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