A monk of our time: Remembering Thomas Merton on the 52nd anniversary of his death
Perhaps it was not a household name for many in that chamber, but Francis obviously thought it was one of great significance.
December 10 is an important date in Merton's personal story. It is the date he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in 1941. And it is the same date on which he died in Asia in 1968.
Thomas Merton was born on January 31, 1915 in the French town of Prades. His father was a New Zealander and his mother an American.
Some people whom you meet open doors and offer you a whole new experience. I first came across Thomas Merton in the Summer of 1987 when, during a family holiday, I read 'theSeven Story Mountain', first published in 1949.
It was a record of his journey from an agnostic youth to acceptance as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. To me it was a startling book that kept me involved, for here was the story of a man on an improbable journey.
Just as that book led me into Merton's writings, so, too, in subsequent years, did Merton lead me to the writings of many others. In doing so, he educated me.
Over the years, I have searched book shops for his writings and books about him. As a result, I have ended up with an extensive collection of my own. I never cease to wonder how he was able to produce so much in such a short time, when each day the monastic timetable determined his life - and all without the benefit of a laptop.
From Cambridge to New York and on to Kentucky
In his early years, he spent time in England, at school in Oakham the County Town of Rutland. He had lost his mother through illness whilst still a young child. He was only six years of age when she died. He travelled about with his father, an artist. He was to be orphaned in his mid-teens and his care passed to an appointed guardian.
Merton gained entry to the University of Cambridge on a scholarship in 1932 but left two years later without completing his degree. In the mid-Thirties he arrived in New York City and enrolled at Columbia University. He graduated in 1938 and began work on his MA.
It was in the same year that, by a circuitous route, he was received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Parish, and so began the journey that would eventually take him to Kentucky and entry to the Abbey of Gethsemane on December 10, 1941. It was on that same date, some 27 years later, that we heard of his premature death at the early age of 53.
With the publication of Seven Storey Mountain, written under the instruction of his abbot, a man perceptive enough to realise Merton's talent, his output of poems, articles and books continued through the 1950s.
Just as his entry to the abbey was in sharp contradiction to his earlier years, so too the final decade of his life offered a clear contrast to his formative monastic years. He remained a monk.
Merton's restlessness caused him to examine the possibility of leaving Gethsemane and seek a more solitary life, but that never happened. The nearest he got to it was his final three years spent in the hermitage in the grounds of the abbey. With his many visitors, that was far from solitude.
A sudden insight that changed everything
During a medical visit to a hospital in Louisville Kentucky, he records this comment in one of his journals, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, 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… There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
That text has become famous and in recent years the Louisville City Council have erected a plaque inscribed with those words to mark the place where, in March 1958, he had his insight.
From here on so much changed.
Merton developed a personal concern for the critical causes of the late 50s and early 60s, be it civil rights or, in the later years, the war in Vietnam and issues related to nuclear weapons.
His willingness to explore beyond the boundaries of his own Christian faith was ground-breaking in his time.
In a move not unfamiliar to us in later years, Merton was forbidden to publish any views on the morality of nuclear warfare. He got round that by writing to friends who mimeographed his texts and passed them round. They were finally published in 2006 under the title, The Cold War Letters.
A vast body of writings
There has been a continual stream of publications since his death, both of Merton's own writing and of books about him.
His correspondence was extensive, part of which was published posthumously in five volumes. He kept journals throughout his life, informative in respect of his day-to-day monastic experience. They are published in seven volumes
John Harriott, writing in the Tablet, described how Merton would, in retrospect, be regarded as the archetypal example of a monk of the late 20thcentury.
His untimely death came, not in the United States, but in Bangkok (Thailand) where he had gone to address a conference of Asian religious leaders. He gave the final address before lunch to the assembled monks and nuns.
After lunch he was found in his shower room, electrocuted by a faulty fan. He was given the last rites by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who was Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation at the time.
A man on an Advent journey of mystery and trust
Merton was indeed a priest, man, monk and writer who lived out his vocation fully in spite of many difficulties and trials. He was a real person whose faith struggle was evident in the words he shared with his readers.
Of all his books, Thoughts in Solitude, Contemplative Prayer and the Journals, particularly Woods Shore Deserthave meant most to me.
It was no surprise that Pope Francis remarked on Merton as an American of significance.
His life did not follow the patterns of holiness we have often come to expect of saints. His was a real experience, recognising his place in the midst of a secular society and acknowledging the contribution that he might make.
It is remarkable that 1968, the year of his death, was also the year that Martin Luther King (in April) and Robert Kennedy (in June) were assassinated.
The Vietnamese war was at its height. The final irony of the story is that following his death, his body was returned to the United States on a military aircraft, along with the American soldiers that had died that week.
Read Merton's own words for yourself and find out what all the fuss is about. He is unlikely ever to be formally canonized - no matter.
His life is significant in helping so many others on their own pilgrimage. He was truly a man on an Advent journey of mystery and trust, confident in the Lord.
Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and
a regular columnist in the UK weekly, Catholic Times.