Thomas Merton: from wayward youth to man of God

John Cooney traces the unlikely journey of the poet and spiritual writer, born of bohemian parents, who fathered a child as a Cambridge student before becoming a monk

If a modern-day King Solomon were asked to arbitrate on the nationality of Thomas Merton – poet, spiritual writer, diarist, jazz buff, pioneer of inter-religious dialogue, advocate of radical social reform and precursor of liberation theology – he would propose chopping the life of the Trappist monk and hermit into two halves, the first lot labelling him as European for the first 36 years of his life; the second as American for his remaining 17.

While such a truncation would be messy in the light of overlapping cultural influences and life development changes, it would have the chameleon Merton’s own broad approval, though he identified himself as an American when he opted for US citizenship; but only as late as 1951. Indeed, Merton had predicted that his American allegiance would prevail over his European origins when he spoke of a change in his make-up in a December 10th, 1949 entry in The Sign of Jonas. “And change he did,” wrote Bonnie Thurston, a former scripture professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a founder member of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS). “Although the conversion was never complete, the European became an American.” (1)

Up until early this year I assumed that Merton was a native-born American. I remember picking up a second-hand copy of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in the mid-1960s when I was a student at Glasgow University but of not being too impressed by his “escape from the world” slant at a time when priests, monks and nuns were leaving their presbyteries, monasteries and convents in droves: so the book lay unread. I remember, too, being shocked, on reading in the Scottish Catholic Observer of his death by electrocution in December 1968 in Bangkok where he was addressing a conference. My interest in him was rekindled in the early 1970s when I interviewed the anti-Vietnam War peace activist and poet, Daniel Berrigan SJ, for The Irish Times on several occasions, including a memorable walk in rain- and windswept Wicklow with him and the late editor of New Blackfriars, Herbert McCabe OP. In particular, I remember Dan telling us about how much of the protest movement of American Catholics against the Vietnam War was inspired by Merton. This reinforced my belief that he was an American.

With a newfound curiosity in Merton’s European formation, I travelled this June to Bellarmine University to attend the Merton Centennial Conference in search of the monk who became known as Fr Louis, as was his professed name as an enclosed member of the Cistercians of Strict Observance at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, some 50 miles from Louisville in Kentucky, a state with uncanny resemblance to the similarly landlocked Co Leitrim in the West of Ireland.


“On the last day of January 1915, in the second year of the Great War, down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into this world,” Merton announced in the thunderous opening lines of The Seven Storey Mountain, that was to make him famous in America in 1948 – and which was called Elected Silence in the 1949 British edition pruned by Evelyn Waugh. “Not many hundreds of miles from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and the ruined seventy-fives, in a forest of trees without branches along the Marne.”

Tom’s bohemian parents were Ruth Jenkins, a tough-minded American Quaker, and Owen Merton, a shy, nomadic but dithering New Zealander. Both were painters who met in Paris and were married in Soho, London. Owen registered the baby as Tom with the French authorities and arranged for his baptism in the Church of England on the eve of the start of World War One. Of his nurture period in Prades in the Catalan-speaking Eastern Pyrénées close to neutral Spain and the hazy heartland of the Albigensian heresy, Tom had no recall, but from viewing family photographs of him as a toddler at his first home at Rue du Septembre 4, with its vine-shaded balcony and long walled garden close to Mount Canigou, he remained proud of being French of artist-parents. Tom’s earliest memory was of a gun stowed on board the SS Latouraine which ferried the Mertons to New York when he was 18 months old.

Under the adoring attention of maternal grandparents Harold and Marta Jenkins, whom he named ‘Pop’ and ‘Bonnemaman’, Tom was introduced to the folksy ways of Douglastown, Long Island, and then the hurley burley of Flushing, New York, where his brother John Paul was born on November 2nd, 1918, just nine days before the end of World War One, into which President Woodrow Wilson had brought America in 1917 on its interventionist course to replace a shattered Europe as the world’s twentieth-century superpower. Plans for a return to France en famille were dashed when Ruth was diagnosed with cancer and died in October 1921. Tom was six years old. An unsettled Owen left John Paul with the Jenkins grandparents and brought Tom with him to Bermuda, where he coupled with American novelist Evelyn Scott in a ménage à trois with her husband Cyril Kay-Scott, which a precociously unimpressed Tom mocked as “the Bermuda Triangle”. Relieved to be reunited with John Paul and his grandparents, Tom stayed on in America as Owen absconded to Europe with Evelyn. After taking ill while painting in Algeria during the winter of 1924, news of which instilled in Tom a painful premonition of his becoming an orphan, Owen recovered sufficiently to have an exhibition of his paintings at the Leicester Galleries in London, whose sales enabled him to return in spring 1925 to America, from where he brought the reluctant 10-year-old Tom back with him to France to live in Saint-Antonin, an Occitan commune in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in the Midi-Pyrénées. The following year the restless Owen enrolled Tom in the Lycée Ingres, a boarding school in Montauban. Yet again, Tom felt dumped by his father, but gradually made friends. During Christmas holidays in 1926 and 1927, Tom stayed with friends of Owen in Murat, a small town in the Auvergne, which introduced him to the fervent Catholicism of peasants undisturbed by the secular republicanism of the French Revolution arising from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Unexpectedly, Owen reappeared in June 1928 and removed 13-year-old Tom to England, where he was lodged with relatives in Ealing, west London. Tom was enrolled in Ripley Court Preparatory boarding school in Surrey, a happier place than the lycée. The Easter vacation, 1929, was idyllic for Tom when Owen took him to Canterbury for long country walks.

