Merton Overview

A Brief Overview of Thomas Merton’s Writings and Spirituality

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Cistercian [“Trappist”] monk of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, arrived to enter the monastery located near Bardstown, Kentucky on December 10, 1941. He had boarded an early morning train in New York State and arrived late that night at Gethsemani in central Kentucky. It was three days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was a monk for 27 years until his untimely, accidental death on December 10, 1968, while travelling in Asia.

Merton became a world renowned monk, writer, mystic, social critic, poet, artist, photographer, and pioneer in interreligious dialogue. His writings include such classics as his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948 (when he was only 33 years old). It became a phenomenal best-seller for post-World War II readers seeking spiritual insights to re-orient their lives and to awaken their hope. He went on to write highly regarded books, including: New Seeds of Contemplation; Disputed Questions; Raids on the Unspeakable; Faith and Violence; The Wisdom of the Desert; and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Merton wrote about 100 books that include: poetry; personal journals; collections of his letters; social criticism; cogent reflections on renewal and reform in the Roman Catholic Church, emanating from the Second Vatican Council; studies of alienation and the disappointing rise of what he describes as the “post- Christian church” in the United States; analyses of Western society’s servitude to technology and consumerism; essays on mysticism and contemplative spirituality; reflections on monastic renewal; prophetic examinations the spiritual roots of our call to peace and social justice; and his groundbreaking efforts in interreligious dialogue and engaging our secular society. Merton’s books have been translated into at least 32 languages, witnessing to a significant international readership. Bellarmine’s Merton Center now archives more than 50,000 Merton-related items.

Besides being one of the significant interdisciplinary Catholic thinkers of the 20th century, Merton was both a neighbor and a close friend to Bellarmine, entrusting the bulk of his literary and artistic estate to Bellarmine’s stewardship in the Thomas Merton Center. In February of 1960 Merton first met Bellarimine’s founding president, Msgr. Alfred F. Horrigan for breakfast and conversation at the nearby Carmelite Sisters’ monastery on Newburg Road. Their relationship flourished. From October 19-21, 1960, Merton engaged Bellarmine faculty and administrators in a spiritual retreat at the Abbey. Msgr. Raymond J. Treece, Bellarmine’s co-founder and first vice president, was consulted to assist with the design and construction of Merton’s secluded hermitage in the woods not far from the monastery.

In November 1963, Dr. Daniel C. Walsh (Merton’s former Columbia University philosophy professor and the man who suggested that he make his first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a 1941 Holy Week retreat) read the monk’s statement prepared for the establishment of “The Merton Collection” at Bellarmine. In February 1965, Merton wrote to Horrigan about the growing relationship: “This bond with Bellarmine College is to me a continued honor and joy.”

Little did anyone expect that Thomas Merton, then aged 53, would die accidentally at a conference in Bangkok on December 10, 1968 while making a spiritual pilgrimage to Asia. His purpose was to meet for discussions and dialogue on the mysticism of East and West with leaders like the Dalai Lama in India and Buddhist and Hindu scholars in nearby countries. He had just presented his paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” at the Bangkok conference and returned to the cottage where he was staying at a Red Cross Center. Faulty wiring electrocuted him as he directed a fan’s air flow after his shower.

In many ways Merton’s most mature writing on spirituality proves prescient, given the recent election of Pope Francis and his emphasis on serving the poor. In Raids on the Unspeakable—a book about which he confessed, “I think I love you the best”—the monk’s insights are congruent with what we find in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of Announcing the Gospel] and its vision of “a poor church for the poor.” One finds these same echoes in South African theologian Albert Nolan’s book, Jesus Today, which he dedicated to Thomas Merton. Merton writes in Raids about the spirit of a transcultural Christ. This monk’s genius in the use of irony moves us to embrace our responsibility to serve in creative ways the poorest of the poor—thereby liberating both the poor and ourselves and reawakening spiritual hope:

Eschatology is not an invitation to escape into a private heaven: it is a call to transfigure the evil and stricken world. It is a witness to the end of this world of ours with its enslaving objectifications….
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them there is no escape even in imagination.

This past year, on November 10, 2013 we marked the 50th anniversary of Merton’s unique relationship with Bellarmine and the establishment of “The Merton Collection.” That initiative has continuously served an international cadre of scholars and students engaged in research, giving access to the world’s largest collection of Merton’s writings and the mammoth secondary literature about his work. Ongoing publication of Merton materials by the Merton Legacy Trust, through the resources of The Merton Center, demonstrates the seriousness with which Bellarmine continues this stewardship. Bellarmine’s ongoing staffing and fund-raising to support the work of the Center has grown exponentially. Academic conferences and lectures, as well as public ‘continuing education’ events about Merton’s works, are regularly scheduled on the Bellarmine campus. All serve to educate serious readers and interested persons who seek deeper insight into their own spiritual growth and understanding.

Under President Joseph J. McGowan’s leadership and vision, The Thomas Merton Collection moved in 1997 into more appropriate environs for The Merton Center on the top floor of Bellarmine University’s new W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Library—including updated archival storage space and security, the addition of an Assistant Director, digitalization of Merton’s recorded conferences to his Novices, and presentation of Merton’s drawings and other artifacts with museum-quality preservation standards. Acquisition of Merton manuscript material has continued to grow beyond expectations. Bellarmine’s new complex for The Merton Center, designed with state-of-the art archival and exhibition space as well as administrative offices for the Center, will soon be under construction with the renovation and expansion of Horrigan Hall.

The establishment of Bellarmine University’s M.A. in Spirituality Program, an ecumenical collaboration with the neighboring Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, demonstrates the scope and quality of academic studies in Spirituality on the campus. Courses on the history of Christian Spirituality, as well as electives on Merton’s writings and contemplative vision, offer graduate students a context and methods for appreciating Merton’s leading role in reclaiming and renewing Catholic traditions of Spirituality. Publications on Merton by individual Bellarmine faculty from several disciplines give evidence of the serious scholarship that grounds Merton studies and classroom teaching related to his writings.

—Fr. George Kilcourse
Director, The Thomas Merton Centennial
Professor of Theology