Thomas Izod Bennett, MD and Thomas Merton: A History and Examination of Their Interaction *

By Scutchfield, F. Douglas | Cithara, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Thomas Izod Bennett, MD and Thomas Merton: A History and Examination of Their Interaction *


Scutchfield, F. Douglas, Cithara


Thomas Izod Bennett (1887-1946) is primarily remembered for his role in the life of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. While Merton is the better known of the two individuals, the purpose of this paper is to describe Bennett's life and character and to look at the relationship between Merton and Bennett. There has been, after a thorough review, no publication that has attempted to delve into Bennett's life and to examine it for its impact on Merton. However, to do this it is necessary to initially examine Merton's life briefly and establish a context. This examination is drawn primarily from Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.

In 1915, Thomas Merton was bom in Pardes in the south of France to Owen Merton, a New Zealander, and his American bom wife Ruth Jenkins Merton, both artists. Thomas Merton had a younger brother, John Paul, bom in America two years later. Merton's mother died of stomach cancer when he was six years old. His father took him to France and then to England for his early education. His father died of a brain tumor when Merton was fifteen years old. Following his father's death, he attended Clare College, Cambridge University. Unfortunately, his grades and behavior that included a rumor of him fathering an illegitimate child, resulted in his losing his scholarship at Cambridge and coming to the United States to live permanently, initially with his maternal grandparents.

He completed his bachelor's and master's degrees in literature at Columbia University. During this period he also underwent a conversion to Catholicism and felt a call to the priesthood. Originally, he had wanted to join the Franciscan order but was told he was unsuited, either due to his behavior at Cambridge or his too recent conversion to Catholicism. Following a retreat to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, outside Bardstown, Kentucky, and at the urging of a mentor Dan Walsh, Merton decided to become a Trappist monk and entered the monastery in December 1941 as a postulant. He was ordained as a priest at Gethsemani in 1949.

At the urging of his first abbot Dorn Fredrick Ehinne Merton agreed to write religious material appropriate for a Catholic monk, though he often was uncomfortable with writing and the demands that were made on him for the production of written church material. Nevertheless, over his lifetime Merton wrote more than seventy published books, numerous essays, poetry, and commentaries (Mott). His work primarily focused on Catholicism, the history of the church, mysticism, and contemplation.1 During the latter part of his life he began to "turn toward the world," and wrote about issues such as the cold war, nuclear weapons, civil rights, and the Vietnam War, writings that frequently created problems for him, as the order did not always agree that this was appropriate material for a Trappist monk to be writing.2

Merton also maintained an active interest in other religions, particularly those that included monastic dimensions and the mysticism of those monastic religion groups. His interests included Judaism, Islam, and eastern religions, such as Buddhism. He wrote about Zen and was a student of D.T. Suzuki, the Zen Master. During a trip to Asia Merton visited the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks, and there, following a lecture on monasticism, he died as the result of accidental electrocution from an ungrounded fan. His work continues to be read and his ideas and thoughts continue to be studied and published. There are groups dedicated to Merton around the globe, including The Merton Center housed at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. With the advent of the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is likely there will be renewed interest in his life and work. Merton's official biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, was written by Michael Mott and published in 1984.

Thomas Izod Bennett's life and work as a physician, researcher, administrator, and educator are certainly fascinating in their own right. …

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