A Monk in the World

Alan Jacobs


On the 10th of December, 1941, a young man named Thomas Merton was received as a novice by a monastery in Kentucky, the Abbey of Gethsemani. Precisely twenty-seven years later, he died by accidental electrocution in his room at a retreat center in Bangkok, Thailand. He entered the monastery three days after Pearl Harbor; he died a month after Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as President. It had been an eventful time.

Merton was a remarkable man by any measure, but perhaps the most remarkable of his traits was his hypersensitivity to social movements from which, by virtue of his monastic calling, he was supposed to be removed. But intrinsic to Merton’s nature was a propensity for being in the midst of things. I suspect that if he had continued to live in the world he would have died not by electrocution but by sensory overstimulation.

Thomas Merton was born in 1915, to artistic parents living in the French Pyrenees. His American mother Ruth, who would die of cancer when Thomas was only six, was a Quaker and an artist, though a less ambitious one than his father Owen. Owen, a New Zealander, had great hopes to make a career as a painter, some of which he later realized. Living in Catholic France, married to a Quaker, he wanted his son baptized in the Church of England. This was done, bequeathing to Thomas a certain confusion about religious affiliation right from the outset.

For the next twenty years Merton’s life was peripatetic, oscillating between New York (Long Island, Queens) and various locations in France and England. Eventually, in 1933, he was admitted to Clare College, Cambridge, but he was unhappy there — “Perhaps to you the atmosphere of Cambridge is neither dark nor sinister,” he would later write — and preferred drinking and bumming around on the Continent to studying. When in Cambridge he was frequently in legal trouble, and, worst of all, fathered a child — a child he never met, which in later years caused him much guilt and grief. At least some of these disorders stemmed from the loss of his father, who had died from a brain tumor in 1931, but in any case, Merton would come to think of this period as one in which his soul was dead, and in which, he believed, “I had done all that I could to make my heart untouchable by charity and had fortified it, as I hoped, impregnably in my own impenetrable selfishness.”

Tom Bennett, the childhood friend of Owen’s who had become Merton’s guardian, grew exasperated and declined to to continue to bail him out of jail, pay his drinking and lodging bills, or to send the young man back to a university from which, it was clear, he would never graduate. Bennett probably also didn’t want Merton to renew his relationship with the mother of his children. New York seemed a safer location, a point which Merton did not dispute, and, for lack of anything better to do, in January of 1935 applied and was accepted to Columbia University. There and then his spiritual life began.


That may be putting the point too strongly. A decade later, in writing the autobiography that would make him famous, he discerned many earlier signs of incipient religion that, in the upheavals of late adolescence, had been invisible to him. Addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary, he thanked her for the motion of his soul towards God, however insensible he had been to it at the time:

Lady, when on that night I left the Island that was once your England, your love went with me, although I could not know it, and could not make myself aware of it. And it was your love, your intercession for me, before God, that was preparing the seas before my ship, laying open the way for me to another country.

When he got to that other country, the proximate instrument of his internal transformation was Columbia University’s devotion to the Great Books. In the course of his study — and inspired to learn more about the great sweep of cultural history by his mentor and eventual friend Mark van Doren — he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, a book that seamlessly blends profound scholarship and an evangelistic zeal for Catholic tradition. That book, and the extraordinary variety of Catholic churches in Manhattan, almost all of which he seems to have visited, led Merton inexorably to an embrace of Catholicism.

But it did not seem inexorable at the time. Merton wanted to be a poet; he was politically active, an eager participant in leftist demonstrations; and he grew increasingly interested in Eastern religions. He was probably more likely to end up an English professor with eclectic “spiritual” interests than anything else. But then he met, and developed a great admiration for, a Hindu monk named Mahanambrata Brahmachari. He thought perhaps Bramachari would lead him into Hinduism, certainly into some form of Eastern mysticism, but to his surprise, the monk told him that he should read more in the Christian tradition. He especially recommended St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. Then, “He repeated what he had said, not without a certain earnestness: ‘Yes, you must read those books.’ It was not often that he spoke with this kind of emphasis.”

It is, I think, difficult to overstress the importance of this enclounter for Merton. It sent him deeper into Catholic Christianity, but did so without extinguishing his interest in Eastern traditions, particularly the contemplative and mystical ones. That interest would return to him much later.

