According to the excellent research of Anthony E. Clark, professor of history at Whitworth University, Thomas Merton became one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century, authoring more than 60 books during his lifetime. These included the spiritual masterpiece and story of his conversion entitled The Seven Storey Mountain, Thoughts in Solitude, and The Ascent to Truth.
But Merton wasn’t your typical Trappist monk by any stretch of the imagination.
“Fr. Thomas Merton was a man of a thousand lives," Clark writes. "He was at one time a womanizer, a member of the Young Communist League, an English student at Columbia, a peace activist, an English teacher at St. Bonaventure University, and a social work volunteer. He was an orphan, the father of a child, a Catholic convert, a Trappist monk, a priest, a poet, a writer, and some describe him as a Zen Buddhist. It is difficult to distill the essence of Thomas Merton: He and his works are complex.”
He was born in Prades, France in 1915 to two artists - a father from New Zealand and a mother from the United States. The family moved to Flushing New York when he was two years old. It was here that his brother, John Paul was born. Sadly, Thomas would outlive his whole family. His father died when he was six and his mother died ten years later. His little brother died in 1943 while flying over the English Channel to the war.
In 1926, he returned to his birthplace where he enrolled in a boarding school and then moved to England two years later. It was during a trip to Rome in 1933 that he visited some of the city’s most beautiful churches where he felt the first stirrings of conversion. But he wasn’t quite there yet.
After enrolling in Clare College at Cambridge, he delved into the dissolute lifestyle of a student, drinking, womanizing, even fathering a child. By 1935 he was back in American where he enrolled in Columbia to study English and became acquainted with great Catholic writers such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. It was a Hindu monk named Mahanambrat Brahmachari who advised him to read the Confessions of St. Augustine and the Imitation of Christ. All of the above caused him to become immersed in Catholic thought, which led him into the Catholic Church.
He attempted to became a Franciscan priest but after revealing his checkered past, he was sent packing. He was eventually accepted into the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1941 where he went on to become a Trappist monk. It was here that his writing talents became evident and he began to rise to fame. But all wasn't well at the Abbey as Thomas seemed prone to stormy relationships with his superiors. As a result, he became deeply unhappy with Gethsemani - which happaned at about the same time, that he began to become very attracted to Eastern religions.
The turning point came when he met a Japanese Buddhist scholar named Daisetz T. Suzuki and began a zealous pursuit of Zen. This led to the publication of a series of essays comparing Zen with Christianity entitled Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968). He became more and more interested in highlighting the commonalities between the two religious, something that seemed suited to the time as the Church was beginning to admit elements of other religious traditions. This led to the publication of other books with similar themes, such as Mystics and Zen Masters.
“But where do his ideas become suspect? Does he stray from Catholic orthodoxy? These are difficult questions to answer concisely, but it is clear in his writings that Thomas Merton was more of a spiritual seeker rather than a spiritual settler. His ideas evolve and change often, and his immersion into Eastern religion often appears more like replacement than rapprochement,” Clark writes. “Merton viewed Zen as a necessary step in the Church’s march toward Christ, and so he urged Christians to turn to Zen.”
But not everyone agreed with him, such as Pope Benedict XVI who expressed serious concerns about the appropriateness of approaches such as Merton’s.
“In fact he predicted that Buddhism, with its ‘autoerotic’ type of spirituality, would replace Marxism as the principle antagonist of the Catholic faith, for the very non-dualist ideas it espouses deny the Christian belief in a Creator who is separate from His creation," Clark explains. "The transcendence that Zen Buddhism offers is one of non-distinction, a state free from, as Benedict notes, the imposition of religious obligations. In the end, to turn to the ideas of Zen is to turn away from any need for a personal savior. We save ourselves in Buddhism, but only Christ saves in Christianity.”
Three years before his death, Merton was recuperating in a Louisville hospital after back surgery when he fell in love with a nurse named Margie Smith. Referring to her as “M” in his writings, he wrote poems to her and reflected on their relationship which did involve sexual intimacy.
On December 10, 1968, Merton was attending an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks in Bangkok, Thailand when he stepped out of his bathtub and was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan. He was just 53 years old. His body was flown back to the United States and was buried in the cemetery of Gethsemane Abbey in Bardstown, Kentucky.
While Clark says it would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic or insist that he became a Buddhist before his death, “nevertheless, some of his ideas are dangerous”.
The professor warns against reading his later works which he says are more confusing than helpful because of the way they conflate Buddhist and Christian teaching.
He gives a helpful list of Merton’s books that are safe to read: The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948; The Tears of the Blind Lions, 1949; Waters of Siloe, 1949; Seeds of Contemplation, 1949; The Ascent to Truth, 1951; Bread in the Wilderness, 1953; The Sign of Jonas, 1953; The Last of the Fathers, 1954; No Man is an Island, 1955; The Living Bread, 1956; The Silent Life, 1957; Thoughts in Solitude, 1958.
The following books should be read with caution: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966; Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967; Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968; The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1969; The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973.