Reconsidering Thomas Merton, who died 50 years ago today
Controversy still surrounds the death in Thailand of the monk who wrote the bestselling ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’
Religious writer Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968), circa 1938. He became a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, continuing to publish his writing until his death in Bangkok. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images
In 2015, the centenary year of Thomas Merton’s birth in France, I attended a conference in June at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, organised by the International Thomas Merton Society to assess his life and legacy. The conference was addressed by leading figures who knew this prolific Trappist monk, best known as the Catholic Church’s premier 20th-century spiritual writer.
Commissioned by Fr Bernard Treacy OP to write two articles, the first appeared in the July-August 2015 issue of Doctrine and Life dealing with his European formation and the second in September examining the circumstances of his sudden death 50 years ago today on December 10th, 1968 in Thailand, where he was on a south-east Asian lecture tour. Both articles subsequently were published by the Irish Times online, the second and controversial one, “Thomas Merton: the hermit who never was, his young lover and his mysterious death” appearing on November 9th, 2015.
Merton’s official biographer, Michael Mott, concluded in a detailed volume that Merton’s sudden and unexpected death was caused by electrocution as a result of one of three factors: suicide, murder or an accident. Mott opted for accidental death, without fully ruling out assassination, but dismissed, however, suicide on the grounds that there was neither motive nor circumstance for this. (1)
However, my different conclusion was that Merton had ample motivation to precipitate his own death following a passionate but semi-clandestine relationship with a young nurse called Margie Smith, an affair which had been discovered by his superiors at the Abbey of Gethsemani, who issued him an ultimatum of choosing between the woman and a reaffirmation of his vocation as a celibate monk.
Merton opted for the latter but such was his physical attachment to the equally besotted Margie that he continued to remain in touch until he finally broke it off and she moved away from Kentucky and soon afterwards married.
I also concluded that, contrary to Mott’s dismissal of Merton not having had a circumstance in which to take his life, he did so while participating at a conference in a village in Samutprakarn, 20 miles from the Thai capital of Bangkok, after he addressed fellow monks on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.
The story of Merton’s conversion to Catholicism and admission to Gethsemani Abbey in 1941 after dissolute student days at Cambridge University in England and Colombia University, New York, was recounted in his Seven Storey Mountain. Its international success as a bestseller not only provided lavish royalties for the abbey, it guaranteed him a prestigious place in the monastic community, which expanded after many psychologically war-damaged soldiers from the second World War and later the Korean War joined the abbey.
Known as Brother Louis, he was assigned to teach students preparing for monastic life as Master of Scholastic Philosophy from 1951 to 1955 and then as Master of Novices (probationers) from 1955 until 1965.
A most revealing article into how much Merton, monasticism and a previously unchanging Catholic Church had changed since he entered Gethsemani Abbey in 1941 was a column titled, ‘Is the world a problem? which appeared in Commonweal on June 3rd, 1963. He made it clear that he was writing “not as the author of The Seven Storey Mountain which seemingly a lot of people have read” but as” the author of more recent essays and poems which apparently very few have read”.
He then cautioned readers that he was not “the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over an artificial lake. This is not the petulant and uncanonizable modern Jerome who never got over the fact that he could give up beer.”
In parenthesis, Merton added: “I drink beer whenever I can lay hands on any. I love beer and, by that very fact, the world.”
Merton then proceeded to outline his understanding of a major evolution in Catholic thinking, which nowadays would be described as the church having entered a period of paradigm change. “At present the Church is outgrowing what one might call the Carolingian suggestion,” he insisted. “This is a worldview which was rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of imperial Rome, the world of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the west and of Byzantium in the east.”
He added: “The dark strokes in the picture have their historical explanation in the crisis of the Barbarian invasions. But there are also brighter strokes, and we find in the thought of Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Dante, a basically world-affirming and optimistic view of man, of his world and his work, in the perspective of the Christian redemption. The created world is itself an epiphany of divine wisdom and love.”
Merton concluded that “it has now become transparently obvious that the mere automatic rejection of the world and contempt of the world is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice”.
