Today the church honors the contemporary Kentucky-dwelling theologian and poet: St. Thomas Merton, Mystic and Renewer of the Church.
Born in France (1915) to a New Zealand painter and American Quaker mother, the family came to America during World War I and settled with family in Queens, New York. His mother died of stomach cancer when he was just six years old and his father quickly fell in love with acclaimed novelist Evelyn Scott. Thomas never liked Scott, and at age eight chose to live with his mother’s family in Dougston, New York. Eventually his father came and moved the boys to France to live after the war (though the family traveled extensively throughout Europe in their youth, shaping Thomas in many ways).
In his early adulthood St. Thomas, like so many saints before him, had a wild streak. While at University in Cambridge, though, he became acquainted with great theological works through a few visiting professor-monks.
Early one morning in 1939, after a long night out at a jazz club, Merton told a few groggy friends over breakfast that he felt the call to become a priest. After fits and spurted attempts to join the Franciscan order, he was ultimately rejected from starting the process. He worked as an English professor at Saint Bonaventure University, believing that if he couldn’t be a friar, he would at least live with them. It was there that he began to practice a monastic way of life.
In 1941 Merton was invited to become an initiate at the Abbey of Gathsemeni in Bardstown, Kentucky, just as his brother was being sent off to war. It is here that Merton leaned into his writing and poetry, even dedicating a poem to his brother who died in World War II.
In 1949 Merton published what he considered to be his conversion story in the much acclaimed (and awesome!) The Seven Storey Mountain. In this work he introduced the greater world to the gifts he found in the monastic life. He continued to write and publish reflections, theological books, and poetry from a deeply mystical standpoint, moving many to explore their spirit and soul both within and without a formal religious tradition.
St. Thomas took up inter-religious experiences as part of his ministry and work, traveling to Asia to pray and study with Buddhist monks there. He saw the great “golden thread” running through the lives of the followers of the great religions, and though he always remained a dedicated and professed Roman Catholic, he sought to traverse religious boundaries, often in the name of world peace, which he fought hard for in his monastic life. In fact, many of his controversial political writings condemning war and militarism were censored by the Church for many years.
He is considered by many to be the one who ushered in a new, contemplative-activist monasticism.
In 1968 St. Thomas died mysteriously while on a speaking engagement in Thailand, but his writings and legacy live on in those mystics who still cling closely to his life and example.
St. Thomas is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that not every religious leader and model wears a fancy clerical collar, and that contemplation and activism must hold hands in this world.
-historical pieces from Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and a life studying Merton.
-icon written by Marcy Hall at RabbitRoomArts (find her on Etsy)