However, in late 1929 Tom learned that Owen was ill and reunited with him to head for Aberdeenshire in Scotland, where a friend had offered his house for Owen to recover, only to discover Owen had returned south for treatment at a North Middlesex Hospital for a brain tumour. As Tom immersed himself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and Arthur Conan Doyle, into Tom’s life intervened “Pop” Jenkins, who assured him that in the event of Owen’s death, he would be looked after financially. This provision included assigning as Tom’s legal guardian a trusted friend of Owen’s from New Zealand, Dr Tom Izod Bennett, who had become a Harley Street specialist.

In the autumn of 1929, just weeks before the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange plunged the world into the Great Depression, Tom went to Oakham College, a mid-ranking public school in the Midlands close to Leicester, where he was instilled with English upper crust “team spirit”, which translated St Paul’s call for charity in his epistle to the Corinthians into their being called to be gentlemen. There, Tom became joint editor of the school magazine, the Oakhamian. Owen died in 1931. A decade late, when settled in America, Tom speculated that if he had stayed in England, he might have become a school-master at the elite Eton College, where snooty students would have mocked his Old Oakhamian tie.

At Oakham, as at the Lycée Ingres, Tom was indifferent to religion, but a toenail infection in 1932, while on a walking tour in Germany, developed into a case of blood poisoning so severe that he thought he would die. Still, however, “the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, either that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year. Or if the thought did come to me, it was only as an occasion for its denial and rejection.”

A movie addict, Tom would watch as many films as he could daily, particularly cooing at Hollywood stars such as Greta Garbo and confessing to a fascination for girls in nurses’ uniforms. He spent hours buying and listening to jazz records by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. These pursuits did not prevent him winning a scholarship to St Clare’s College, Cambridge.

With Spinoza in one bag and Meister Eckhart in a pocket, while on an Easter 1932 walking tour of the Rhineland, Tom sensed at first hand that resentment against the World War One Allies’s punitive 1918 Treaty of Versailles reparations was assisting the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, one Sunday on a quiet country Rhineland road near Andernach Tom had to leap into a ditch to avoid being run over by car loaded with screaming Hitler Jugend. Nor was he impressed by the boastings of Italian Fascist youth proclaiming their obeisance to Benito Mussolini, when he went on another European tour in 1933 that included Rome.

Well financed by Dr Bennett, Tom found a small pensione in Rome with magnificent views of the Palazzo Barberini and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. He had been unimpressed by Rome on a previous visit two years earlier. This time he compulsively explored churches. One day, in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, he was transfixed by a huge mosaic of Jesus Christ coming in judgment in a dark blue sky. Among other churches and basilicas he frequented were the Lateran Baptistery, Santa Costanza, the Basilica di San Clemente of the Irish Dominicans, Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana. He had discovered Byzantine Christian Rome. (2)

He purchased a Vulgate (Latin Bible), reading the entire New Testament. One night in his pensione, Tom had the sense that Owen was in the room with him for a few moments. This mystical experience led him to see the emptiness he felt in his life, and he said that for the first time he really prayed for God to deliver him from his darkness. Another religious experience occurred when visiting Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery. “I should like to become a Trappist monk,” he mumbled to himself.