But for now, he plunged into Catholicism. In May of 1939 he was received into the Church, and soon thereafter started telling friends that he wanted to be a priest. (They found this rather comical, given his ongoing interest in women.) But what sort of priest? A parish priest? A scholar-priest? Perhaps a monk? But if a monk, what order should he enter? The Franciscans appealed to him greatly, especially after he spent some time teaching English at St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan college in upstate New York — but maybe the Franciscan way was too easy? Eventually, in desperation, he practiced the ancient bibliomantic ritual of the sortes sanctorum, grabbing a Bible (the Latin Vulgate, of course), opening to a random page, and stabbing a finger at the text. What he saw was “ecce eris tacens” — Luke 1:20, “Behold, you shall be silent.” That seemed to point to the Trappists — more formally, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance — and eventually to the Trappists he went.


In that apostrophe to the Blessed Virgin that I quoted earlier, Merton wrote of his departure from England,

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got to New York. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track lead me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing for me to be my rescue and my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while into the midst of His love and His mercy, and taking me, without my knowing anything about it, to the house that would hide me in the secret of His Face.

But that house, the Abbey of Gethsemani, would not, over the long run, prove to be the home that Merton had hoped it would be. For one thing, he suffered profound anxiety about his love of writing. He loved writing and believed he was good at it, but it was not clear whether writing was compatible with the highly communal life of Gethsemani. Would he not by writing set himself apart from his brothers in unhealthy ways? His abbot encouraged him to write, and when his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, appeared in 1948 and became one of the bestselling books of the decade, the abbot’s wisdom was surely confirmed.

Or was it? To be sure, The Seven Storey Mountain was a magnificent advertisement for Catholicism in general and monastic life in particular — almost every monastery in America saw a massive upsurge in postulants in the years following the book’s publication — and all of the book’s considerable royalties went straight into the bank account of the Abbey. However, the more Merton wrote, the less time he had to spend at the common work, leaving more for his brothers to do. One of the subsequent abbots sought to remedy this situation by making Merton the Master of Novices, which gave him a lot of teaching to do — a responsibility which Merton gladly accepted, surely out of obedience, but also, I suspect, because it was a relatively trivial matter to convert the lectures he gave the novices into books.

After years of this kind of tension, Merton begged to be allowed to become a hermit, living alone on some remote corner of Gethsemani’s property. This most thoroughly un-Trappist, one might even say anti-Trappist, request was eventually granted. It was probably the best solution that, practically speaking, could have been achieved. And some later abbots of Gethsemani also chose to live as hermits, one in a mobile home. The desire for solitude was, apparently, contagious. Merton collected some of his talks to novices under the title No Man Is an Island — a title either aspirational, or ironic, or both.


One of the novices who, inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, sought to join the community of Gethesemani remembered that when Merton welcomed them he said, “The life of a monk is a semi-ecstasy and forty years of aridity.” Said that young man, “It didn’t frighten me.” And yet he would depart the monastery after only two years, bound for the Catholic priesthood, but in a more public mode. 

His name was Ernesto Cardenal. He was a native of Nicaragua, and ten years younger than Merton. They bonded over their shared love of poetry, and over a connection with Columbia University, where Cardenal had come to study in 1947, as Merton was completing his autobiography. Over the course of Cardenal’s time at Gethsemani, they developed a plan: Cardenal would attend a seminary in Cuernavaca, Mexico, be ordained as priest, and then establish a new monastery there, one that would be deeply concerned with seeking justice in the grossly unjust societies of Central America. And Merton would be released from his commitments to Gethsemani and join Cardenal there.

Throughout the second half of the 1950s, Merton had come to believe that his monastic isolation had made him lamentably inattentive to the evils of the world. Cardenal had not been the only influence on him in this respect, but eventually became the most important one. Merton very much looked forward to this new life, and its enabling of a renewal of the political commitments that had meant so much to him in his youth. In October of 1959 he wrote to Cardenal to say that he prayed daily “that this venture may be successful for the glory of God. One must expect obstacles and difficulties but there seem to be so many indications that this is God’s will and I trust He will bring it to completion in His own way.” Gradually the two men began to treat Merton’s move to Mexico as inevitable. Cardenal wrote, “I can only imagine how difficult the departure from Gethsemani must be for you” — as though it had already happened.