Under the monarchical pontificate of Pius XII from 1939 to 1958 Merton’s writings on peace were often censored. So he warmed to the more democratic tone of Pope John XXIII, applauding his encyclical Pacem in Terris, which was addressed to all men of good will, and not just to Catholics.
Nonetheless, still striving for complete contemplative solitude, he badgered Abbot Dom James Fox to institute a full-time hermitage. When this was granted on August 17th, 1965. Merton transferred to a hermitage, built almost a mile from the monastery amid wooded, hilly grounds. In his farewell address, he urged colleagues to respect his wish for complete isolation. However, a week later, he complained that they had made no efforts to find out how he was getting on. Thus, at age 50, Merton became the first ever hermit of Gethsemani Abbey, which had been founded by French Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1848. Merton’s appointment heralded a new phase in his commitment to contemplative life, which should have grounded him even more within the abbey’s cloistered walls near the rural village of Bardstown.
By September 1963 he was increasingly hospitalised in Louisville, suffering pains in his left arm and his neck caused by a fused cervical disc. These hospital visits enabled him to read newspapers and magazines, as well as hear and see radio and television programmes reporting tumultuous world events such as the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 and race riots in Birmingham, Alabama involving Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement. Merton supported King’s civil rights movement.
No longer the pale and ascetic Father Louis of his ordination day but now bald-headed and chubby, Merton worried about breathlessness, checked his blood pressure whenever he could and had an unsettled stomach.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were warning Merton’s generation that “the times they are a-changin’”. Western society was undergoing socio-cultural turmoil caused by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The monolithic, medievalist Roman Catholic Church which had wooed Merton into its triumphalist ghetto was calling an end to the Constantinian era at the reforming Second Vatican Council, 1962-65.
The council was followed by divisions between progressives and conservatives. Abbeys and priories became half-empty in the biggest exodus since the Reformation. The numbers of monks, as well as diocesan clergy, declined steeply, because the Augustinian view of celibacy being a higher state than marriage lost appeal and sense to young people. In 1968, in the US alone, 11,000 religious opted out.
Monasticism was not immune from this turmoil. The promulgation of the Council’s Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis (Of Perfect Charity), fostered adaptation and engagement with “the signs of the times”, not flight from the world. Many institutes replaced traditional habits with modern attire, and reinterpreted obedience to a superior as a consultation between adults rather than the traditional role of a monk’s obedience to his autocratic abbot.
Merton blamed the “drop-out phenomenon” on Abbot Fox, who had introduced machines to make cheese that shattered the quiet of Gethsemani. Fox, a cradle Catholic whose forebears were from Co Leitrim, agreed with Dr Gregory Zilboorg, a psychotherapist and convert to Catholicism, that Merton was a neurotic prone to spiritual injury, because of an unconscious quest for celebrity.
By 1967, Perfectae Caritatis was being applied at Gethsemani, which is situated in a remote part of Kentucky some 50 miles from Louisville. Merton’s long-term advocacy of proper structure and discipline in a monastery was ruffled by this spirit of relaxation and he now argued against the traditional concept of novices and postulants being “brainwashed” in their vocation to retreat from the world. He now called this approach “spiritual infancy”. He no longer accepted that blind obedience meant true obedience.
The tight control held over Merton by Abbot Fox meant his turning down his request to accept a speaking invitation in post-Hiroshima Japan on the grounds that a monk was wedded to his monastery until death. Significantly, however, this policy was reversed in 1968 when a new abbot, Flavian Burns, a disciple of Louis, approved an Asian trip for his mentor, which included meeting prominent Zen and Buddhist figures such as the Dalai Lama and Japanese writer DT Suzuki. Merton’s extra-mundum moorings were loosening.
Just days before Merton left for India, he was photographed drinking Schiltz beer with Richard Sisto at a picnic on Gethsemani lake. This was a lifestyle recalling his youthful drinking days in the Rendezvous student pub in Cambridge.
