Course: Thomas Merton
On the 50th anniversary of his death
Starts Tuesday 27 November
Thomas Merton was born in France on January 31, 1915. His mother, Ruth Jenkins, had gone from Long Island to France to study art; his father, Owen Merton, had gone there from New Zealand for the same purpose.
On a return visit to the United States Ruth gave birth to their second child, John Paul, on November 2, 1918. Ruth died there of cancer in October 1921 – not long before Thomas Merton’s 7th birthday. This meant that Thomas Merton spent much of his childhood with relatives or in boarding schools. The father and Thomas returned to France in 1925. Later they were to move to England.
Owen’s health deteriorated and he died of a brain tumour in London on January 18, 1931 – just before Thomas Merton’s 16th birthday.
G Talbot Griffiths, headmaster of Oakham School in England where Merton was a high school student, described him as “something of a rebel”. When Gandhi visited England in 1930 and outraged English society with his apparent disregard for their manners and his very public desire that England cease its domination of India, the young schoolboy Merton had heated debates with his peers in defense of Gandhi.
Merton moved to the United States in 1934 – at the request of his uncle and guardian who was very angry at the way he had behaved during his year at Cambridge where he had fathered a child. He graduated with a BA from Columbia University in 1938 and in 1939 graduated with an MA, having written his Masters Thesis on William Blake. While studying at Columbia, Merton came under the influence of some very gifted and special people, such as Mark van Doren, Professor of English Literature and Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Daniel Walsh, Lecturer in Thomistic Philosophy, and some remarkable fellow students. Later on he was to meet up with Catherine de Hueck Doherty and the people at Friendship House in Harlem. Later still (1959) he began a correspondence with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. Merton wrote to Dorothy Day in 1965: “If there were no Catholic Worker and no such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church”.
On November 16, 1938 he was received into the Catholic Church in New York City.
In December 1941 he entered the Cistercian Monastery at Gethsemani in Kentucky. He remained a Trappist monk until he died of accidental electrocution while attending an international conference of Benedictines in Bangkok on December 10, 1968 – shortly before his 54th birthday.
Dom John Eudes Bamberger of Gethsemani Abbey, described Thomas Merton as an “outgoing person with an obvious ease with relationships, very approachable, with a great sense of humour”.
Thomas Merton is the author of more than 50 books and more than 400 lectures on audio tape. Among his favourite themes, the search for the “true self” and the need for solitude and contemplation are central. Merton was a monk, a prophet, a poet, an insightful writer, but above all he was a pilgrim who took the human journey with the utmost seriousness. He was accidentally electrocuted while attending a conference in Bangkok on 10 December 1968. He was 53.
“To say I am made in the image and likeness of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. ... Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1972, 60.)
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I do not do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1958, 83.)
“Behind all these labors was another question, one of great personal importance for him: What did it mean to be a monk, a contemplative in the twentieth century? In a way his whole twenty seven years at Gethsemani had been an attempt to find the answer to this problem, and as the years stripped away the obvious answers and comforting illusions he felt he was left with little but his humanity. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Nazi prison, he began to see that the highest spiritual development was to be ‘ordinary’, to be fully a man, in a way few human beings succeed in becoming simply and naturally themselves. He began to see the monk, not as he had believed in youth, as someone special, undertaking feats of incredible ascetic heroism for the love of God, but as one who was not afraid to be simply ‘man’, who, as he lived near to nature and his appetites, was the ‘measure’ of what others might be if society did not distort them with greed or ambition or lust or desperate want.” (Monica Furlong, Merton: A Biography, Collins, 1980, xviii)
Presenter: Michael Whelan SM, PhD
Where: Aquinas Academy, Level 5, 141 Harrington Street, The Rocks, Sydney
When: Three Tuesday lunchtimes, 12:30pm - 1:15pm, 27 November - 11 December 2018
Cost: $15/session ($45 for the three sessions)
Please register before the course starts so that notes will be available. It helps a lot.