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The world is richer for Thomas Merton’s presence

2015-02-11 13:56


Even in his early teens, Thomas showed his gift for asking challenging questions. He also had little or no understanding of other people's religious belief. As he himself remarked in his autobiography, friends realised that his attitude "implied a fundamental and utter lack of faith, a dependence on my own lights and attachment to my own opinion"; furthermore, since "I did not believe in anything... anything I might say I believed would be only empty talk." He added that even when he was critically ill, "the thought of God, the thought of prayer, did not even enter my mind". At this time, he also declared that "I believe in nothing".

Merton's early years as a Catholic were also a search for direction and meaning. In the midst of his university studies in Cambridge and New York, he felt that God was calling him to religious life – but how, when and where? Both he and the Franciscans in Cambridge quickly decided that they were not suited to each other.

It was in April 1941 that Thomas discovered his future home, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. In December of that year, he was formally accepted as a postulant and then, in March 1942, as a novice. Given the name Brother Louis, Merton’s unique writing talents were quickly recognised, so that, very early in his religious life, he had time and space for writing. Even whilst in the contemplative environment of the Abbey, his spiritual writings began to make a mark in the wider world.

Life began to change during the turbulent years of the 1960s. Merton discovered that meeting the challenges of Vatican II meant opening the windows and doors of his heart in many unexpected ways. His life as a Cistercian carried with it a deep search for what God was truly calling him to do. His autobiography reveals his growing desire to be a hermit within his Cistercian way of life. Eventually the Abbot gave Merton a small hermitage on the property where he could continue to pray, write and receive his directees. In the midst of his writing and his work as a priest and as novice master in Gethsemani, Thomas was a gifted speaker and spiritual director. He was also intensely concerned with social justice issues, including the Civil Rights movement, liberation theology and the nuclear arms race.

Throughout his life, Merton cherished a tremendous interest in Eastern spirituality, especially in Buddhism. He believed that Western Christians had become over-concerned with rational explanations and needed to embrace the more spiritual approach of the East, with its greater emphasis on mysticism. In 1968, Merton received permission to visit Asia where he met the Dalai Lama on three occasions as well as other prominent Buddhists.

In his lifetime, Thomas Merton wrote more than 70 books and is proclaimed as one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century. 

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