Is it a stretch to say that the Trappist monk and spiritual master Thomas Merton, who died in 1968 but whose 100th birthday we celebrate this week, changed the world? Perhaps. But he surely changed people’s lives, and if that’s not enough to change the world, I’m not sure what is. With God’s grace, he did the following:
1. Wrote The Seven Storey Mountain
First published in 1948, Merton’s beautifully wrought story of a rather sad childhood, lonely adolescence and wild young adulthood, all of which led to a dramatic conversion to Catholicism and then a swift entrance into a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, was a surprise bestseller. Merton, a talented writer (and poet), spoke movingly about being lost and slowly finding his way to his vocation as a monk.
It’s hard to put a finger on why his most popular book continues to speak to people. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous prose. Perhaps it’s his transparency. Or perhaps it’s because so many people still feel lost. I know I did when I first read it at age 25. Stuck in a job I didn’t like, I needed someone to tell me it was okay to begin searching. In time, I ended up leaving General Electric and entering the Jesuit Order. His book changed my life.
2. Reminded people that prayer wasn’t just for monks
Of course Merton wasn’t the first one who did this, or even the only one. As far back as St. Francis de Sales, who wrote An Introduction to the Devout Life in the 17th century, Catholic writers encouraged lay men and women to discover contemplation. (You could also say that Jesus taught lay people to pray!) But Merton’s widely used books — particularly No Man Is an Island and New Seeds of Contemplation — helped millions enter more easily into contemplation. Both books predated the Second Vatican Council, which told Catholic laypeople that their vocations were just as holy and important as those of priests, brothers, and sisters. In fact, Merton once wrote that the lay person who lives out a holy life in private may be a “higher” contemplative than the monk who does so with the support of a monastery.
Ironically, the man who encouraged laypeople to the contemplative life was also responsible for an explosion in vocations to monastic orders. In part due to great numbers of men and women seeking stability and silence after the Second World War, but also in part due to Merton’s writings, many monasteries, including Merton’s own, had to build new additions to house so many incoming novices.
3. Wrote this:
“For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
4. Made it okay for Catholics to look to the East
Long before almost any other prominent figure in the Catholic Church, Merton tried to understand the riches of Buddhism, Zen, and other Eastern traditions. This earned him enmity in many corners. And still does: some Catholics today remain suspicious of him for this, despite his firm Catholic faith.
During a trip to the Far East in 1968, which would end in his accidental death in Thailand, he had a moving encounter with the Dalai Lama (who today refers to him as his “brother”) and a profound spiritual experience before a statue of the Buddha, in what is now Sri Lanka. Once, Merton wondered how the East and West could be reconciled, and said that even if it couldn’t be done in practice, he could try to reconcile them within himself as best he could.
5. Wrote this:
“Why do we spend our lives striving to be something we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our times doing things, which, if we only stopped to think about them, are the opposite of what we were made for?”
6. Worked tirelessly for social justice
Even after Merton moved into a hermitage for greater solitude on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he continued the work for social justice that he began around the time of the Cold War. Many former admirers wondered why the Trappist writer didn’t confine himself to pious writings about prayer. But for Merton the evolution was a natural one: encountering God leads to a desire to encounter others, and the world.
Visitors to his small hermitage would include the Catholic peace activist Daniel Berrigan, SJ and the singer and activist Joan Baez. Merton had also planned a retreat for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King before Dr. King’s assassination. His social justice work also cost him: Merton was silenced from speaking publicly on those antiwar issues by his Trappist superiors. His “Cold War Letters,” while passed around on the sly among his admirers, were not published until 2006.
7. Reminded us that everyone is extraordinary and everyone is ordinary
The young monk who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, saw, in short, the monastery as good and “the world” as bad. Merton later ruefully said that the man who wrote that book was dead. That initial distinction, as well as a somewhat lofty view of himself, ended with an epiphany on a busy street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. (A plaque now marks the spot.) Best to let Merton tell the story. “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” he wrote . . .
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that 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 sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Did Thomas Merton change the world? Maybe not. Did he change my life? Definitely. Could he change yours? Open his books and see.
Fr. James Martin’s most recent book is Jesus: A Pilgrimage.
Lead image courtesy of On Being.