But it did not happen. The leaders of Merton’s order refused his request to be transferred, and for a time forbade him to communicate with Cardenal. The dream faded and then died. Cardenal became a priest, and then, later, the Minister of Culture in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government for nearly a decade. When, in 1984, he refused a papal order to leave his government job, Pope John Paul II defrocked him, and he wasn’t restored to  the priesthood until 2014, by Pope Francis. As for Merton, instead of moving to Mexico he moved into his little two-room hermitage near the end of 1961.


The seven years of life remaining to Merton would be enormously fertile, productive, disorienting, destabilizing — as those years were for the whole country. What Merton’s mind and heart sought, in those years, was a certain convergence of commitments, a potentially harmonious joining of beliefs and practices that most people thought irreconcilable or, at best, inevitably separate.

Perhaps the central question for him was: What contribution can the contemplative make to peacemaking in a bellicose age? He wrote to Cardenal often on this topic. “As to politics and the world situation, a little news comes through sometimes and then long periods of silence…. Yet I wonder if I really know less than those who get the papers.” It’s as obvious that “the world is full of great criminals with enormous power and they are in a death struggle with each other.… What can come of it? Surely not peace.” He understood that “we must pray and be joyful and simple because we do not after all understand most of it.… But let us avoid falls optimism, and approved gestures, and seek truth.”

Being denied the opportunity to join Cardenal in Cuernavaca, Merton sought truth primarily through writing. He wrote a long prose poem, Original Child Bomb, about the aftereffects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and an elegy for the four little girls killed by the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He published a selection from his journals in which he reflected largely on politics and public events and titled it Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He stayed in his hermitage. Though the most famous activist priests of that era, the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, considered Merton a kind of mentor and guide, they could not convince him to join their protests. In his journal he wrote, “I definitely want to keep out of anything that savors of a public ‘appearance’ to semi-public or anything, especially in America.”

But he renewed another old interest — and this one did take him into the public world. When he was in the midst of his campaign for a hermitage he found himself thinking and writing about the Desert Fathers of the fourth century — many of them were hermits, after all — and when he published The Wisdom of the Desert, his small book recounting sand retelling their stories, he wanted to ask the great Zen master, D. T. Suzuki, to write an introduction to the book. (He had exchanged a series of letters with Suzuki in 1959.) This idea was firmly rejected by his Trappist superiors, and Merton ended up writing his own quite eloquent and illuminating introduction, but the request marked his fascination with what the various contemplative and mystical traditions might have in common — and what the elements they shared might give to the world.

In 1964 he left the monastery on his own for the first time since he has entered it in 1941: he went to New York City to meet Suzuki. The encounter was not a success — Suzuki, then 94 years old, was frail and deaf, and Merton’s decision to shout poetry into the old monk’s ear-trumpet was perhaps ill-advised — but Merton at least got to return to Corpus Christi, the churching Morningside Heights in which he had been received into the Catholic communion. “Said Mass two mornings entirely by myself, without servers, deeply moved.” Just a monk on holiday in a silent, empty church.

In 1968, when the chance to travel again came to him, and travel more widely, he leaped at it. It was, after all, in the same cause that had led him towards Suzuki: the discovery of what wisdom is shared by the world’s contemplatives. He was asked to go to Asia to meet with practitioners of the monsatic life in various religious traditions. In the journal he kept in those last weeks of his life, Merton seemed to be leaving behind everything that belongs to Christianity alone. And this discovery of some ultimate common ground was something he expected to find even before he left Kentucky for Thailand and India (in Dharamsala he met the young Dalai Lama). In his journal he wrote,

Joy. We left the ground — I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around.... May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna ... I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body.