In 1933, Tom recorded that his nationality was currently British but added that he was also Catalan, French, American and New Zealander. This multinational self-identification was written by the grey-eyed, five foot eight and a half inches tall youth, with thinning blond hair, a bulging neck, broad shoulders and a pug nose, which made him look distinctly more like a boxer weighing in at 155 pounds rather than a prim English public schoolboy who was being groomed for a career in the British diplomatic service. (3)

In October 1933, Tom, aged 18, began his studies at Cambridge. In what proved to be his annus horribilis, some of his Oakham schoolmates, who had gone up to Cambridge, recalled that Tom drifted away and drank excessively in the local pubs; sexually, he became promiscuous. His indulgence in wine, women and song taxed Bennett’s benevolence-and he was summoned for a series of reprimands which culminated in a crisis when it was discovered that Tom had fathered a child with a local woman. (4)

At a meeting in April, Bennett issued an ultimatum: Tom would return to the States, Bennett would settle a possible paternity suit, but not tell his grandparents about his indiscretions. Merton’s capitulation to these chastening conditions was compounded when he failed to get a first in his May examinations and was subjected to the humiliation of the college authorities deciding not to continue paying his scholarship.

However, with the prospect of a fresh start, Tom enrolled at Columbia University in Manhattan to study 18th-century English literature under Professor Mark Van Doren in 1935. The new career plan was for him to become a journalist aspiring to work for the New York Times. In extra-curricular activities Tom briefly flirted with Communism at Columbia, and worked for two school papers, a humour magazine called the Jester and the Columbia Review. Though still no saint, Tom surrounded himself with a better type of friend who included the poet Robert Lax and journalist Ed Rice, who later founded the Catholic magazine Jubilee, to which Tom frequently contributed essays.

As part of a course on medieval French literature Tom in February 1937 read The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Étienne Gilson, which was translated from French by publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward in London. This work was pivotal in charting his way for more encounters with Catholicism.

In January 1938, Tom graduated from Columbia with a BA in English and went on to do a postgraduate thesis on William Blake, the eighteenth-century London poet, painter and printer with a strong messianic vision. That June, another friend, Seymour Freedgood, introduced Tom at a meeting in New York to Mahanambrata Brahmachari, a Hindu monk. Merton was very impressed by the man as being profoundly centred in God, and asked him for guidance. Brahmachari recommended that he reconnect with this own spiritual roots and read The Confessions of St Augustine and The Imitation of Christ. Merton read them both and started to pray regularly. In August 1938, he went to Mass at Corpus Christi Church located near to the Columbia campus. His reading list became more and more geared toward Catholicism. One evening in September, Tom was reading about the conversion to Catholicism of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and how he became a Jesuit priest. Suddenly he was seized by an impulse to follow Hopkins’ path and rushed to the Corpus Christi Church rectory, where he met with Fr George Barry Ford, to whom he declared his desire to become a Catholic. Over the next few weeks Tom took catechism lessons. On November 16th he was baptised and received Holy Communion. On May 25th, 1939, he was confirmed, taking the name James.

Teaching English at St Bonaventure’s College in New York, Tom considered a calling to the priesthood. He dismissed his first choice of opting for the Society of Jesus partly because of James Joyce’s stricture of the Irish Jesuits in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Attracted to St Francis of Assisi, Tom next applied to the Franciscans who initially were enthusiastic but refused him when he told them of his unwanted child in England. So, he headed to Kentucky and entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani on December 10th, 1941. He did so with “an unusually alert and purposeful manner of walking”, with an accent adjusted to whatever company he was with, as well as a remarkable memory which he used to great but selective effect in his bestseller autobiography on the direction of Abbot Dom Frederic Dunne. Not only did it make Merton a celebrity writer, it made millions of dollars for Gethsemini abbey as legions of demobbed soldiers and marines clamoured to be monks or brothers. Merton’s writings also convinced young men in Britain such as the poet Eddie Linden that they too had vocations to monasticism.

The uncertain direction which Tom spoke of in his 1933 self-profile seemed to have been finally settled in “that terrible, silent building” of Gethsemani. Not so. The restlessness, impulsiveness and insecurity, as well as the sense of expectant privilege and for a time suppressed sexual drive, accompanied him to Gethsemani, along with the haunting spirits of his stern mother Ruth urging him to write down all activities, thoughts and motivations in “Tom’s book”, plus Owen’s flighty waywardness.

No truer words were written by Thomas Merton OCSO than in his prayer My Lord God:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know my own self,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not necessarily mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


1. Bonnie Thurston, Of Transformation and Marginality, p. 35, in We Are Already One. Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope, Reflections to Honor his Centenary (1915-2015), Edited by Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo, Fons Vitae, Louisville, 2015.

2. The best descriptions of these treasures are to be found in Rome by Edward Hutton, Hollis and Carter, London, 1950.

3. Mott, Michael, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Houghton, Mifflin Company, Boston, 1984, p.71.

4. Biographers have not identified this child, said to be a girl, who they claim died with her mother in German bombing of London during World War Two.

John Cooney, a former religious affairs correspondent of The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, is the biographer of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland. (O’Brien Press, Dublin, 1999)

This article first appeared in the July-August 2015 issue of Doctrine and Life. The second part will be published next week.