Thomas Merton

Born in Prades, France on 31 January 1915
Became a Catholic in New York City on 16 November 1938
Solemn Vows at Monastery of Gathsemani, Kentucky on 19 March 1947
Published "The Seven Storey Mountain" in 1948
Ordained Priest at Gathsemani 26 May 1949
Died suddenly (electrocution) at age 53 in Bangkok on 10 December 1968
Thomas Merton was a 20th century American Catholic writer. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, in the state of Kentucky, Merton was a poet, a social activist, and a student of comparative religion, as well as the author of numerous works on spirituality. He wrote more than 60 books, and scores of essays and reviews ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race. He is the subject of several biographies. Merton was a keen proponent of inter-religious understanding, and was a leader in engaging in dialogues with Asian spiritual leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and Japanese zen master D.T. Suzuki.
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at painting school in Paris, were married at St. Anne's Church, Soho, London and returned to the France where Thomas Merton was born on January 31st, 1915.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and on December 10th, 1941 he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.


Merton's influence has grown since his death and he is widely recognized as an important 20th-century Catholic mystic and thinker. Interest in his work contributed to a rise in spiritual exploration beginning in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Merton's letters and diaries, reveal the intensity with which their author focused on social justice issues, including the civil rights movement and proliferation of nuclear arms. He had prohibited their publication for 25 years after his death. Publication raised new interest in Merton's life.