Thomas Merton

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Just as President Obama this week appealed for a better relationship between the U.S. and Islam, so too did the much admired Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who died in 1968. He spent much of his last year working for better relations among all faiths. We revisit today our story on Merton. Judy Valente reported from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

JUDY VALENTE: Sunrise at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the misty hills south of Louisville, Kentucky. The 55 Trappist monks who live here awake at 3 a.m. to begin their daily regimen of prayer and work—in silence. They gather for communal prayer several times a day. They will rarely venture outside the walls. For most, their lives will end here.

The monks support the abbey by making fruitcakes and other products which are sold to the public. Much of the monastery’s 2,300 acres is leased to local farmers.

Brother PAUL QUENON (Abbey of Gethsemani): The essence of the Trappist life would be living in God. And I don’t think I would want to say much more than that. And of course, you’re living in God with other people in the same community. And it’s a life of continual prayer. And it’s a life of deepening—going deeper into your own capacity to love and to live with God.

A young Thomas Merton

VALENTE: In 1941 Merton, then an aspiring young writer—and a recent convert to Catholicism—arrived here seeking to radically change his life. Merton was to have a striking message.

MORGAN ATKINSON (Documentary Producer): He said that anybody could have a deeply spiritual life it they care to. Any person on the street, if they were committed to it and devoted to trying it, then that path was open to them.

VALENTE: For Merton, the “deeply spiritual life” meant the “experience” of God’s presence and love at all times, combining that with action in everyday life.

Paul Pearson oversees the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

Dr. PAUL PEARSON (Director and Archivist, The Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University): The essence of Merton’s spirituality is, I think the humanity of it, that he really speaks to ordinary people. He knows so well the great classics of Christian spirituality, but he can interpret them in a way that people in our world today can understand and can relate to.

VALENTE: He spoke especially to lay Catholics in what was then a firmly hierarchical church.

Dr. Paul Pearson

Dr. PEARSON: Spirituality really belonged to the monks and nuns and bishops and what have you. Whereas, you know, your ordinary lay person went to Mass on Sundays. The mass was in Latin. They said the rosary and that was the extent of it. And Merton, I think, really opened up that whole realm of contemplation and spirituality for people.

VALENTE: Merton’s parents had died when he was young. By his own account, he lived a rootless, hedonistic life. It was rumored he had fathered a child out of wedlock while a student at the University of Cambridge. At New York’s Columbia University, he continued to feel morally adrift, emotionally bereft. As a world-weary 26-year-old, Merton wrote these words, read by Morgan Atkinson.

Mr. ATKINSON (reading from Merton’s journal): Finally has come the time to go the Trappists and try to get in. And be completely quiet in front of the face of peace. It is time to stop being sick and really get well. Out here I could think and yet I could not get to any conclusions. But there was one thought running around and around in my mind: to be a monk—to be a monk!

VALENTE: Thomas Merton not only became a monk. He would become a best-selling author and one of the most influential spiritual thinkers of his time. A fellow writer called him “an investigative reporter going into the inner workings of the soul.”

Brother Paul Quenon

As a novice at Gethsemani, Brother Paul Quenon received spiritual direction from Merton, known as Father Louis.

Brother QUENON: He doesn’t think of the whole world as, you know, monks. But on the other hand, he can talk to the monk in each person. He sees it as a deep enough thing that somehow everybody has the capacity to come to the same kind of intensity and depth of experience of God.

Dr. PEARSON: Now this exhibit is all of Merton’s published work with their varying editions and foreign translations. Merton’s now been translated into, I think it’s 30 languages.

VALENTE: In 1948, when he was 33 years old, Merton published his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” taking his title from a scene in Dante’s “Purgatory.” The book became an overnight bestseller. Sister Suzanne Zuercher is a Benedictine nun who has written extensively about Merton.

Sister SUZANNE ZUERCHER (O.S.B): I knew that I needed to be in monastic life. I knew he was someone who spoke to me as no one had ever spoken to me. He’s funny, he’s profound, he’s human, he’s down to earth, he’s practical, he’s concrete.


MIKE BRENNAN (Baggage Handler, American Airlines): This is the one book we just finished reading …

VALENTE: Mike Brennan is a baggage handler for American Airlines in Chicago. His home is full of Merton books and memorabilia.

Mr. BRENNAN: Working at O’Hare Airport—noisy, crazy, constant activity, constant stimulation—it’s really nice to find a way to let go of all that stimulus and activity and think of being connected with the Lord. And I learned that from Merton.

