The Story Of Thomas Merton, Who The Pope Held Up As A Model Of Peace

Merton was an influential Trappist monk, writer and social justice activist.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk known worldwide as an author and philosopher, is shown in 1951. Pope Francis highlighted Merto
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk known worldwide as an author and philosopher, is shown in 1951. Pope Francis highlighted Merton in a speech to Congress on Thursday.

WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis invoked Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, celebrated author and social justice activist, as a model for peace and contemplation in his address to Congress on Thursday. Merton is one of four Americans the pope honored during his remarks, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

Merton was “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church,” the pope said. “He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” 

Francis used Merton’s legacy to transition into praising the United States' renewed commitment to mending relationships with other nations. The pope played a key role in brokering the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the details of which were finalized in July.

Merton joined the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists, in 1941 at the age of 26. Merton had converted to Catholicism in 1938 at age 23, seeking solace after a troubled and itinerant young life. He spent the remaining years of his life living in the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky.

Merton’s popular writing encouraged the post-World War II generation to recommit itself to prayer and spirituality. His 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which describes his personal journey to the monastic life, became a best-seller, inspiring a rise in the number of young men and women who became monks and nuns. Subsequent books, including No Man Is An Island and Seeds Of Contemplation, emphasized the equal holiness of Catholic laypeople, inviting them to seek lives of prayer and contemplation.

Merton later drew criticism from the Catholic and non-Catholic establishment for his stalwart support for the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Merton opposed the Cold War nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the human rights abuses it caused in proxy conflicts across the world. He enjoyed mutual respect from King and the radical, antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan. He called the U.S. civil rights movement "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." 

Merton’s pursuit of inner and outer peace led him on a trip to East Asia in 1968, where he explored Eastern spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism. There, he had an influential meeting with the Dalai Lama, who continues to refer to Merton as “brother.” 

Merton died during that trip in an accident in Bangkok, Thailand, 27 years to the day after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani.

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