Thomas Merton: the hermit who never was, his young lover and mysterious death
John Cooney, former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent, concludes his profile of the great Catholic mystic and bestselling author, suggesting his death was suicide
John Cooney: “In the light of the astonishing failure of writers to examine seriously the suicide possibility, my conclusion, therefore, 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”
In 1965, aged 50, Thomas Merton became the first ever hermit of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, which had been founded by French Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1848, the year of revolutionary change in Europe. Merton’s appointment marked 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. Instead, three years later the world’s most famous literary monk died prematurely in absurd circumstances in faraway Thailand, while on a speaking tour of East Asia as a celebrity itinerant guru during the closing weeks of the twentieth century’s year of “brutal” revolutions. (1)
This article will examine the last years of Merton’s life and accounts of how he met his end. His official biographer, Michael Mott, concluded that Merton’s death was by electrocution on December 10th, 1968, caused by 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. (2)
For all Merton’s restless insecurity and constant depression, the bestselling author was a key member of the enclosed community, known as Brother Louis, assigned by his abbot to teach students preparing for the monastic life as Master of Scholastics from 1951 to 1955 and later as Master of Novices (probationers) from 1955 until 1965. Nonetheless, still striving for complete contemplative solitude, he often complained he felt in the wrong place, like “a duck in a chicken coop”, and badgered Abbot Dom James Fox to institute a full-time hermitage. This was granted on August 17th, 1965, when Fox’s council of advisers approved a new novice master and voted for Merton’s transfer to a selected hermitage, built almost a mile from the monastery amid wooded, hilly grounds. Three days later, when giving his farewell address, Louis urged colleagues to respect his wish for complete isolation. Freed of mundane monastery matters, he then walked up to the hermitage on Mount Olivet. However, after only a week he complained that they had made no efforts to find out how he was getting on.
The middle-aged Merton resembled a well-fed Friar Tuck and was no longer the pale, ascetic Father Ludovicus of his ordination day. Now bald-headed, he looked like Pablo Picasso. Merton worried about breathlessness, checked his blood pressure whenever he could and had an unsettled stomach. By September 1963 he was increasingly hospitalised, suffering pains in his left arm and his neck caused by a fused cervical disc. These hospital visits exposed him to newspapers, magazines, radio and television reporting tumultuous world events such as the assassination of President Kennedy and the race riots in Birmingham, Alabama involving Dr Martin Luther King. Voicing his support for King’s civil rights movement and reading John Howard Griffith’s Black Like Me, Merton commented: “What there is in the South is not a negro problem but a white problem,” an observation that still holds true today.
Merton was attuned to the reality that the world had changed considerably since he entered Gethsemani in 1941. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were warning Merton’s generation “the times they are a changin’”. Western society was undergoing sociocultural turmoil caused by the sexual revolution. 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, 1962-5. To Merton’s discomfort, the council was followed by pendulum years of internal 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 the US alone in 1968, 11,000 religious opted out. (3)
Monasticism was not immune from this turmoil. The promulgation of the Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis, (Of Perfect Charity), fostered adaptation to “the signs of the times” (4). Many institutes replaced traditional habits with modern attire, and reinterpreted obedience to a superior as a consultation between adults. Merton blamed the “drop-out phenomenon” on Abbot Fox, a second World War marine and Harvard Business School graduate. He introduced machines to make cheese that shattered the quiet of Gethsemani to Merton’s fury: Merton, not being able to drive a car, preferred doing physical labour to mechanisation. Fox, a cradle Catholic whose forebears were from Co Leitrim, conspired with Dr Gregory Zilboorg, a psychotherapist and convert to Catholicism, to confirm his view of Merton as a neurotic prone to spiritual injury because of his unconscious quest for celebrity (5). For all their differences in outlook and temperament, Fox and Merton retained the traditional role of a monk’s obedience to his autocratic abbot; and it was touching to visit their graves side by side in the Gethsemani grounds. Unlike Fox, Merton remained culturally a European rather than an American.
By 1967 Perfectae Caritatis was a household name at Gethsemani (6). Merton’s long-term advocacy of proper structure and discipline in a monastery was ruffled by this spirit of relaxation but he argued against the traditional concept of novices and postulants being “brainwashed” – what he called “spiritual infancy”: he no longer accepted that blind obedience meant true obedience.
