Sunday, December 10, 2006

the death of Thomas Merton

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able to strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts; now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?” (The Wisdom of the Desert)

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…

“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.”
… that he began his life as a Trappist monk.

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]


  1. Well done Beth. Thanks for sharing. I definitely learned a few things I didn't know. You used one of my favorite quotes from Merton about Gethsemani too. :-)


  2. Nice work with the site and all, Tom has had such an impact on my life that it would be hard to put it into words. It has led me on a journey I never could have imagined from when I first read "The Seven Storey Mountain" to today! Christmas week we will be in Chicago to spoil the grandkids and there is an exhibit of Merton's Zen photography at Loyola University...looking forward to seeing it.

    Grace & Peace,
    John (Monkboy)

  3. thanks, Bryan. Your honesty and straight-forwardness is humbling for me.

    John, I would LOVE to see that Zen photography exhibit. Let me know about it. I used to live in Chicago near Loyola University, and really appreciate the Jesuits.

  4. Which Merton book would you recommend to start with?

  5. I'm not sure, cubeland mystic, it really depends on what type of person that you are.

    Most people new to Merton like to start at the beginning, with "Seven Story Mountain", or possibly the first journal, "Run to the Mountain".

    If you are already grounded in contemplative prayer (and maybe "older") you might want to start with some of Merton's later writings. I love CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER.

    Once you get a feel for Merton, you can easily move among his various writings - RAIDS ON THE UNSPEAKABLE, FAITH AN VIOLENCE, PEACE IN A POST-CHRISTIAN ERA, CONTEMPLATIVE etc, and you will always deepen your own sense of truth and faith.

    Some people like to listen to the lectures that Merton gave to the novices when he was novice-master. They are available on CD now.

  6. do you know where to get the cd's from?

  7. try the Bardstown Art Gallery:

    or write to Jim or Jeannette Cantrell:

  8. Beth

    You are so kind thank you very much.

  9. I have a little pocket book here, "Thoughts in Solitude" - I think that if I had to give one book to someone who was not familiar with Merton, this would be the one.

  10. Thanks again. I will add it to my wishlist.

  11. "the door was forced open" By whom? Was there an autopsy? Whose decision was it to return Merton's body by USAF plane?

    Was there someone in the room with Merton before he died?

    1. There was no autopsy, so the bleeding wound in the back of his head remained unexplained. Fr. Celestine Say from the Philippines was in much closer proximity to Merton than de Grunne, essentially in the same room with Merton partitioned by a screen for privacy, and he heard nothing. De Grunne was upstairs and has told contradictory stories about what he heard and when he heard it.

  12. If you have not watched Father give the portion of his talk that he was ostensibly allowed to deliver while it was being recorded in Thailand on video almost immediately before his death, you will have no clue. Freedom! Work! Worship! Love! Hope! Faith!

  13. According to an article written by Anthony E. Clark for THIS ROCK MAGAZINE ( Can you Trust Thomas Merton?) there are two periods in Merton's life and writings:THE EARLY PERIOD, which represent the early era of his monastic life when his views were still quite orthodox. According to Clark these books are "beautifully written and made Merton, Merton. Then there is the LATER PERIOD: This is when TM slips into the East and the line between Christianity and
    Eastern religious traditions becomes blurred. CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER is a prime example where his works become more
    problematic and highly political. Merton's attitude from here on gives the notion that Eastern religion is a necessary supplement to Catholicism. His writing continues to be a thing of beauty but without the clear teaching of the Church his earlier works expressed.
    Thus, while never condemned by the Church, one should be cautious when approaching his later works. For me Merton's quest was always for answers to the great mystery of life without facing the ever the ultimate Truth that in this life we live the mysteries through faith, trust and above all, obedience. Our limited and fractured minds tell us that now it is all we can expect...we see only now through a glass darkly and it is only when we reach the end of the narrow path Jesus leads us on that we will have full answers. Until then we must yield gracefully to Jesus' words to "Follow him..." in
    obedience, as He did all the way to the Cross. Merton (as do so many of us) never fully developed that sense of humility allowing him to do this. If we do not yield to this truth, we wander off the path of Truth into the labyrinth of uncertainty which Merton seemed to be on at the time of his final writings and death.
    Having said this, there is no doubt in my mind that Merton has in
    his earlier works led many to the Truth.

  14. I think that both Paul and John reached out to the trend-setting (in their time) Greeks in a language they could better understand (i.e. logos) given their general lack of familiarity with the Hebrew God and His Tanakh with emphasis on prophecy and the concept of the Messiah. That Father Merton was trying to speak to their frame of reference in honoring the Great Commission would only come as a surprise if otherwise. That he was murdered by Marxists given his influence with those Westerners - especially educators and media players who were fellow travelers with such as Mao - just reinforces the need for greater care of and for those precious people who delude themselves that freedom and life are universally honored and celebrated concepts. Vaya von Dios Father Merton. And thank you again and again for sharing your boundless thoughtful courage with the rest of us for so long. Love!

  15. His death from a defective electrical fan is suspicious. If the metal frame of the fan is hot, being charged to the line voltage, which I suspect is 220vac over there, you could touch it all day, as long as no other part of your body is grounded or close to ground potential. Got the feeling not much of an investigation was done.

  16. I had a brief chat with Merton on an Easter retreat in 1968 when I was 19 .... all I had read of his was The Seven Storey Mountain and parts of the Sign of Jonas and The Silent Life .... I had to break bounds to find the hermitage but he was gracious enough to talk with me ... that short talk has bothered me for all the intervening years ... I wasn't at all aware of his political activism and not sure how to ask what I wanted to know about the silent life so I probably came across as somewhat tongue tied ... I think he concluded that I was a kid on an adventure particularly when I told him about breaking bounds, he was cordial and humorous but I have since regretted my inability to reach him some way

  17. Beth, be truthful. Don't add mysticism and symbolism to his last words. His last words were nothing special, just acknowledging his speech is over and adding a friendly invitation, clearly suggesting he does not intend to die that day:
    " I will disappear from view, and we can all have a Coke or something".
    Video recording of the speech:

    If I sound agressive, it wasn't my intention, sorry. I hope you will post my comment.

  18. Merton's "Seeds of Contemplation" has been a companion on my journey most of my adult life. Whenever I returned to it, it reminded me of the purpose of having been created. With Gratitude and Appreciation for his life and ministry.

  19. It sounds to me like you can chalk this one up with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy among the 1968 assassinations of prominent Vietnam War opponents. I certainly don't see any evidence here that rules it out and quite a bit that suggests it.


    1. Very interesting, David. I've long suspected this. Why are you not able to reproduce the photos of Merton just after his death? Or at least an artist's rendering of them?

    2. We had a professional artist sketch pencil drawings of the photographs of Merton's body exactly as it was found undisturbed. Since the Abbey of Gethsemani owns the photographs that were given to them by Fr. Say as a gift we requested permission to publish the drawings. Abbot Dietz said, "No" and added that anyone who wanted to see the images would have to visit the Columbia University library in NYC where we found them. We have since sent them to The Merton Center at Bellarmine University so people should be able to see them there too.

    3. If you send them to me, I will publish them here.


From Dorothy Day’s editorial in the Catholic Worker on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.