On December 10th, 1941, after a long journey by train and bus from Olean, New York, Thomas Merton arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was formally accepted as a postulant 3 days later.
Merton had spent the previous year discerning his vocation, tossing between working and living with the poor in Harlem, and becoming a Trappist monk. On a visit to Gethsemani in April of that year, he had been enthralled:
“I should tear out all the other pages of this book and all the other pages of everything else I ever wrote, and begin here.
“This is the center of America. I had wondered what was holding this country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is this monastery if only this one. (There must be two or three
“This is the only real city in America – in a desert.
“It is the axle around which the whole country blindly turns.” (p.333 “Run To The Mountain)
Finally, it was the conviction that Gethsemani was asking more of him …
“And Harlem will be full of confusions – and I don’t particularly like the idea of working with a lot of girls…… that he began his life as a Trappist monk.
“Going to Harlem doesn’t seem like anything special – it is good, and is a reasonable way to follow Christ: but going to the Trappists is exciting and fills me with awe, and desire: and I return to the idea “Give up everything – everything!” and that means something.”
Twenty seven years later, on the same day that he had arrived at the monastery - December 10th, 1968 - Merton died in Asia.
On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Merton made his last journal entry, and said Mass at St. Louis Church in Bangkok. Merton had been invited to the Bangkok conference of Benedictine and Trappist Abbots. He left for Samutprakarn, 29 miles south of Bangkok, for the Sawant Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center, arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two.
On the 2nd day of the conference (December 10th), Merton presented his paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspective”. The paper had been on his mind for many weeks, and he was somewhat nervous by a Dutch television crew that had turned up to film his lecture. (His abbot had ordered him to avoid the press.)
Merton’s paper dealt with the role of the monk in a world of revolution …
“to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.”
Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until evening, and concluded with the words:
“So I will disappear.”
He suggested everyone have a coke.
At around 3 PM Father Francois de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door, but there was no response. At 4PM, Father de Grunne, worried that something was wrong, looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. The door was forced open.
There was the smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. The fan was still electrically volatile.
A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of his head. [see footnote]
The priests gave Merton absolution and extreme unction.
Merton’s body was dressed and laid out, and the abbots attending the conference maintained a constant vigil for him.
“In death Father Louis’ face was set in a great and deep peace, and it was obvious that he had found Him Whom he had searched for so diligently.” (Letter from the abbots attending the Bangkok to the Abbot of Gethsemani)
The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam.
An official declaration of Merton’s belongings came with his body and read:
1 Timex watch, $10.
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise frames, nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary, nil
1 Rosary (broken), nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child, nil
At the end of the funeral Mass at Gethsemani, there was a reading from The Seven Story Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence,
“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church.
[Details of the circumstances surrounding Merton’s death are drawn from Jim Forest’s book, “Living With Wisdom” and Michael Mott's biography of Thomas Merton]