The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

Thomas Merton's Life and Work

Photo by Sibylle AkersThomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at painting school in Paris, were married at St. Anne's Church, Soho, London and returned to the France where Thomas Merton was born on January 31st, 1915.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and on December 10th, 1941 he arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, near Bangkok, on December 10, 1968. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his arrival at Gethsemani.


Br. Patrick Hart, Merton's last secretary,
and Thomas Merton. Photo by Philip Stark. S.J.

1915 - January 31-born at Prades, France, son of Owen Merton (artist from New Zealand) and of Ruth Jenkins (artist from USA)

1916 - moved to USA, lived at Douglaston, L.I. (with his mother's family)

1921 - his mother dies-from cancer

1922 - in Bermuda with his father who went there to paint

1925 - to France with his father, lived at St. Antonin

1926 - entered Lycée Ingres, Montauban, France

1928 - to England-Ripley Court school, then to Oakham (1929)

1931 - his father dies of a brain tumor

1932 - at Oakham School he acquired a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge

1933 - visited Italy, spent summer in USA, entered Cambridge in the fall - study of modern languages (French and Italian)

1934 - left Cambridge and returned to USA

1935 - entered Columbia University

1937 - at Columbia - editor of the 1937 Yearbook and art editor of the Columbia Jester

1938 - graduated from Columbia, began work on M.A.

1938 - November 16 - received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church

1940 - 1941 - taught English at St. Bonaventure College

1941 - December 10 - arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky.

[Note: January 31, 1915 to December 10, 1941— nearly 27 years before entering monastery. Dies on December 10, 1968— the 27th anniversary of his arrival at Gethsemani.]

1944 - March 19 - made simple vows, published Thirty Poems

1946 - A Man in the Divided Sea

1947 - March 19 - solemn vows, published Exile Ends in Glory

1948 - Publication of best-seller autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain and What Are These Wounds?

1949 - May 26 - ordained priest; Seeds of Contemplation; The Tears of the Blind Lions; The Waters of Siloe

1951 - 1955 - Master of Scholastics (students for priesthood)

1951 - The Ascent to Truth

1953 - The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness

1954 - The Last of the Fathers

1955 - No Man Is an Island

1955 - 1965 - Master of Novices

1956 - The Living Bread

1957 - The Silent Life; The Strange Islands

1958 - Thoughts in Solitude

1959 - The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton; Selected Poems

1960 - Disputed Questions; The Wisdom of the Desert

1961 - The New Man; The Behavior of Titans; Life and Holiness; New Seeds of Contemplation

1963 - Emblems of a Season of Fury

1964 - Seeds of Destruction

1965 - Gandhi on Non-Violence; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Seasons of Celebration

1965 - 1968 - lived as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery

1966 - Raids on the Unspeakable; Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

1967 - Mystics and Zen Masters

1968 - Monks Pond; Cables to the Ace; Faith and Violence; Zen and the Birds of Appetite

1968 - December 10-died near Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at a meeting of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians.

Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Copyright the Meatyard Estate.

Photo of Thomas Merton by John Lyons.

Posthumous Publications:

1969 - My Argument with the Gestapo; Contemplative Prayer; The Geography of Lograire

1971 - Contemplation in a World of Action

1973 - The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton; He Is Risen

1976 - Ishi Means Man

1977 - The Monastic Journey; The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

1979 - Love and Living

1980 - The Non-Violent Alternative

1981 - The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton; Day of a Stranger Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton (reprinted in 1989 under title "Honorable Reader" Reflections on My Work)

1982 - Woods, Shore and Desert: A Notebook, May 1968

1985 - The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (Letters, 1)

1988 - A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965; Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals and Letters

1989 - The Road to Joy: Letter to New and Old Friends (Letters, II)

1990 - The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction (Letters, III)

1993 - The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers (Letters, IV)

1994 - Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis (Letters, V)

1995 - Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (Journals, I: 1939-1941)

1996 - Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer (Journals, II: 1941-1952); A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life (Journals, III: 1952-1960); Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Journals, IV: 1960-1963)

1997 -Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage (Journals, V: 1963- 1965); Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom (Journals VI: 1966-1967)

1998 -The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (Journals VII: 1967-1968)

1999 -The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals

2001 - Dialogues with Silence.

2003 - The Inner Experience. Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

2004 - Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

2005 - In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. Cassian and the Fathers.

2006 - The Cold War Letters. Pre-Benedictine Monasticism.

2008 - Introduction to Christian Mysticism. A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection.

2009 - The Rule of St. Benedict. Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine De Hueck Doherty.

2010 - Monastic Observances.

2012 - The Life of the Vows.

2013 - Selected Essays. In the Valley of Wormwood: Cistercian Blessed and Saints of the Golden Age.

2014 - The Letters of Thomas Merton and Victor and Carolyn Hammer: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

2015 - Early Essays: 1947-1952. Charter, Customs and Constitutions of the Cistercians. The Letters of Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton.

2016 - The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology.

2018 - Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers.

2019 - Medieval Cistercian History.

2020 - Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton. A Monastic Introduction to Sacred Scripture.

2021 - Notes on Genesis and Exodus.


Marquita E. Breit and Robert E. Daggy, Thomas Merton: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Garland, 1986)
Marquita E. Breit, Patricia A. Burton and Paul M. Pearson, ‘About Merton’: Secondary Sources 1945-2000:
A Bibliographic Workbook

Patricia A. Burton. More Than Silence: A Bibliography of Thomas Merton (Scarecrow Press, 2008)