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Merton’s passport photo as a student

     Born in France and educated in England, Thomas Merton entered Columbia University in 1935.  He joined a fraternity, lived in a rooming house at the edge of the campus, and partied enthusiastically.  Neither he nor his family were particularly religious.  

     Then one Sunday in August 1938, while he was a graduate student at Columbia, Thomas got up early and ventured into Mass at Corpus Christi. In September he knocked on the rectory door and asked for instruction. And on November 16, 1938, he was baptized into the Catholic Church.

the baptistry at Corpus Christi

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This portrait of Merton by James Nally
hangs in the parlor where Merton received instruction.

     He finished his master’s degree in English and taught at St. Bonaventure College in upstate New York.
But home was to be the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Merton lived as Father Louis for 27 years from 1941 until his death.  

     He wrote prodigiously, at first about strictly spiritual topics, then about peace and war, justice and
injustice. Eastern meditation, and Zen Buddhism in particular, came to interest him greatly. Eventually he lived as a hermit on the monastery grounds 

His autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain describes his spiritual journey.

     Merton returned to New York for a few days in 1964 to visit Daisetz Suzuki; while here, he returned to
Corpus Christi, where he said Mass privately each morning.

     In December 1968, while attending a conference of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians in Thailand, he
died in an electrical accident. Thomas Merton’s fame and influence have only grown since then.

 Merton's grave at the abbey
Merton’s grave at the abbey

Of Corpus Christi, Merton later wrote:

“The words, songs, ceremonies, signs, movements of worship are all designed to open the mind and heart of the participant to this experience of oneness in Christ.  One reason why I am a Catholic, a monk and a priest today is that I first went to Mass, and kept going to Mass, in a Church where these things were realized. . . . There was nothing new or revolutionary about it; only that everything was well done, not out of aestheticism or rubrical obsessiveness, but out of love for God and His truth.  It would certainly be ingratitude of me of I did not remember the atmosphere of joy, light, and at least relative openness and spontaneity that filled Corpus Christi at solemn High Mass.”

(Seasons of Celebration, p. 237)


Click here for a tour of Merton’s Corpus Christi by James Martin, s.j.:
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James Martin, S.J., America Magazine

Visit the Thomas Merton Society, New York City, Corpus Christi Chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society.