VALENTE: Merton’s fame allowed him to correspond with presidents, popes and Nobel Prize winners. But as his public reputation grew, he retreated further into solitude and silence. He would spend a few hours a day in this small wooden shed, writing and meditating. But it wasn’t enough.

Brother QUENON: He wanted to have more time for writing, for meditation.

VALENTE: He would later get permission from his abbot to live—as a hermit—in this tiny cottage about a half mile from the monastery.

Brother QUENON: He loved being in the midst of nature, you know. The birds were his friends.

VALENTE: What do you think he did out here?

Brother QUENON: Well, read a lot and wrote. For him, praying was just to abide in the presence—the presence of the Lord.

(touring cottage): There’s the kitchen and then a bedroom. And then, a chapel was added later on.

VALENTE: Merton wrote this in his journal:

Mr. ATKINSON (reading from Merton’s journal): For myself I have only one desire and that is the desire for solitude: to disappear into God; to be submerged in His peace; to be lost in the secret of His space. I have gone to the hermitage not because I hate the world. I go to the hermitage to deepen my consciousness, to be more in communion with the world.

VALENTE: His output was enormous. Over a 20-year period he would write 60 books on topics ranging from contemplative prayer to non-violence. He also wrote poetry, essays and criticism.

In the 1960s, Merton became increasingly controversial. He began writing on issues of the day, like civil rights, materialism and the nuclear arms race. His superiors blocked the publication of some of his most strident anti-war writings.

Dr. PEARSON: As he changed from the world-denying monk to the world embracing monk of the ‘60s, you know, people began to think, “Why should he be writing on these issues. He’s away in a monastery. What does he know about them?’”

VALENTE: In 1966, Merton spent several weeks in a Louisville hospital, recovering from back surgery. There he met and fell in love with a young student nurse. He was 51 years old at the time.

Sister ZUERCHER: It was very brief. It was very intense. It was very passionate. He sometimes felt he had abandoned his vows. And at other times, he felt he was living the vows of growth and fulfillment.

VALENTE: The two would sometimes meet clandestinely in secluded parts of the monastery grounds. Within a matter of months, the relationship was over. But Merton had been changed.

Sister Suzanne Zuercher

Sr. SUZANNE: From that time on, he never again thought of himself as being unloved or unlovable. And he himself learned to love in this relationship and that was the part of himself that he always felt had been under-developed.

VALENTE: Merton re-dedicated himself to his monastic life. He became increasingly interested in Buddhism and Asian monasticism. In 1968, he received permission to attend a conference on monasticism in Bangkok. There is rare footage of Merton from that conference.

THOMAS MERTON (in video from 1968 conference): That’s a thing of the past now, to be suspicious of other religions, and to look always at what is weakest in other religions and what is highest in our own religion. This double standard in dealing with religions—this has to stop.

VALENTE: Hours after this film was made, Merton was dead—electrocuted after touching a fan with faulty wiring in his hotel room. He was 53.

His reputation has only grown since his death. Working with manuscripts he left behind, scholars have published 60 more of his books, including seven volumes of his personal journals. But, as a monk, Merton left behind few personal possessions: his work shirt; a cup; boots; eyeglasses.

Dr. PEARSON: With the death of Thomas Merton, we lost really one of the great Catholic voices, one of the great prophetic figures within the Catholic Church. And I think that’s why his books are still selling, why they’re still being translated because that message is as relevant today as when he wrote it.

VALENTE: Toward the end of his life Merton wrote, “Our real journey is interior.” For those seeking to take that journey, he remains an essential guide.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

ABERNETHY: An hour-long documentary, “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton,” will be shown on many PBS stations next month.

  • ANNA

    Thank you for this portrayal of one of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton. I read the Seven Story Mountain years ago and have recommended it to many others. He was indeed ahead of his time re necessary changes in our Church.
    Anna Seidler…

  • Carlos Frias

    Thanks. Excellent, the best email I have ever received in my life. It moved me nearly to tears because it is exactly my current life. I have always believed that deep spiritual life is very easy because God is more interested than we ourselves in our own holiness and even died for this. In one way or the other He is in us. Otherwise we return to nothing. I wish more people believe in this

  • Matt

    It was worth to be up at 6 am on Saturday to see this.

  • Julie Leininger Pycior

    Good piece — thanks! Only tweak: that Merton didn’t just carouse at Columbia. In fact he was a star student of the legendary literary critic Mark Van Doren, who became a lifelong friend of Merton’s, as did such fellow students as artist Ad Reihhardt, poet Robert Lax, and publisher Robert Giroux.

