Today in Literary History – December 10, 1968 – Thomas Merton dies

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and prolific author of books on spirituality, died on December 10, 1968, at the age of fifty-three.

Merton had become increasingly interested in Zen Buddhism in the 1960s and was at an ecumenical conference of Catholic and Buddhist monks in Thailand when he died.

He was accidentally electrocuted by a faultily-wired fan after stepping out of the shower in his hotel room.

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Merton’s father was an artist from New Zealand and his mother was an American Quaker who died when Merton was six years old. Merton’s father was often absent and Merton was raised in the United States, France and England at private schools and with relatives.

He studied at Oxford and Columbia Universities. He had a reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer. In 1941 at the age of 26, he visited a Trappist monastery in Kentucky and was deeply impressed. Later that year he entered the monastery himself.

His 1948 bestseller The Seven Story Mountain describes Merton’s transition from worldliness to the service of God. It has sold more than three million copies and is often described as a modern equivalent of St. Augustine’s Confessions.

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He wrote many other books on the contemplative life, as well as books of poetry and social activism. I have read his work with great pleasure over the years. He acknowledges that the path he advocates is difficult, but he describes spiritual practices with great compassion and humour.

At the time of his death he was struggling with his priestly vows, particularly celibacy, and seeking a new way to approach to the mystery of divinity. It would have been wonderful to see where this might have led him.

 

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