Mountain Man: Forty Years after His Untimely Death, Thomas Merton Continues to Inspire Us to Climb New Spiritual Peaks

By Forest, Jim | U.S. Catholic, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Mountain Man: Forty Years after His Untimely Death, Thomas Merton Continues to Inspire Us to Climb New Spiritual Peaks


Forest, Jim, U.S. Catholic


FEW WRITERS OF THE PAST CENTURY HAVE had as big an impact on so many people as Thomas Merton (1915-1968). His readers ranged from popes to high school students, from astronauts to taxi drivers, from mystics to people trying to decide if God exists. His interests were as wide ranging as the Milky Way, from prayer and contemplation to war and peace, from every aspect of Christianity to aspects of Buddhism and other religions.

He was prolific. One of his admirers commented that Merton couldn't scratch his nose without writing an essay about it. It takes a whole bookcase to hold all the books by Merton. He wrote from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery he joined at age 25, having converted to Catholicism just a few years earlier while studying at Columbia University.

Because Merton spent most of his adult life in the out-of-the-way monastery, few of his readers had the chance to meet him, but through his books he had friends all over the world.

That was how I first met Merton--by reading one of his books. On Christmas leave from the Navy, while waiting for a bus, I came upon a paperback copy of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Though the light in the bus was dim, I quickly found this wasn't an easy book to put down. I managed to read about 100 pages before I stepped off the bus later that night. In the next few days my main activity was reading Merton. Once finished, I found more Merton to read.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER I WAS OUT OF THE Navy. I had gotten an early discharge as a conscientious objector and become part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. There I found that the leader of the community, Dorothy Day, actually knew Merton.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Over cups of tea she often read aloud letters she had received that day. One afternoon it was a letter from Merton. I was amazed. I knew from his autobiography how he had left the world with a slam of the door to become a monk, and I knew Dorothy Day to be as immersed in the world as the mayor of New York was. Yet, as I came to realize, the two had a great deal in common.

Thanks to Day's encouragement I sent a letter to Merton. To my astonishment he wrote back. A few letters later he invited me to visit him. Having little money, I traveled by thumb. It took several days to get to far-away Kentucky.

None of Merton's books had an author photo in those days. The Merton I had imagined hardly resembled the Merton who welcomed me to the monastery. In my imagination he was as lean as a rail, the result of full-time fasting, and not inclined to laughter.

The actual Merton turned out to eat three meals a day and was an astonishingly joyful person. …

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