  • Elizabeth Rogers

    .Thank you for opening up this wonderful man’s life to your viewers. Very well done.

  • john b. giuliani

    as brilliant as any documentary on this spiritual giant. The very best! Thank you for a lasting memorial to Merton whose influence will grow beyond reckoning.

  • Denise

    Thank you for putting this piece together. Merton’s writings have touched my life in a way that I’m sure has helped me to grow and mature. I wish the same for others.

  • Koracutie

    On your show, religion and ethics, you alluded to the fact that Thomas Merton might have fathered a child. Has this ever been verified? If there is a man out there who would know for sure?

  • PaulSlocumb

    Immersion in the Trappist life via Thomas Merton’s journals was an important part of a Divine Conspiracy which allowed me to (to paraphrase Eliot) “meet Jesus again for the very first time.”

  • Joe Calipari

    I find a stay over at one of the Trappist Monasteries to be very spiritual enriching and sense some of the depth Thomas Merton experienced during the visits.

  • rc youngs

    Since the time of Augustine of Hippo the Church has wrestled with sexual transgression of their clergy. Is there more information available about the child Thomas Merton fathered when he was 20 and what revelations and insights did the student nurse achieve with Merton when Merton was in his early 50’s. ( A May to December relationship?)

  • Michael Miller

    I am 63 years old. When I was about 13, I read Thomas Merton’s book The Silent Life. Since then I have been interested in monastic spirituality. Today I am an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in the Big Sur, California. At one time Merton wanted to join the Camaldolese. I have much to thank Merton for.

  • Margaret

    I was in 9th grade when I first read Merton, back in 1960. He changed my life, giving me answers to questions that I hadn’t even realized that I was asking. The call to silence and solitude is a beautiful one.

  • Joseph Gentilini

    I’ve been interested in contemplative spirituality since reading Merton in high school in the early 60s. Merton introduced me to the Abbey through his writing and I’ve been going there since 1971. I try to live a contemplative “vocation” in the world and “listen” to God within me and in the world.

  • Donald “Don” L. Brown

    I have been a long time fan of Religion & Ethics presented on PBS, but this is only the second time I have found you on the computer. Keep up the good work. You make me think. Thank you.

  • janet

    Excellent piece! Thank You

  • mary hamill

    there was a black minister who was removed from his church. he was
    preaching the new edge christianity. i can’t remember his name. he was
    the centre of a programme, very good, what is his name?

  • Sheldon MacKenzie

    I began my journey with Thomas Merton by reading THE Hermitage Journals by Griffin. This book led me to Merton’s distinctive writings from which I have learned and experienced more than I am able to express.

  • Luciano P. Galman

    Your manner of presentation on Merton boosts my quest for deeply human issues being addressed by this authentic human being whose universal appeal is yet to be seen.

  • Michael

    Shouldn’t you point out that this is a rebroadcast? Still, high quality work.

  • Jimmy

    Beautiful encapsulation of this profound man– he was a living example of the struggle we all go through when we are honest with ourselves.

  • Robert Keen

    As for so many others, Merton has been and remains an inspiration;one of the those leading me from business management into academic life at Cambridge to research and write on issues of social justice – most notably on the role of the virtues in modern leadership – from the perspective of Catholic social teaching

  • Frank Burgmeier

    Merton, if he had lived today would have been the poster boy for eliminating celibacy from the priesthood. He was a foreward thinker, whose insights would be consider revolutionary by the fundamentalists of our present day.

    He constantly lived Christ’s words: “That the Kingdom of God Lies Within”. Jesus never referred us to any book or other authority.

    Merton expresses this beautifully along with our need for others and a close relationship with nature.

    Frank B.

  • Stephen Murray, M.D.

    27 years ago, when I was R.C., I never, ever had heard the clergy (or the sisters) even speak the name of Fr. Thomas Merton, and of course this was years post-Vatican-II: I was 31. But miraculously, I discovered his book, “The Seven Story Mountain.” Rather than lead me into the new, post-Vatican II protestantised roman catholic heretical thing it had become, I carefully dissected between the lines in this superb book. I was lead to Eastern Orthodoxy, this despite the Fr. Merton’s hidden agenda promoting post-Vatican II’s egregious and appalling twisted Liturgy, theology, and rubrics which bordered upon “liberation theology.” Thank you, Fr. Merton, and You, the Holy Spirit for leading me to the true, unchanged and unchangeable ancient true church, The Eastern Orthodox Church. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was, unbeknownst to Fr. Merton, his wise and All-Holy editor/proof-reader. Kyrie eleison, Gospodi pomiluji. And to the all-glorious, ever Virgin Mary, Theotokos, who decidely played a role in my salvation. She reigns higher then the Seraphin and more glorious than the Cherubim: “true Theotokos, we magnify thee.”