A romantic convert to the monarchical, medievalist Rome of Pius XII under which his writings on peace were censored, Merton warmed to the more democratic tone of Pope John XXIII, applauding his encyclical Pacem in Terris. But this new openness in Rome did not convince the Abbot General, Dom Gervais Sortais, who in May 1963 categorically refused Merton’s request to publish a banned piece on the immorality of nuclear warfare now that the encyclical said what he had written in Peace in the Post-Christian Era. “At the back of his mind obviously is an adamant conviction that France should have the bomb and use it if necessary,” Merton said of Sortais, an admirer of president Charles de Gaulle. “He says that the encyclical has changed nothing in the right of a nation to arm itself with nuclear weapons for self-defence, and speaks only of ‘aggressive war’” (7).
The tight control held over Merton by Abbot Fox, who notably turned 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, ended in 1968 with Fox’s surprise resignation. The 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. There is a revealing photograph of Merton drinking Schiltz beer with Richard Sisto at a picnic on Gethsemani lake just days before he headed off to India. This was a lifestyle recalling his drinking days in the Rendezvous student pub in Cambridge.
One of the most repeated pieces of misinformation is that Merton met his end in Bangkok after flying on December 6th in first class from Singapore, where he booked into a penthouse apartment in the Orient hotel. The end, in fact, came at a conference cottage in Samutprakarn, some 20 miles from the Thai capital, on December 10th after he addressed fellow monks at 10.45am on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Looking stressed, he retired for a shower. That afternoon he was found lying on his back with a five-foot fan which had landed diagonally across his body. Mott reconstructs 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. Without an autopsy these questions are unanswerable. In cases of electrocution, an autopsy looks for indications of cardiac arrest accompanied by burn marks on the soft tissues. Where very high voltages were involved, the burn marks would extend to the bones, those of the hands, the ribs and the vertebrae. Such marks might still be distinguishable even at this distance in time, but medical evidence alone would be unable to distinguish between accidental death and suicide, although other disciplines might well be able to.
It is regrettable that 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. Only this year, Fr John Eudes Bamberger confirmed he identified Merton’s body in spite of the disfigurement caused by 240 volts of electricity that operated the defective fan (8). Would it help to clear up ongoing doubts about how Merton died if the current abbot general, Eamon Fitzgerald, a Dubliner and former abbot of Mount Mellary in Waterford, and Fr Elias Dietz, the youthful abbot of Gethsemani, exhumed Merton’s remains for an autopsy?
More significantly, Bamberger has recently revealed that Abbot James 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. He fell in love with 19-year-old Margie Smith. It was a situation which was obviously provoking an acute inner crisis in Merton who was perceived to be in a mid-life fling with a young woman. On Saturday, June 11th, 1966 Merton, by now back at Gethsemani, arranged to “borrow” the Louisville office of his psychologist, Dr James Wygal, to meet Margie, where they drank a bottle of champagne and became intimate.
This was reported to Fox by the brother who had driven Merton to Louisville. On Monday evening of June 13th, Merton was horrified to learn that James knew of his guilty secret. Merton feared a telephone conversation with Margie from the monastery on Sunday morning of June 12th would be “the worst!!”.
“The day after our initial discussion about his relationship,” writes Bamberger, Merton wrote to him “to give his reflections on our talk”. On June 12th Merton broke off the affair and recommitted himself to his vows.
Roughly a month later, on July 12th, Merton still could not get Margie out of his mind. “There is no question I love her deeply ... I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me ... I could have been enslaved to the need for her body after all. It is a good thing I called it off.”
Merton remained in contact with Margie even after this. He saw her again on July 16th and wrote: “She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart and not having news of each other, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her, she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I.”
But Merton was not at peace. On December 2th, a cold grey day, he tried to call “M” but couldn’t get through. Despite good intentions, he continued to contact her by phone whenever he left the monastery grounds. On January 18th, 1967 he wrote that “last week” he and two friends drank some beer under the loblollies at the lake and should not have gone to Bardstown from where he phoned Margie from a filling station. Although he was conscience stricken for this the next day, he wrote, “Both glad”. Author Robert Waldron declined to call it “an affair for it was true love” lasting about six months. “Evan after they had decided to separate, Merton continued to write about her in his journals, still dreamt about her, and still called her by phone, called her even when she was about to depart for Hawaii on her honeymoon.”
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, Waldron observed. Waldron adds: “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’.”
So I would suggest that it was Merton’s tragedy 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” (9).
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.”
Curiously, Merton saw the movie, War Nurse, four times in Cambridge and came away with a fascination for girls in nurses’ uniforms!
Merton was “a destroyed person” because of his failure to marry Margie, according to John Dear, in his study of Thomas Merton Peacemaker, in 1968, the “brutal year” of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the arrest of Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine, the police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon.
In the light of the astonishing failure of writers to examine seriously the suicide possibility, my conclusion, therefore, 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.
