Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton "God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of himself."

Thomas Merton (1915–1968)
CC 1938 MA 1939

An essayist and poet, Thomas Merton was a cloistered monk who improbably became a leading literary and cultural figure in the 1950s and 1960s. He lived for many years at the Abbey of Gesthemani, a Trappist monastery in central Kentucky, where he was known as Father Louis. In 1944, he published Thirty Poems under his secular name, and was encouraged by Abbot Frederic Donne to write an autobiography. The resulting account of his awakening and conversion - The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948 - became a surprise bestseller, earning Merton widespread renown and inspiring many Americans to undertake spiritual retreats of their own. In the years that followed, Merton continued to keep and sometimes publish his personal journals and also wrote extensively on literature. He carried on a substantial correspondence with old friends, religious leaders, and leading writers, and in the 1960s turned outward to address the pressing issues of that era, including race relations, economic inequality, and the nuclear arms race. A growing interest in eastern mysticism prompted a trip to India, highlighted by a visit with the Dalai Lama. It was later in the same journey, at a religious gathering in Thailand, that Merton died by accidental electrocution.

The child of a New Zealander father and an American mother, Merton was raised largely in France and England. He began college at Cambridge, but was expelled after fathering an illegitimate child. Upon transferring to Columbia, he studied under Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, among others. "That Columbia should have in it men like" Van Doren, Merton wrote, who "really purified and educated the perceptions of their students by teaching them how to read a book and how to tell a good book from a bad, genuine writing from falsity and pastiche: all this gave me a deep respect for my new university." The University itself, he said, was "full of light and fresh air. There was a kind of genuine intellectual vitality." It was his studies in medieval philosophy at Columbia that spurred his interest in Catholicism; he converted in 1938 and entered the monastery in 1941. He is commemorated at the University by the annual Merton Lecture, in which the Columbia chaplaincy invites a prominent Catholic to speak


Editor Robert Giroux recounts how the book that introduced Merton to the world made it to print.


The legendary teacher was a mentor to Merton.


Bellarmine University houses Merton's papers and other materials as well as the International Thomas Merton Society.


The Thomas Merton Foundation seeks to promote Merton's vision "for a just and peaceful world."

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