    Stephen T. Murray, M.D., DABFM, FAAFP

  • Gene Clough

    What a little jewel this essay on Merton is. Judy Valente and Morgan Atkinson have responded well to the challenge of presenting Thomas Merton to the world. I am sure those who know Merton, indeed Merton himself, take immense satisfaction in viewing this film. If I were to offer a criticism, a constructive criticsm, I would ask if it would not have been worthwhile to highlight the epiphany at 4th Avenue and Walnut Street, downtown Louisville, Ky., as the turning point in Merton’s spiritual life — and not, perhaps, as much his relationship with the Louisville nursing student. The real joy, the profound joy, is to read Merton, to learn of his spiritual journey and to adopt and adapt his understanding to our own lives. The real Merton can only be alluded to in this wonderful, little cinematic biop. Merton, the beautiful spiritualist and teacher, is to be discovered in his books and essays where his prophetic life and learning can be savored and incorporated into one’s own life journey as the great gift and spiriual treasure that it is.

  • Michael Scott

    Thank-you for this work. For me it encourages me to see how a stronger bond to God is possible or maybe it’s simply the realization it has always been present and now I am awakening to it.

  • Walter Bonam

    Over thirty years ago, through my encounters with his books “The Seven-Storey Mountain” and then “New Seeds of Contemplation,” Thomas Merton was the “lasso” that God used to bring me back into the active practice of the Catholic faith into which I’d been baptized as an infant twenty-four years earlier, and from which I had drifted during my just-completed college years. In the years since, it seems that whenever my spiritual life is flagging, reading something by Merton and/or visiting a Trappist monastery helps to revive it. That initial exposure to Merton helped propel me into six years in a Catholic seminary, and although I ultimately got married rather than ordained, in my life today as a full-time employee of the Church at the diocesan level he remains a touchstone for my efforts in the realm of social justice and in my attempt to live contemplatively in the midst of a noisy world. Your piece on him was very good, although I echo the sentiments of the respondent who noted that it might’ve been more appropriate to focus on his “4th & Walnut epiphany” rather than putting so much emphasis on his romantic interlude with the student nurse as a turning point.

  • Alouette Ch

    quel Personnage important ans vieillesse; j’avais commencé à lire un de ses livres et j’en suis encore à refléchir à ces quelques pages ; c’est un penseur et un Moine hors du commun . Je l’ai découvert très tard mais quelle récompense et que chemin vers Dieu!
    Merci de nous donner à découvrir de telles personnalités qui mettent Dieu à sa Vraie place

  • Willis Schwichtenberg

    The Seven Storey Mountain is an excellent book. It is very simple in most places but often has profound comments about sin, grace, life and death. Though I am not a Roman Catholic I grew in my own faith walk by reading this book. It takes time to get through this lengthy book but every page and every minute is worth it. –Pastor Willis Schwichtenberg (Isaiah 41:10)

  • Steven

    What a lovely presentation. Our journeys are always inward; they are so strenuous. But what a joy they are as we get closer to our destination.

  • Randy De Trinis

    Check out this website on Thomas Merton:

  • jerry cookson

    I used to admire Catholic monks in general and Thomas Merton in particular. I was shocked to read that Merton died in Asia and more shocked that he was trying to mix Catholicism with Buddhism. Upon further investigation I have serious reason to believe the Jesus was his Savior and Lord. If he ever professed faith in The crucified and risen Savior I would like to read what he had to say. He strikes me as nothing more that a Liberal social activist..I hope he repented and came to the Cross of Jesus before he died.

  • Theresa Fleming

    How incredibly sad that PBS managed to write this entire article and not mention Jesus once!

    Jesus is our Lord and Savior, and He loves us with a love so compelling and so complete that millions have followed Him and millions more will continue to do so-right into Heaven. For it is only through faith in Christ, that we are forgiven, redeemed and brought Home. And whether we accept Christ, or reject Him, will never change the truth that is written in God’s Word.

    May God Bless you all, each and every one,