Fr Paul Quenon, who was in charge of recording Merton’s conferences at Gethsemini, has recalled that “when an audio tape arrived from Bangkok, it was with great anticipation that I put it onto the tape deck, eager to be one of the first ones to hear it at the monastery. What I heard at the end was utterly astonishing. At the point he finished the talk he then announced that there would be a break – and what I heard was ‘Meanwhile, I will just disappear.’ SNAP .... tick, tick and it went on for several minutes, with nothing further until silence. I knew how clumsy tape operators can be but the coincidence was nothing short of ominous. (9)
“The clumsiness of the tape ending seemed at one with the clumsiness of the whole death incident and was frustrating. With him something had been broken off that seemed like it should go on indefinitely. There was so much more to come from where so much had come already…”
Bamberger, once more, offers a revealing insight when he recalls being invited to join Merton at his newly constructed hermitage with a Hindu monk from India. “The discussion proceeded in a friendly climate that Merton was adept at creating. However, his contribution at times was too sympathetic and yielding, giving the impression he had no objections to certain Hindu beliefs that are clearly unacceptable to Catholic teaching.” After the Hindu monk left Bamberger chided Louis for giving a false impression about Catholic teaching. Merton replied: “Sometimes you have to go along with these guys.” This kind of accommodation did not seem honest to Bamberger or even productive in the end.
Prof Peter 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. He might have joined Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in protest at the loss of the Tridentine Mass.
Savastano is 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.
Lay Anglican theologian Noel Coghlan insists that Merton made a considerable contribution in the evolution of Christian spirituality at an important time of deep and profound turmoil. Adrian Hastings, in his History of English Christianity, 1920-1985, says Merton generated “a wider movement of Catholic enthusiasm” principally by writing “the most exciting and influential religious autobiography of its generation, perhaps of this century”. Charles R Morris, in American Catholic, The saints and sinners who built America’s most powerful church, said Merton “introduced a highly personalised form of Catholic spirituality”.
One amazing event took place in Mexico where a bishop consulted a Belgian Benedictine abbot on how to deal with the problem of clerical celibacy and had him psychoanalyse 50 monks, 30 of whom were judged to be misfits who were told to go back to the world. Had Merton been subject to psychoanalysis, would he have been classified as a misfit and not been allowed admission to Gethsemini?
However, the fact is that he was and his writings made Gethsemini wealthy. When attending the Centennial Conference at Bellarmine University, I was impressed by the range of specialist publications on and by Merton, but I intervened in a session to express my reservation that there was a danger of Merton studies becoming too monographic for the general public. It was not until I was in the maritime tranquillity of Rhode Island after the conference that I reviewed the Merton literature with journalist Linda Gasparello: Merton was the guru American Catholics were looking for in the 1960s. Only too aware of his weaknesses, Merton had sought refuge in Gethsemani to get away enough from temptation. His escape from the world ceased with his return to the world of celebrity touring. Perhaps in the run up to the fortieth anniversary of Merton’s death in 2018, the International Thomas Merton Society will commission a new official biography to update Mott. 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) firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Doctrine and Life
1. Merton linked the Algerian-born novelist Albert Camus, who died in a car accident in January 1961, in his imagination with the discovery of a dead rat in the city of Oran by Dr Rieux in The Plague to his finding a dead mouse in the hermitage
2. Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Houghton Miflin Company, Boston, 1984.
3. Brocard Sewell, The Vatican Oracle, Duckworth, London, 1970, p. 135.
4. Aengus Dunphy O.C.S.O., The Cistercians and Renewal, Doctrine and Life, January 1969, pp. 31-35. The Cistercians are governed by its general chapter - the assembly of the abbots of the order presided over by the abbot general, as a moderator who looks after the order’s business between general chapters. He is advised by a group of consultors.
5. Roger Lipsey, Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down, Shambhala, New York, 2015.
6. For the text see, Austin Flannery, O.P., Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, SR Scholarly Resources Inc, Wilmington, Delaware, 1975. pp. 611-623.
7. Mott, p. 259.
8. John Eudes Bamberger: Memories of a Brother Monk, 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. Foreword by Paul Pearson, Fons Vitae Center for Interfaith Relations, Louisville, 2015.
9. Merton’s affair is examined in Waldron, Robert, The Exquisite Risk of Love: The Chronicle of a Monastic Romance, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 2012; Shaw, Mark, Beneath The Mask of Holiness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; Moses John, Divine Discontent: The Prophetic Voice of Thomas Merton, Foreword by Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury, London, 2015.
10. Paul Quenon, The Last Audiotapes, in We are Already One. Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope, edited by Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo.
11. Paul Savastano, Thomas Merton Saved My Life And Opened My Heart, in We are Already One. Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope, edited by Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo.