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Excerpts from Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical Experience
By Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Harper San Francisco, 1991
Thomas Merton, 1915-1968
Trappist Monk, (priest) peace activist, and one of the most important Catholic writers of the 20th century,
Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis, a priest monk of the Trappist / Cistercian Monks of the Strict Observance), was influenced by mysticism, Asian religions (Zen Buddhism in partcular) monastic life and the social concerns of his times.
Merton was born on Jan. 31, 1915, in Prades, France, of an Amertican Quaker mother. His father was a New Zealand landscape artist.
He was orphaned at 15. He studied briefly at Cambridge University, but latter received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University n New York City. After graduation he worked in Harlem at a Catholic center for the poor and taught English at Columbia (1938-1939)
While at Columbia Merton became briefly interested in socialism.(Socialism and social health care has been practiced by the Early Church in Jerusalem and in most monasteries since the days of St. Pachomius and the Desert Fathers in Egypt. Re: Acts:3-4 & The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Augustine, The Rule of St. Basil-by the Eastern & Western monasteries. *See footnote #2 ) A much greater influence on him was Daniel Clark Walsh, one of Merton's mentors at Columbia. Walsh's teachings influenced Merton distinctions between person, nature, and individual, which he developed in his writing.
In 1941 Merton entered the Order of Cistercans (monks) of the Strict Observance (Trappists) at their monastery in Kentucky (Gethsemani Abbey near Louisville, founded by monks fleeing the uphevels of the French Revolution) He was ordained a priest in 1949, taking the religious name Father M. Louis, and latter served as master of novices.
Gethsemani (Abbey in Kentucky) has since become one of the country's acclaimed personal renewal centers (retreat accomodations for men, women and families of all faiths)).
Merton wrote several novels during his youth, one of which, My Argumant With The Gestapo, was publshed posthumously in 1969. Three books of poetry were published between 1941 and 1947 with little notice. Then his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, 1948, became a best seller and catapulted him to fame. n the book Merton tells of his gradual conversion from agnosticism to Catholicism n 1938, and his reasons for becoming a Trappist monk.
The autobiography and and subsequent works of spiritual meditations and reflections, whch contain much autobiographcal material , have been compared to the spiritual journals of St. Augustine and John Bynyan, and in terms of social reflection have been compared to other modern religious journals. (Much of Merton's spiritual reflections on monasticism, contemplation and union with Christ are very similar to those of Thomas a' Kempis (1380-1471) including those by Black Elk, Richard Rubenstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Harvey Cox. (See footnote #3)
Merton's books can be grouped by subject matter into three stages. Those published between 1948 and 1960.deal mainly with ascetic practices for relating to the materialistic world. Those between 1960 and 1965 are mainly concerned with social issues and social criticism, while those from 1956 to 1968 show his interest in Eastern mysticism. (Especially Zen Buddhism) Merton scandalzed many Catholics with hs study of the parallels between Eastern, especially Zen Buddhism and Western religious religious traditions. With exceptional insight comparable to his contemporary, Alan Watts, Merton produced THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU, 1065, and MYSTICS AND ZEN MASTERS, 1967.
Merton viewed conversion as a continuing process, and his mystical journey has been compared to those of the great Spanish mystics and other contemplatives. The integrating princple of his art and life was the concept of God incarnating with humankind. He belieded that being a mystic (and a social critic) was to some extent necessary for a poet.
