"I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you."
"There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world."
- Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton is a widely influential figure in modern Catholicism and Christianity as a whole. He was a Trappist monk, a popular author, a mystic, a social activist, and something of a Zen Buddhism enthusiast. Merton was born in France on January 31, 1915, and he died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, were he was attending a conference between monks of various world religions.
Merton's religious life began at the age of 23, when he converted to Catholicism after a Hindu monk suggested that he read some Catholic books. By this time, Merton had already earned a B.A in English. He then went on to became a teacher of English literature, but he eventually left this path when, in 1941, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. A few short months later, in March of 1942, Merton was accepted as a novice monk.
In 1947 he took his solemn vows, which meant that he was from that moment committed to the monastery. Merton, who had been an aspiring and promising writer prior to his vocational calling, continued to write after he began his life at the monastery. He was at first reluctant to do so, but the Abbot thankfully recognized his gift and encouraged him not to give it up.
Merton eventually went on to become a prolific and well-known author. He wrote over 70 books, as well as many essays. The main themes of most of Merton's books were prayer, contemplation, faith, spirituality, and social justice. Perhaps Merton's most popular work was his autobiography. Titled "The Seven Storey Mountain," it was released on 1948 and was so widely anticipated and well-received that pre-publication sales far exceeded the initial printing.
Though Merton was wholeheartedly committed to his Catholic faith, he was not afraid to explore and learn from other religious traditions. He was very interested in Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Jainism, but he had a particularly strong affinity for Zen Buddhism. He saw much in common in the language that was used by Catholic monastics and Zen Buddhist practitioners, particularly in regards to the practice of contemplation.
Merton used his experience and his broad spiritual understanding, cultivated from his openness to interfaith learning, to turn his attention and work to social activism for the last decade of his life. He began writing about pressing world issues and concerned himself with inequality, war, and racism. His inspirations writings and encouraging spiritual quotes still help countless people today find the motivation to make a positive impact on the world.
Thomas Merton's life is a perfect example of surrender to the loving guidance of God as expressed in Psalm 32:8: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you." He was willing to hand everything over to God and to follow where God led him, even if this was a radically different path from the one he was already on. All Christians, not just Catholics, could learn something from Merton about truly living in faith.