The most interesting sentence here is: “May I not come back without having settled the great affair.” Two years earlier, when recuperating from back surgery in Louisville, he had fallen in love with a student nurse and had thought of abandoning his vows for her, though they never had sex. But that cannot be the “great affair” he had in mind; his rededication to the monastic life had been settled by then. It is hard to see “the great affair” as anything other than the status of Christianity among the religions of the world. Is Jesus Christ who Merton had always affirmed he is: the Son of God, the world’s one Savior? Or is Christianity just one among several ways fo reach toward the divine? There are hints of how he might have settled it: for instance, he wrote of meeting an Indian hermit called Chatral Rinpoche, “The unspoken or half-spoken message of our talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it.”

And he had a dream. “Last night,” he wrote, “I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a ‘Zen habit,’ in color more Tibetan than Zen.” And walking through the Abbey, “I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up.”

But what he would have done, having “awakened,” when he returned to Gethsemani we cannot know. In Bangkok, Merton stepped out of his shower, slipped on the floor, reached instinctively for support, grabbed an electric fan, and died. His body was taken back to America on a U. S. Army plane, returning from the war in Vietnam that he had so passionately deplored.


In 1978, marking the tenth anniversary of Merton’s death, a young Anglican theologian named Rowan Williams wrote, “Merton’s genius was largely that he was a massively unoriginal man.” And by “unoriginal” Williams means that Merton was not the kind of genius who was always himself, always some distinctive “original” force, but rather was “dramatically absorbed by every environment he finds himself in.” To which I would add: “absorbed by,” yes, but also “in conflict with.” Merton rebelled against the constrictions of Gethsemani’s discipline, but then, he rebelled against the character of Clare College too. Every environment shaped him profoundly, but he always found the shaping painful. He does not seem to have had the kind of personhood capable of self-definition: he was always, in some sense, and down to the core of his being, at the mercy of his surroundings, for good and for ill.

This is why Williams focuses his inquiry on something Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, one of the first books he worked on after entering Gethsemani: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead.” Says Williams, “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows, because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire..., seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent. There is no-one there to know.” Williams believes that is it this distinctive absence that helps us to understand how Merton “could give almost equal veneration to Catholic and Buddhist traditions.”

But it must be emphasized that Merton did not say “I am a person that nobody knows”; he said that he had to be such a person. Absence was his aspiration, not his achievement. When Merton entered Gethsemani he gave up the name “Thomas Merton” and took as his monastic name “Louis.” After his ordination to the priesthood it was as Father Louis that he was known to his fellow monks — it is to Father Louis that Ernesto Cardenal addresses his letters — and his tombstone in the graveyard at Gethsemani reads “Fr. Louis Merton, Died Dec. 10, 1968.” And after writing, “They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead,” he added, “Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.”

The writings of the New Testament repeatedly tell followers of Jesus that they must die to themselves, but half-dead is the most Father Louis ever managed. St. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, but Merton seems always to have been restless, caught always between attraction to and repulsion from his environments — his physical, his intellectual, his spiritual environments — and never able to find a point of perfect stillness. In this he is like almost all of us; but in his relentless quest for that rest, whereever it might have been found, he was truly exceptional. Merton is his contradictions: the person in motion who ever seeks stillness; the cloistered monk who wants to belong to the world; the famous person who wants to be unknown.

Once, when he was in Louisville for reasons he does not give, he had a kind of epiphany. He described the experience in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people,” the people walking the streets of the city.  “They were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” This did not make him doubt his monastic vocation, he says — the denial is not wholly convincing — but it did make him realize that “the conception of ‘separation from world’ that we have in the monastery” lends itself to a powerful and dangerous illusion: “the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, ‘spiritual men,’ men of interior life, what have you.”

What is vital here is that Merton could only have achieved that understanding of the danger of the monastic life by venturing into public space; but he could only have had that epiphany of endless love of humanity — what W. H. Auden called a “vision of Agape” — because he spent so much time in his hermitage. He devoted most of his adult life to seeking an unqualified, immediate, self-authenticating encounter with God, but because he never found it wrote endlessly about that search — and loved both the writing and the attention it gave him. He repeatedly affirmed a Creed that can be stated in words, and was drawn to a discipline whose masters always insist that whatever Zen is it cannot be put into words.

Merton lived the public world, the word of words and politics, but knew that living in it had killed him. (Thomas Merton is dead.) He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that that experience’s greatest value is to send us back into the world that killed us. He is perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence. Where we take a few photos to post on Instagram when we return. As we always will.