In his latter years, he became an outspoken opponent of the Vet Nam War. (Including some of the top archetects of the war under Nixon such as Robert Macnamera etc) He wrote the words for several freedom songs for the Civil Rights Movement, and edited GANDHI ON NON-VOLENCE, 1965. Merton and his writngs have influenced peace activists of many faiths. He and Dorthy Day (A large senior apartment complex next door to a Franciscan monastery, soup kitchen and Catholic Church of St. Bonface in downtown San Francisco is named after her) were among the writers for THE CATHOLIC WORKER (The FBI visited his abbott and threatened and ordered the abbot and the Abbot General to order Merton to stop writing for The Catholic Worker and other publications) who greatly influenced the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrgan and other charismatic leaders of the anti-war resistance in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and latter such notable social reform activists as Martin Sheen.(Including his close alliance with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was based in the nearby state of Georgia)
In 1965 he was allowed to live as a hermit at Gethsemani (In the woods behind the monaster proper) and spent most of the last years of his life in solitude. (And was very busy writing famous books, self published books such as the Cold War Letters and hundreds of correspondence with admierers, retreatants, church leaders and other monks, nuns and laity including Buddhists masters all over the world.
On December 10, 1968, Merton died (Rght after he gave his speech and open panel discussiion) while attending an ecumenical conference of monks in Bangkok. (The conference included Christian and Buddhist monks and nuns, abbots and abbesses of their respective monasteries from all over the world including other famous monastic authors such as Dom Winandy, O.S.B.) The cause of death was electrocution from contact with an electrical fan that had faulty wiring. His body was returned to the U.S. in an airplane that, ironically, also brought back bodies of American soldiers who fought in the Viet Nam War.
FOOTNOTES BY PAUL BERNARDINO, ONE OF FEW WHO MET & TALKED WITH MERTON JUST BEFORE HIS DEATH
FOOT NOTE # 1: MERTON'S LIFE: WRITING, CRYING OUT AGAINST HUMAN SOCIAL ALIENATION & TYRANNY
Thomas Merton was buried in the Abbey cemetary after a funeral High Mass celebrated by his fellow monks and Abbot; I met and talked with Merton just 7 months before his sudden and suspicious death, while on a memorable two week retreat at Christ of the Desert Benedictine Monastery 14 miles from the nearest village, Abuiqui, New Mexico; This progressive monastery is on the North side of the mountain from Los Alamos National Laboratory
Thomas Merton, a Monk for Our Times
A Theologian Ahead of His Time; Even a Great Author Can get Duped by “Harmeless” New Age Cults
How Thomas Merton & His Best Selling Book Seven Story Mountain & His Other Writings Inspired Millions From All Walks of Life & Faiths To Resist Religious & Political Tyranny, War & Social Injustice & To Walk The High Road Up Toward World Peace, Contemplation, Social Enlightenment & Liberation
A Tribute to the Late, Great Thomas Merton, the Most Influential and Prolific Monastic Author of the Twentieth Century and Profiled in Who's Who, the Institute of Thomas Mertton Studies, BCC; The Thomas Merton Project, etc.
Thomas Merton, born in France, 1915-December 10,1968, Cistercian Trappist monk and priest, (Father Louis) philosopher, an unorthodox Catholic and monastic theologian of the Cistercian Order of The Monks of the Strict Observance, author of the best seller: The Seven Story Mountain, autobiography,1948
"It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection-a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny." Thomas Merton, Gethsemane Abbey in the late 1960's
"With the race troubles in the South,(His Abbey is in Kentucky) one can see the beginnings and perhaps more that the beginnings of a Nazi mentality in the United States; There is a powerful and influential alliance of business and military men who consider everyone who disagrees with them a Communist, a traitor and a spy; The atmosphere is not unlike what I remember from the Germany of 1932."
"Thomas Merton kept insisting that we must see the nuclear (war) threat as a moral issue and he thought it was insane.”
"His famous essay on Adolph Eichmann shows that up so clearly; He said that when a nuclear war comes it will not be because of the insane, psychotics getting to the button; it will be because sane persons have accepted sane commands coming all down the chain of command; And he felt we were really on a very perilous course because of the insanity of thinking you could win a nuclear war; And he was even thinking about that; Or that you could limit a nuclear war; That 20,000,000 people were expendable; Thomas Merton saw all that and cried out against it.”
"Thomas Merton’s wholeness, humanness, his integration, his overcoming the split between the sacred and the secular was a great contribution of his…..”
