An enormous loss, but a great legacy. The 50th anniversary of the passing of Thomas Merton



It was December 10, 1968 when Thomas Merton was found dead in his lodgings at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand. Fr. Louis, his religious name, had just completed a talk on “Christianity and Marxism” and had gone to his room for a break. He was only 53 years of age, already a worldread author and contemplative voice for many spiritual seekers around the globe.

In addition to many spiritual articles and books, Thomas Merton had written on many social topics, including racism, nuclear weapons and non-violence. He had become an outspoken critic of the US war in Vietnam. It was ironic that his body came home to the Abbey in Gethsemane in a US Army plane, along with those of soldiers killed in that war.

It was not hard to understand why Molly Rush and the others who founded the Thomas Merton Center in 1972 chose Thomas Merton for the name of the newly formed Pittsburgh-based peace and justice center. The Center’s origin flowed out of its first members’ opposition to the Vietnam War (CEASE – Citizens to End Asian Slaughter and Exploitation).

While the circumstances of Thomas Merton’s death remain somewhat mysterious (there was no autopsy performed), all will agree that his life was far too short! From his book, The Asian Journal, telling of his travels to southeast Asia, one can witness Merton’s exploration into the eastern religions and the connections he was making between them and Christianity in his spiritual journey, a journey that many who were following him were also pursuing.

When Pope Francis I made his visit to the United States in 2015 and addressed a joint session of Congress, he noted four Americans who have left great legacies to the United States and the world: Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Merton.

Merton accompanied two other historic leaders who were taken from us or lost to us in 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. How fortunate many of us have been in our lifetimes to be inspired by the lives of these three self-sacrificing American leaders!

Thank you, Thomas Merton, for a life well lived that continues to reach beyond the grave!

The Merton Center has a very rich library of the writings of Thomas Merton, along with two DVD’s on his life that are available on loan. I invite you to get to know Thomas Merton, his life and his writings. His wisdom endures, and his life continues to inspire.

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” — Thomas Merton


Joyce Rothermel is a long-time member of the Thomas Merton Center.

Timeline of Thomas Merton’s Life and Career:

Jan. 31, 1915: born in Prades, France to Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins

1916: Moved to USA, lived in Douglaston, Long Island

1921: His mother dies from cancer

1928: Moves to Oakham, England 1931: His father dies of a brain tumor

1933: He enters Cambridge in the fall – study of modern languages (French and Italian)

1934: He leaves Cambridge and returns to USA

1935: He enters Columbia University

1938: He graduates from Columbia, began work on M.A.

November 16, 1938: He is received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church

1940: He teaches English at St. Bonaventure College

December 10, 1941: He enters the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, Trappist, Kentucky.

March 19. 1944: He makes simple vows, publishes first work, Thirty Poems

1946: He publishes A Man in the Divided Sea

1947: He makes solemn vows, publishes Exile Ends in Glory

1948: Publication of his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain

May 26, 1949: He is ordained a priest

1953: He publishes The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness

1955: He is named Master of Scholastics (students for priesthood)

1956: He publishes The Living Bread

1958: He publishes Thoughts in Solitude

1961: He publishes Emblems of a Season of Fury; Life and Holiness

1964: He publishes Seeds of Destruction

1965: He begins to live as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery He is named Master of Novices

1967: He publishes Mystics and Zen Masters

December 10, 1968: He dies in Bangkok, Thailand (Many books by and about Thomas Merton have been published since his death. Documentaries have also been made about his life.)

(TMC newspaper VOL.48 No.10 December 2018. All rights reserved)



Categories: News

1 reply »

  1. Congratulations to Joyce Rothermel for her accuracy in stating that the circumstances of Thomas Merton’s death were mysterious and that there was no autopsy. Too often writers simply repeat the popular falsehoods that Merton took a bath/shower and was accidentally electrocuted by a fan. Rothermel is 100% accurate in stating that Merton was “found dead” on December 10, 1968. The truth about exactly how Merton died and what caused the bleeding wound on the back of his head is a mystery. Dr. Paul Pearson at the Thomas Merton Center in Kentucky has said, “The cause of (his) death is uncertain.” It is interesting that the Trappist monks where Merton lived are still repeating their “accidental electrocution” story.
    Hugh Turley, co-author of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation

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