The Unknown Thomas Merton

The Unknown Thomas Merton.  In the late 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, Thomas Merton was the most well-known and admired Catholic monk in North America.  Seven Story Mountain, his autobiography written while he was still young, was one of the best-selling books of 1949, going on to sell over four million copies.  It has never been out of print.  During his lifetime he published over 70 books.  He belonged to the Trappist order, remaining at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, United States, from 1941 until his sudden death in 1968 at 53 years.  In his later years he became interested in Zen Buddhism.  It was at an ecumenical conference in Bangkok that he was accidentally electrocuted. *

A lonely man

These facts tell us virtually nothing about who he was, nothing interesting anyway.  Merton’s mother died when his was six, and his father died when he was sixteen, leaving him well provided for.  Even before his father’s death he was raised by a series of relatives and at boarding schools.  During his entire life Merton never worked for wages, but there are more important things in life than money, such as a stable home and loving parents.  Merton had neither.

In a previous post I discussed Merton’s mystical version of Christianity.   This post tries to figure out who he was as a man.  The simplest and most important thing to say is that he was terribly lonely, longing for love.  His solution, which never really worked, was to abandon himself to God, thus eliminating his needy self.   One of his biographers writes that “when the Gethsemani gates closed behind him, Merton tasted freedom even though he was within four walls.”  (Shaw, loc 925) If we can understand that, we can understand Merton. 

Freedom from need

For Merton, freedom meant freedom from his terrible loneliness and need.  He was free at Gethsemani, at least for awhile, because he could not act on his need.

Merton’s close friend and brother monk Father Basil Pennington agreed. He said Merton told him that asking “Am I happy?” was the wrong question, with the real one being, “Am I free?” Pennington concluded Merton meant the freedom from need, whether it was happiness, pleasure, things, or people. (Shaw loc 3459)

If you don’t trust human love, choose a path in which union with God is the highest love.  In this union there is no need and no room for others.  Fortunately for both Merton and his readers, he could not stick to this path.

Merton kept detailed, almost daily, journals from his years at Columbia University until his death.  Evidently, they are lightly censored, unlike Seven Story Mountain, cut by one-third by Catholic censors.    Merton stipulated that his journals not be published until twenty-five years after his death.  Today they are readily available, and the best source of information about him. 

Several entries are particularly striking, such as his self-criticism for wanting to keep his own identity, the source of his misery, or so he believed (Journal 4, pp 323-324).

Margie and having it all

Merton had back surgery in March, 1966.  He was cared for by a student nurse named Margie.  They fell deeply in love, beginning an affair that lasted about six months, and a relationship that lasted about two years (Cooney, Irish Times).  Much ink has been spilt over whether they ever consummated their relationship, whatever that old-fashioned term means exactly.

Merton wrote about Margie in his journals (volume 6), stating that he wanted their love to be known, for it was an important part of who he became.  It was, and from the affair he became a deeper and better man.  But it’s worth noting Merton’s desire to have it all.  Merton lived in his hermitage on the grounds of Gethesemani, while entertaining guests such as Joan Baez.  His goal, he said,

was to have her [Margie] as a kind of mistress while I continued to live as a hermit.  Could anything be more dishonest? (Journal 6, p 94)

Who wouldn’t want such a thing?  Some perhaps, but some would.  The difference between Merton and the rest of us is that he thought such things were possible.  And why shouldn’t he?  He was the only monk allowed to have his own hermitage (a little private house), and his psychiatrist and friend Dr. Wygal made his office available to Merton and Margie, where Merton and Margie drank Champagne, and he remembered “her body, her nakedness the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me.” (Ibid.)  One reason Merton was allowed such liberties is that he was the most famous monk in America.  Another is that he turned over his royalties to the Abby.  At one point they accounted for 16% of the Abby’s income. 

Merton’s Symposium, or what Merton learned

In Plato’s Symposium, his dialogue on love, Plato has Socrates say that love moves from beautiful bodies to beautiful ideas to beauty in itself (Symposium 210a-211b).  He calls this the ladder of love (epanabathmois).  Is it any wonder that centuries of Christian writers have baptized Plato, interpreting his forms, such as beauty in itself, as God’s thoughts? 

Merton’s life can be read as an enactment of this vision.  Up to a point.  All his life he desperately wanted and needed love.  Not just, he emphasizes to receive love, but also to give love.  Without this experience, he said, we cannot love God as mature men and women.  With Margie he found someone who needed his love as desperately as he needed to give and receive hers. 

Eventually Merton gave up Margie, but rather than being crushed he seemed to experience life anew.  Some speculate that he would not have remained at Gethesemani, but that is unknowable, for he died shortly after.  In any case, he seems to have learned Plato’s lesson.  As Merton put it,

We cannot love [God] perfectly if we have not in some way loved [another person] maturely and truly.  (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 188)


Some speculate that Merton was killed by the Catholic hierarchy, others such as Cooney that he committed suicide, but the evidence is slight, indeed nonexistent.  Accidents happen, in this case a faulty electric fan. 


John Cooney, “Thomas Merton: the hermit who never was, his young lover and mysterious death.”  The Irish Times, 11/9/2015. <

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Random House, 2009.

Thomas Merton, The Journals of Thomas Merton, 7 volumes.  Harper, 2009-2010.

Mark Shaw, Beneath the Mask of Holiness.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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