Sister Mary Luke Tobin, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Roman Catholic order of nuns
Thomas Merton was active, as a young college student of journalism, in leftist and anti-war politics in France in the 1930's and at New York’s Columbia University where he was also a journalism student. He entered the Cistercian, Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1941 in his late 20's with degrees in Journalism.
The abbot of the monastery soon found that Merton had great gifts and talent for broad research, deep thought and writing; So the abbot immediately assigned him to an office to write his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, a best seller in 1947; Also, The Waters of Siloh, the definitive history of the Cistercian Order of monks and nuns; This book covered the Trappist monastic reforms in France in the Fifteenth Century and the American Abbey of Gethsemane and a highly acclaimed, voluminous series of spiritual writings, essays on the Desert Fathers, many commentaries on the Vedic mysticism of India, Zen and other Buddhist Masters and latter, his anti-war books and essays such as his self published The Cold War Letters.
Many conservative Catholics didn't comprehend Merton and strongly objected to Merton’s commentaries on current events; Thomas Merton was a monk and deep thinker ahead of his time. He blazed a new trail that few of his Church or religious and monastic orders fully understood or dared to tread themselves till latter; Merton opened up a new path for a whole new thoughtful, questioning and rebellious generation who were crying out in loud protests for answers, seeking solutions to major problems of the 1960's and 70's.
His latter books inspired millions from all faiths and no religious faith to become increasingly aware and active against the grave social injustices of war, fascism, spiritual disintegration, moral collapse of government and Churches, violence, militarism and racial inequality in America and the world; His latter, 1960’s anti-war writings flowed from his remote hermitage in the woods behind his monastery where many great movers and thinkers of his day sought him out and visited him such as the popular folk singers and Peace activists Joan Baez and Bob Dylan; Martin Luther King, Jr. had planned to visit Merton just before King’s own assassination by the CIA; The CIA involvement in King's death is documented by King’s family including his wife Coretta..
Thomas Merton inspired many to become conscientious objectors and Peace activists and encouraged leaders like Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan Minister of Culture (1979-1988)
Ernesto Cardenal, of Niceragua, as a young man, entered Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky in the 1960’s and studied as a devout monastic novice under the close direction of Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis), then Master of Novices of the Abbey. Ernesto, due to a medical problem a few years latter left the Trappist monastery before his solemn monastic profession ceremony at the Abbey; He then joined the Jesuit Order and was ordained a priest to serve his people in Nicaragua; He then helped found an experimental monastery at the beginning of the Nicaragua revolution, based on liberation theology and Thomas Merton’s epoch creating monastic model and spiritual counsel.
The new Nicaraguan government then appointed Ernesto Cardenal to be Minister of Culture from 1979 to 1988; serving the oppressed people of his native homeland and Central America in the true and liberating tradition of Thomas Merton.
Ernesto Cardenal is the author of several books of poetry including his crowning opus Cosmic Cantical, translated by John Lyons, 1993; He is currently director of Casa de los Tres Mundos in Nicaragua.
Ernesto Cardenal’s other works include include: Zero Hour, Flights of Victory, Homage To the American Indians, Los Ovnis de Oro Poemas Indios
"Ernesto Cardinal is one of the world’s major poets” – Choice magazine
"Priest and Nicaraguan revolutionary as well as a poet, Cardenal epitomizes what makes literature live in Central America today.” – Booklist
Ernesto Cardenal is one of the great guides, enlightening a new generation in the groundbreaking heritage and literary tradition of Thomas Merton-to help illuminate and liberate the world from all oppression, social alienation and degradation.
Other books by Thomas Merton:
The Collected Poems
The Literary Essays
Seeds of Contemplation
My Argument With The Gestapo
*Seeds of Destruction
The Wisdom of the Desert
*Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
*The Cold War Letters, self published, sent to all Trappist monasteries in US & beyond
*Peace & In The Post Christian Era
*His writings against the Viet Nam war and in support of Peace and social injustice
Thomas Merton was born in France, was a student at Oxford, England and Columbia University in New York City, He entered the Cistercian/Trappist monastery of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky in 1941, was appointed master of scholastic s and then Master of novices at Gethsemane Abbey in mid to late 1940's; He wrote for many secular and religious publications like the Catholic Worker, Common Wheel magazine, etc.
In his monastic solitude and studies, he had almost four thousand correspondents seeking his counsel and advice, writing to him and seeking him out for support from all over the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King, just before his assassination, was planning to visit Thomas Merton at his monastery in Kentucky for a private meetings and discussions in 1966, according to one of Merton’s biographers.
Thomas Merton was one of the greatest and most prolific Western authors and commentators on Vedic and Buddhist thought, mysticism and spirituality of modern times.
"The Gita can be seen as the main literary support for the greatest religious civilization of India, the oldest surviving culture in the world. The present translation and commentary is another manifestation of the permanent living importance of the Gita. Swami Bhaktivedanta (Prabhupada) brings to the West a salutary reminder that our highly activist and one-sided culture is faced with a crisis that may end in self destruction because it lacks the inner depth of an authentic metaphysical consciousness. Without such depth, our moral and political protestations are just so much verbiage.” -Thomas Merton
Introduction to Bhagavad-Gita As It Is By His Divine Grace A.A. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, (The Hare Krishna cult) 1972
Thomas Merton, like his contemporaries, poets and authors, Allen Watts and Allen Ginsberg, products of the 60’s counterculture were to a great extent also influenced and decieved by destructive Vedic and Buddhist New Age cults; Watts and Ginsberg were two of the West’s leading published commentators and proponents of Vedic and Zen Buddhist thought and other New Age mysticism fast gaining popularity in the West at the time especially amoung the American counter culture groups.
Thomas Merton was obviously unaware of the latter published revelations and books such as in Monkey On A Stick by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, published after Merton’s untimely and suspicious death by “accidental” electrocution by a five ft. tall bed room fan–See below.
Thomas Merton made a serious mistake as a leading 1930’s -1960’s author on Buddhist and Vedic masters and mysticism; He should never have gotten involved with any Vedic or Buddhist cult groups and gurus including His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet, in exile in India since the early 1950's.
Merton visited the Dalai Lama a few weeks before his suspicious death; Merton had just given a groundbreaking speech at an international conference of Christian and Buddhist monks and nuns in Bankock
People should not get themselves involved with cult type Eastern or Western Vedic or Buddhist mysticism because it is based mostly on the ancient, backward and superstitious concepts of a horribly repressive cast system, reincarnation, the bogus, superstitious doctrine of "karma", pre-destination- that “man does not have free will” concept or the birth right to control and develop his own mind, the enslavement of women and children by a retrograde male patriarchal class system and authoritarian guru regime; Merton seriously failed to research into the tyranny of these cult's and the desasterous cult aftermath latter unfolding throughout the rest of the 1960's and 70's-after Merton's death; The authors and commentators on Merton all fail to address this desasterous cult reality well documented in the public domain.
If Thomas Merton had known what was coming down right after his own suspicious “accidental” death, he would never have gotten involved in these above insidious and dangerous Vedic and Buddhist cult groups
This (above) was a rare international conference of Buddhist and Christian monks gathered at the Red Cross Conference Center in Bangkok, Thailand, including Benedictine and Cistercian monks, nuns, abbots, Abbesses and a panel of academics and authors including Thomas Merton; They gave talks on monasticism and its contemporary social, spiritual and political applications for the modern world’s of East and West.
Merton had just finished his key note address on “Monasticism’s Applications And Similarities and Implications For Today”; And just hours latter, when Merton was alone in his guest bedroom at the conference center, he was “accidentally” electrocuted by a 5ft. tall electric fan which reportedly had “fallen onto his lower chest”
To be continued soon__________________________________________________________
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