Fifty years ago next Monday, Thomas Merton was found dead in his room near Bangkok, where he had been the main speaker at an international monastic conference.
This most vocal critic of war was repatriated to the US on a military plane with the bodies of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. At the time, he was the best-known Catholic monk in the world and the news of his death at 53 was reported on the front page of the New York Times, beside that of the great German theologian, Karl Barth.
It was 27 years exactly to the day since he had entered, at age 27, the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky, and this was the first time he had been allowed to travel abroad since then. His Asian Journal, including his encounters with the Dalai Lama, was to be published posthumously.
In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (Elected Silence in the English edition), he relates his religious conversion was a best seller when it was published in 1948, translated into several languages and is still in print. Merton published more than 70 books, essays, poems and wrote thousands of letters. From his monastery and then his hermitage, he corresponded with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Boris Pasternak, DT Suzuki and countless others.
Through his writings on faith, silence, solitude, contemplation, mystical theology, interfaith dialogue and social justice, he had become a spiritual master for catholics and spiritual seekers throughout the world.
He was also a pastor to social activists and peacemakers like the Berrigan brothers and an influential voice against war and nuclear proliferation. This made him many enemies.
‘A man of dialogue’
When Pope Francis addressed the American Congress in 2015 he listed Thomas Merton as one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for today, besides Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King jnr 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. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.’’
Ironically, 10 years previously, when the first American catechism for adults was published, Thomas Merton was omitted as not being Catholic enough. His biography had been originally the opening profile story in the draft version but some critics argued that his investigation of Eastern religions toward the end of his life make him a poor role model for faithful catholics.
As a result, the chapter on prayer is the only one missing a biographical profile. However, the Anglican Communion which has included him among Holy Women and Men in its lectionary celebrates his feast on December 10th.
If Merton’s life and writings were controversial, it has not stopped there. There has been renewed controversy about the cause of his death. The widely accepted official story has been that it was an accident, that he was electrocuted by a faulty fan, while coming out of a shower.
However, the cause of death given by the Thai police was a heart attack, and there was no autopsy. The presence of a bleeding wound at the back of Merton’s head was not investigated. Was Thomas Merton murdered and was there a cover-up?
In 1997, Jim Douglass, a friend of Merton had already publicly raised the issue. In 2016, theologian Matthew Fox, who believes that Merton had been assassinated by one of the many CIA agents active in Thailand, reported that one of them had actually told him so.
In a paper presented this summer in Rome at the Thomas Merton Symposium, David Martin and Hugh Turley presented the findings of their book, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, which discloses photographic evidence and picks holes in the accidental electrocution story.
Only an exhumation of Thomas Merton’s body could settle the issue, but it is unlikely the Trappists at Gethsemani would give permission.
"The very thoughts of a person like me are crimes against the state. All I have to do is think, and immediately I become guilty," Merton had written in A Signed Confession of Crimes against the State, both in jest and deadly serious. Was the turbulent priest got rid of? His prophetic spirit lives on.
Soline Humbert is a Spiritual Guide and an advocate for Women’s Ordination