If it weren’t for his premature death in 1968, Thomas Merton would turn 100 years old this January 31. Fortunately for us, his legacy and wisdom continue to influence each new generation through the prolific corpus of spiritual writing he left.
I suspect Merton is one of the most well-known and beloved figures in recent American history. But for those of you who might be unfamiliar, he was an ivy-league nihilist turned Trappist monk, mystic, writer, poet, and activist, who spent his days at an abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky.
Most people I know have read or heard of his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which he wrote at age 31 and which sold over 600,000 copies (a feat for any spiritual autobiography, then and now). He went on to write over 70 works.
I finally got around to reading The Seven Storey Mountain two and half years ago—an especially opportune time to begin, since I realized I would be exploring some of the same places he visited in his text: Rome, New York City, Columbia University, Corpus Christi parish, and the neighborhood of Morningside Heights in general. I found it thrilling to read Merton’s discovery of these places as I simultaneously experienced them for the first time. There were several layers: there was my experience of Rome, and the experience of reading Merton’s experience of Rome, and then discovering Merton’s discovery of himself and God in Rome—or New York, or Corpus Christi, for that matter—all while I discovered him, through his self-portrait in the text.
It’s predictable, maybe even trite (in the best possible way) to discover that yet another person’s conversion transpired in part while reading his compelling, sometimes pious, and always achingly human books. His impact is warranted: he has a way of making grace, faith, sainthood, and ancient traditions accessible—and more importantly, attractive—to a modern sensibility.
In honor of the centennial of Merton’s arrival on earth, here are ways you can celebrate:
You could stop by your local Catholic Church and do some contemplative exercises. If you’re in NYC, visit the church in which he was baptized Roman Catholic—Corpus Christi parish in Morningside Heights, where a lecture will be held to commemorate his legacy (including longtime contributor and friend of Commonweal Lawrence Cunningham as one of the panelists!). In the spirit of his activism, you could rally or pray for peace; you could also read his 1966 essay on the roots of Christian non-violence. Or strike up a conversation with someone from an altogether different religious tradition and discover common ground. You could watch Merton’s last lecture (see below) at a conference in Bangkok.
In addition to praying for his canonization (wouldn’t Saint sound so nice in front of his name?), I think I’ll try to attend this exhibit at Columbia University featuring photographs from a camera Merton carried throughout his time at the monastery. It would suffice, however, to simply revisit his famous (and perfectly mortal) prayer:
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 that 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 I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never 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 will I 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. (From Thoughts in Solitude)
Happy 100 years, Thomas Merton.