After weeks of travel and lecturing in several countries – and reportedy looking stressed on the morning of December 10th – he retired for a shower. That afternoon he was found lying on his back in his room with a five-foot fan lying diagonally across his body. Mott reconstructed Merton coming out the shower, slipping and drawing the fan sharply towards him for support. The wiring was faulty, giving him a shock which was sufficient in itself to kill him as he cried out. It is quite possible the shock also gave him a massive heart attack, though this was a secondary cause of death. Mott’s observation that Merton’s feet were “oddly curled up” suggests the electric shock occurred at the moment of death and not later, thus supporting the electrocution theory, although it is possible that the “massive heart attack” did not kill him instantly.
Regrettably, Abbot Rembert Weakland, the conference organiser, waived an autopsy in a rush to transfer the body back to Gethsemani on a US military plane along with the bodies of US service personnel killed in Vietnam.
It was only in 2015 that the now elderly and frail Fr John Eudes Bamberger confirmed he had identified Merton’s body in spite of the disfigurement caused by 240 volts of electricity that operated the defective fan. (2)
Equally significantly, Bamberger revealed that Abbot Fox had asked him to engage Merton about an affair he was having with a young nurse. This came about when Merton, then 53, was recuperating from a debilitating back pain in a Louisville hospital. There he fell in love with 19-year-old Margie Smith. It was a situation which provoked an inner crisis in Merton.
On January 18th, 1967 Merton wrote that “last week” he and two friends drank some beer under the loblollies at the lake and should not have gone into nearby Bardstown village, from where he phoned Margie at a petrol station. Although he was conscience-stricken for this the next day, he wrote, “Both glad”.
Merton wrote in his last journal, The Other Side of the Mountain, that he burned all of Margie’s letters, while not even glancing at any of their contents. “We can only imagine what ‘M’ thought when she read this seemingly cold-hearted, if not brutal, entry” for August 20th, 1968, Robert Waldron observed, adding: “Merton’s burning M’s letters would certainly have pleased Abbot Fox, for in the “sacred game of love” the winner is not ‘M’, not Merton, but Abbot James Fox, who was the true winner in what Merton, perhaps cynically, came to call ‘the crap game of love’.” (3)
It was Merton’s tragedy, I wrote, that Dom Fox did not remain Abbot to keep him under strict control and prevent his drifting back to his drinking and womanising days. On November 19th, 1963, some three years before he met Margie, Merton had revealingly written that his dormant sexuality was stirred by a beatnik visitor who claimed to be a relative but turned out to be a nymphomaniac who “gave me a wild time – a real battle, at times physical, and finally when I got away alive and with most of my virtue intact (I hope) I felt shaken, sick and scared”.
Again, revealingly, in 1965 Merton confessed: “I suppose I regret most my lack of love, my selfishness and glibness (covering a deep shyness and need of love) with girls who, after all, did love me, I think, for a time. My great fault was my inability really, to believe it, and my efforts to get complete assurance and perfect fulfilment. So one thing on my mind is sex, as something I did not use maturely and well, something I gave up without having come to terms with it. That is hardly worth thinking about now – 25 years since my last adultery.”
According to Waldron the affair was “true love” lasting about six months. “Evan after they had decided to separate, Merton continued to write about her in his personal journals, still dreamt about her, and still called her by phone even when she was about to depart for Hawaii on her honeymoon.”
Merton was “a destroyed person” because of his failure to marry Margie, according to Fr John Dear. By 1966, for a depressed Merton “everything was falling apart,” wrote Dear in a book published in 2015. “Falling madly in love was an almost normal, albeit unforeseen, next step. Choosing to remain a monk and a hermit only compounded his pain.” (4)
My conclusion, therefore, was – and is – that Merton regretted giving up Margie and was so eaten with remorse that she had married someone else, he no longer felt it worthwhile living. My suggestion that the current Gethsemani, authorities should exhume Merton’s remains for an autopsy was ignored.
