The 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed Catholic spiritual writer Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, was on Jan. 31.


The 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed Catholic spiritual writer Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, was on Jan. 31.

February 9, 2015

When Trappist Father Thomas Merton addressed persistent racism in his writing during the 1960s, his message seemingly reached into the future.

Appealing to society to recognize that all people are children of God, Merton questioned practices that prevented African-Americans from achieving full equality and called for the end to discrimination in all forms.

It was just one of the priest's stances on important social issues, encompassing race relations, militarism and war, consumerism and the burdens posed by technology.

Merton's concerns are as pertinent today as they were when he wrote about them half a century ago, said Paul Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., on the eve of the centennial of the Trappist's birth, Jan. 31, 1915.

"He speaks to us because everything he has to say is as applicable now as when he wrote it," Pearson told Catholic News Service from the centre, which serves as a research centre and the repository of nearly all of the late Merton's poems, essays, correspondence and notes.

"Those social issues he addressed, I think he would be horrified that we're still dealing with them, that nothing has changed," Pearson said.

Merton's social concerns stemmed from a deep spirituality and an unending quest to find God. Some consider him a mystic and believe he deserves to be declared a doctor of the Church. St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI were among Church leaders who regularly turned to his writing for inspiration.

Merton was born in Prades, France, near the border with Spain. His parents – American-born Ruth and New Zealand-born Owen – were artists. Ruth Jenkins Merton died when Merton was six; Owen died nine years later.

His challenging childhood and his upbringing and visits to various locales, including France, Italy, New York (after his mother's death) and England shaped the young Merton as much as his gradual discovery of the love of God after years of an unsettled, and at times promiscuous, life as a young adult.

Merton entered the Trappists in Gethsemani, Ky., Dec. 10, 1941, three years after being baptized in the Catholic Church. He found the structured and prayer-filled life of a monk appealing. The monastery was a place where he could think about life – and contemplate the presence of God.

Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, an assignment from his superior who recognized his desire to be a writer, raised his profile among people searching for meaning in their lives.


Published in 1948, the year before Merton's ordination, the work has sold more than one million copies and has been translated into more than 15 languages.

A prolific writer, Merton over the course of 20 years wrote hundreds of poems, dozens of essays, thousands of letters and numerous books. He is acknowledged by scholars and theologians as one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century.

"He's a wonderful writer and poet. He gives you the sense that God is present, God is close and God walks with us," said Christopher Pramuk, associate professor of theology of Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Merton died Dec. 10, 1968 from electrocution in Bangkok while on pilgrimage to better interfaith understanding with Eastern religions.

Today, his works continue to influence others in their spiritual journeys.

In cities around the world, groups of Merton devotees through the International Thomas Merton Society meet for silent prayer and discussion of the Trappist's works.

"He was the one who took contemplation and contemplative prayer out of the monastery," said Ursuline Sister Donna Kristoff, coordinator of the Cleveland chapter. "He was one of the first ones to show that this is basic Christian practice, that all people need to learn to sit quietly, to find solitude and peace to find God within."

Sister Kathleen Deignan, professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., called Merton a pathmaker.

"He bequeaths these paths to us so that we can actually find them. He did make the path by walking. There was nobody in front of him. No cultural conditions. No family," said Deignan, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame.


The institute premiered a documentary on the Trappist's life Jan. 28. The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton was part of a program marking the centennial of his birth.

Christine Bochen, professor of religious studies at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., has edited Merton's work for publication.

"What is absolutely fascinating to me is that he could see what so many could not," Bochen said.

"He's withdrawn in a sense, living in a monastery in rural Kentucky, but he could read what the Second Vatican Council called signs of the times. He had a deep wisdom and understanding of what was happening in the world."

Merton's words also appeal to new audiences today. Paul O'Connell, professor of criminal justice at Iona College, said students in his classes integrate their understanding of Merton, who they have discovered in Deignan's classes, in his courses.


He told CNS that students are interested in contemplative prayer and meditation and find that it relieves stress in their over-booked, high-pressure lives.

"They want to be able to consider themselves as just a person, to think there's a possibility of simpler time, that you can relate to other people without all these pressures. They just open up." O'Connell said.

The Rev. Lars Adolffson, a Church of Sweden minister, is coordinator of the Swedish Thomas Merton Society. He said Swedes appreciate the monk's "gentle style" and the joy he finds in discovering God.

"In the search for God, he doesn't force you," Adolffson told CNS. "He doesn't make any hard strains toward people. He notes how God will act in your life in a positive way."