Brief Biography of Thomas Merton
n his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Thomas Merton told the story of his life up to his entry into the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. He was born in France in 1915, but his parents moved to Long Island in 1916. From his grandfather, young Thomas was imbued with hostility toward Catholicism. He was sent to boarding schools in France and England. His father died of a brain tumor while Thomas was still young. Reading Blake enkindled an interest in religion, which was fortified by a trip to Rome. After a year at Cambridge, Merton matriculated at Columbia. There he was influenced by Professor Mark Van Doren, and by some of his fellow students such as Robert Lax. After completing a master's thesis on Blake, Merton was finally moved to embrace Catholicism by reading the letters of Cardinal Newman to Gerard Manly Hopkins. After teaching for a brief period at St. Bonaventure's In New York, Merton entered the Trappists at Gethsemani.
Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1949) was one of Merton's most influential spiritual works. It resembles Pascal's Pensées and Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ by being a collection of brief but telling thoughts on the spiritual life. The work pivots on the three terms: human being, God, and creatures. In it the fervent young monk teaches that Christian life culminates in contemplation, provided one becomes detached from things (which are good in themselves) and accomplishments and finds in solitude a oneness with all humanity (whom one must love in self-forgetfulness). Even when one has advanced along the road to holiness, there are obstacles; in particular: pride and acedia. Absorption in God, forgetfulness of all else is the goal. Ascent to Truth (1951) is Merton's presentation of the spiritual teaching of John of the Cross. In 1962 Merton published New Seeds of Contemplation. This book contained almost everything in the original book, but with many additions. By that time Merton had spent fifteen more years at Gethsemani, and he was much more acquainted with the spiritual struggles of others within and outside the monastery. In an introductory note he is careful to reject the idea that contemplation is something one person can teach another, much as one would teach another how to play tennis. He also acknowledges that his way to God is not everyone's, and that his book will appeal to some who have no religious affiliation. If so, he will be glad since he owes a great debt to such people.
In the 1960's Merton's thoughts turned more and more to the state of the world. He was active in anti-war movements and in the front-line of social criticism. He eventually received permission to live as a hermit at Gethsemani. He also thought of living at Camaldoli or in Alaska, but nothing came of these plans. Another of his interests was inter-religious dialogue. Although his superiors were reluctant to let him travel (the idea of Fr. Louis stopping in a tavern to enjoy a beer -- something he claimed to like to do -- was as unthinkable to them as it was to the Merton of Seeds of Contemplation), he traveled to Bangkok to attend an East-West religious dialogue. The story of his travels on this occasion is to be found in A Vow of Conversation, a wonderful window into the soul of the mature Merton. There, in 1968, he was accidentally electrocuted by the fan in his room.