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Biography of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, but was also known worldwide for his numerous and varied writings in many different genres, including poetry. He influenced many with his spiritual reflections as well as his works of social and political criticism. Many recognized Thomas Merton as one of the earliest and most moving contributors to meaningful inter-religious dialogue. He was both a committed Christian and one who appreciated the riches of other spiritual traditions. It seems that his prominence as contemplative monk and public thinker has only increased since his death.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His parents, Ruth and Owen Merton, were both artists. He grew up in the south of France but later he went to a private school in England. His university career began in Cambridge, but he soon moved to the United States after the death of both parents, where he continued his studies at Columbia University. It was there that he completed a thesis on William Blake, and this influence was to remain with him the rest of his life.

He taught English for a while and did some work in a Harlem settlement house until, in his early twenties, the formerly agnostic Thomas Merton converted to Christianity and Catholicism. He felt a vocation for the life of a contemplative monastic and chose the Trappist order for its discipline of silence and solitude. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and moved to the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he lived for the remaining 27 years of his life as "Father Louis."

Merton served the monastery for years as master of students and novices, and became a guide to many new to the contemplative life. Most unusually, however, Thomas Merton was able to balance this vocation with the life of a scholar and man of letters. He wrote more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays and reviews, and was much in demand for his lectures. Besides his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Merton wrote volumes of both poetry and prose. His prose works include meditations about his own inner spiritual struggles and triumphs, thoughts on the treasures at the heart of such Eastern traditions as Zen and Sufism, criticisms of social and political problems of his time, and interesting letters to many people around the world, including Marco Pallis .

Pallis introduced him to the writings of Traditionalists/Perennialists such as Guénon and Schuon. In a letter to Pallis, Thomas Merton wrote the following, concerning Schuon: "In reading Schuon I have the impression that I am going along parallel to him, and once in a while I will get a glimpse of what he means in terms of my own tradition and experience. I think that he has exactly the right view. I appreciate him more and more. I am grateful for the chance to be in contact with people like him." For further comments on Schuon and other insights shared with Pallis, readers may be referred to Merton's book The Hidden Ground of Love.

Thomas Merton died accidentally while attending a conference in Thailand in 1968.

A striking example of Thomas Merton’s vision of the inner aspects of Zen is found in his introduction to The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T'ang Dynasty, written by John C. H. Wu. Some very revealing correspondence between Merton and the 4th Lord Northbourne makes up the appendix to Of the Land and the Spirit: The Essential Lord Northbourne on Ecology and Religion. Two essays by Merton, "The Buddha Figures at Polonnaruwa" and "Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant," are included in the anthology Light from the East: Eastern Wisdom for the Modern West.

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Articles on Thomas Merton
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The life and work of Thomas Merton are described in this article; the author recalls the role that Mr. Merton played in the Catholic Church, and his positive influence in the communication between different religions. The author here recalls his own meeting with Mr. Merton and his personal impressions of the man. Merton’s view of the Church as well as his interest in other religions such as Zen Buddhism are presented as being a part of his “overwhelming urge to lose himself in God”. The reader is provided with a concise account of the remarkable life of Mr. Merton, from his initial entry into the Catholic Church to his later hermitage and retreat.
Thomas Merton 1915-1968Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 3. ( Summer, 1969)Pallis, Marco Biography
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