Ahead of the 50h anniversary of Merton’s death, a new book, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, by Hugh Turley and David Martin has questioned that Merton died by electrocution or heart attack caused by a faulty fan, claiming there is no evidence that Merton had taken a shower, or collapsed into a dishevelled pile onto the floor. They highlight how previously unpublished pictures of the dead Merton show that he suffered “a large cut and contusion on the back of his head not noted at all, and photographs taken immediately after his death – which had been kept virtually hidden for 49 years – show that his body was lying perfectly straight, with his arms lying beside his body, just as it might be placed into a coffin.”
They suggest the possibility that a key official of the monastery had become exposed to blackmail by “the powers that be”.
This is such a hotch-potch conspiracy theory that the authors don’t even recognise that they are caricatures of preposterous conspiracy theorists who would argue that Queen Elizabeth was behind the death of Princess Diana. Furthermore, they question the credibility of Mott and the monks of Gethsemani by suggesting the CIA roamed unnoticed around the conference centre and murdered Merton. Such far-fetched theorising has been compounded by a new book by Philip F Nelson alleging that President Lyndon Johnson and FBI chief, J Edgar Hoover, ordered Merton’s killing.
In 2016, I made a second visit to Gethsemani, where for a weekend I attended a retreat, being listed by the abbey’s registrar-bursar as “Father John Cooney” and being lodged besides the monks’ dormitory! During the retreat I was driven by jeep to Merton’s hermitage by Br Paul Quenon who knew Merton and seated me on Merton’s chair besides his bookshelves. Another retreatant told me that nurse Margie Smith was a novice with an order of nuns, which explains how she recognised Merton, whose works she had read.
For me, this piece of information, which I have not seen recorded in any publication, clinches the case that Merton was doubly stricken with Catholic guilt: not only had he confessed to having enjoyed forbidden carnal knowledge of her, he also had destroyed her vocation to religious life. A modern update of Abelard and Heloise.
Shortly after my visit, Pope Francis gave a boost to Merton’s standing by telling the Houses of Congress that Thomas Merton ranks as one of four great Americans along with President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Junior and Dorothy Day. Regrettably, Francis did not include his fellow Jesuit, Dan Berrigan. However, this was a sea-change since 1992 when Pope John Paul II’s The Catechism of the Catholic Church made no mention of Merton.
It will be interesting to see if Pope Francis today commemorates Merton’s anniversary and mentions his contribution to inter-religious dialogue, in particular with Buddhism. Today in Louisville a Buddhist Centre will celebrate his legacy in addition to there being a Mass in the Catholic Cathedral to be celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz.
In a seminal article by Prof Paul Savastano, “Thomas Merton saved my life and opened my heart”, in We are Already One, Savastano attributes Merton’s untimely death to the fact that he was very much a product of his time. The mystique of the Catholic Church which Merton joined in 1941 was lost with the introduction of the vernacular. He missed the Latin Mass and the Gothic chants. Savastano is also convinced that Merton’s openness to other religious traditions and to the contemporary social traditions of his time were strong indications that he would have continued to grow in his religious and social worldview to include a concern for women’s civil and human rights. He believes that had Merton lived, he would possibly have left the Catholic Church and the Cistercians.
Whatever the cause of his death, whichmay now never be known with any certitude, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Merton’s death, I would advise readers to stick to his writings. Ultimately, in death Merton is linked to the Algerian-born novelist, Albert Camus, who died in a car accident in France in January 1961. Both writers were victims of absurd deaths.
John Cooney, is a former religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Houghton Miflin Company, Boston, 1984.
2. John Eudes Bamberger: Memories of a Brother Monk, in We are Already One, edited by Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo, Louisville, 2015.
3. Merton’s affair is examined in Robert Waldron’s, The Exquisite Risk of Love: The Chronicle of a Monastic Romance, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 2012;
4. John Dear, Thomas Merton, Peacemaker, Meditations on Merton, peacemaking and the spiritual life, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1915. Dear calls 1968 “a brute of a year” which saw the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, the arrest of Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine, the brutality of the Democratic convention in Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon”.