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.
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 in 1968.
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 early spiritual journey.
Merton returned to New York for a few days in 1964 to visit Daisetz Suzuki; while there, 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.
Of Corpus Christi, Merton later wrote:
Baptistry at Corpus Christi
Baptismal font where Thomas Merton was baptized.
Portrait of Merton by James Nally
Hangs in the parlor where Merton received instruction.