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From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and writer, was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915. He was the son of Owen Heathcoate Grierson Merton, a painter born in New Zealand, and Ruth Calvert (Jenkins) Merton, an artist-designer born in the United States. After his mother's death when he was six, Merton spent his childhood in several places, sometimes in the company of his father, sometimes with his maternal grandparents on Long Island, and sometimes with friends of his father. The younger Merton was exposed early to a literary and artistic milieu best described as bohemian. He received his elementary education in the United States, Bermuda, France, and England, where he graduated from Oakham School in 1933. He attended Clare College, Cambridge University (1933-34), then returned to the United States. He attended Columbia University, receiving a B.A. in 1937 and an M.A. in English in 1938.
By that time, with both his grandparents dead, his "journey" (as he often described his life) led him from conventionality to the margins of society. Merton dabbled with communism and the peace movement and apparently followed a bohemian lifestyle, perhaps because his childhood had left him comfortable only with a way of life perceived as marginal (and questionable) by the rest of society. In the late 1930s, he and his friends stood in the vanguard of what was later dubbed the Beat movement. Merton converted to Roman Catholicism in 1938 and attempted to join the Franciscan order but was rejected. In 1939- 40, he taught English at Saint Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. On December 10, 1941, he joined the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) , and entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, south of Bardstown, Kentucky. The order followed a basically medieval lifestyle, based on prayer, silence, and work. Merton, known in religious life as Louis, was ordained a priest on May 26, 1949. He became a United States citizen in 1951. From 1951 to 1955, he was master of scholastics (students preparing for the priesthood), and from 1955 to 1965 he served as master of novices at Gethsemani.
Merton had written several novels, mostly autobiographical, before he entered Gethsemani. His search for himself and for God caused him to abandon these early aspirations for a time, although he continued to write poetry. His own inclinations and the requirements of his order, however, led him back to writing as part of his monastic vocation. His first published book was Thirty Poems (1944). His early work consisted, aside from his poetry, of short books on contemplation, pamphlets about the Trappist order, collections of notes on Cistercian saints, and two lengthier biographies of Cistercians ( Exile Ends in Glory and What are these Wounds?). In 1948 his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain -- the story of his conversion and entrance into Gethsemani -- was an immediate best seller and brought him international recognition. Speaking from the margins of society, Merton touched a nerve in the postwar world. During the next twenty years, he produced a large number of books and articles. His major works after The Seven Storey Mountain included Seeds of Contemplation (1949), The Ascent to Truth (1951), The Sign of Jonas (1953), No Man is an Island (1955), Thoughts in Solitude (1958), Disputed Questions (1960), Seeds of Destruction (1964), Seasons of Celebration (1965), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), and Faith and Violence (1968). Since his death, more of his writings have been collected and edited, including Thomas Merton on Peace (1971), The Asian Journal (1973), The Collected Poems (1977), The Literary Essays (1981), The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (1985), The Alaskan Journal (1988), and The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends (1989).
His concern for cultural integrity and social justice led Merton in the 1960s to write on such issues as ecumenism and religious renewal, racial conflict, genocide, nuclear armament, the Vietnam War , ecology, and the Third World. His writings on the non-Christian traditions of Taoism and Zen Buddhism helped to introduce them to American readers. He corresponded widely with scholars and leaders of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and other religious traditions. In literature his translations of little-known Latin American poets helped to introduce Latin American literature to the United States. Merton was not a systematic writer or thinker, however, and he cannot be considered a theologian in the usual sense of the word.
In 1965 Merton was given permission to withdraw from the routine of community life and to live in solitude on the abbey grounds in a small concrete block cabin. In 1968 he made two extended trips to survey possible sites in New Mexico, Alaska, and California for a more isolated hermitage. After the second trip to California, he left on a pilgrimage to Asia, and in India he had an audience with the Dalai Lama, in exile at Dharamsala from the Communist Chinese government. After visiting Sri Lanka and Singapore, Merton attended a Buddhist-Christian conference on monasticism outside Bangkok, Thailand. He died in his quarters there on December 10, 1968, apparently having touched a fan with faulty wiring while still wet from bathing. He was buried at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
ROBERT E. DAGGY, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:Merton, Thomas. Woods, Shore, Desert : A Notebook, May 1968. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 1982. Print.
B M558ws 1982, Special Collections Research Center - Biography Collection
Merton, Thomas. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Pub., 1973. Print. New Directions Book.
BX2350.2 .M449 1973 Young Library -- Books - 3rd Floor
Merton, Thomas. Thomas Merton Collection, 1947-1968. (1947). Print.
The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University
The Monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani