Monday, January 31, 2011

where are you going?

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
Thomas Merton ( 31 january 1915-1968) monk, writer, photographer

today is the 96th anniversary of the birth of thomas merton. merton's life was extraordinary - and gives credence to the claim that we can never foresee how and where a life may go. merton was born in france and baptized in the anglican church. his father was a painter from new zealand and his mother was an american artist and quaker. a few months after merton was born, his family moved to the united states to flee the ravages of ww I. the family had hopes to return to france after the war, but when thomas was six years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and soon died. after the death of his mother, he traveled abroad with his father and was primarily educated in boarding schools in england and france. parental tragedy struck again when thomas was fifteen, his father became very ill with a brain tumor; by sixteen thomas was fully orphaned.

in the years that followed thomas pursued a literary career - he established himself as a writer and editor in high school and went on to university at columbia to further hone those skills and talents. his young adult lifestyle could be described as somewhat bohemian, fully agnostic, yet ever seeking. when he was in his twenties thomas had a mystical experience in which he sensed that he was being called to become a priest. this mystical opening led him to become a catholic and over the course of the next few years he entered the monastery of our lady of gethsemani of the order of cistercians of the strict observance (commonly known as trappists). the order is a contemplative religious order of monks and nuns. from gethsemani, merton wrote and published his best-selling autobiography the seven storey mountain, which over the decades has touched countless readers.

merton's writing gifts and his passionate devotion to prayer, mysticism and overcoming the social ills of racism, war, and poverty has made him a venerated figure to millions of people. in death as in life, merton is a fascinating character of contrast. he was a monk who treasured solitude yet because of his literary gifts and his voice promoting social justice he attracted intellectual luminaries, civil rights workers, and celebrities and the 'everyperson' to the gates of gethsemani. merton's spirituality burst through the boundaries of catholicism and he embraced the wisdom, prayer and teachings from all religious traditions.

in 1968, he took a giant step and went outside the boundaries of his cloistered life to take a journey to asia in order to learn more about buddhism. it was during this trip where his life ended prematurely and tragically in bangkok when he was only 53 years old.

if you are interested in learning more about thomas merton, a good place besides reading his wonderful autobiography is to start by visiting the thomas merton center in cyberspace.

I'll end this post with one of my favorite photographs - many years ago I copied, matted and framed this photograph at times it serves as a very calming meditative focal point. the photo comes from the book a hidden wholeness: the visual world of thomas merton (1979) by john howard griffin. unfortunately, best I can tell the book is no longer in print, but there are used copies available for sale by various vendors.

many may recognize the other monk in the photo, it is none other than the dalai lama, who was only 33 at the time but already the spiritual leader of the tibetan people and living in exile with many other monks and tibetans in northern india. this photograph was taken with merton's camera by the dalai lama's secretary.

photo: finding buddha in a west park coffee shop, cleveland

where are you going? from jimmie dale gilmore's album spinning around the sun


Gianni said...


Where do you find all this wonderful stuff? The Jimmy Dale Gilmore cut was fantastic!

Can't find his music anywhere, though. Can you help?

Watson said...

I remember well the day Tom Merton died. He was a big influence in my life. Thanks for remembering him.
Daisy's Barbara

37paddington said...

thank you for this prompt to go and learn more about merton. sadly, early tragedy often galvanizes a soul to seeking and often greatness follows. perhaps when one has faced the worst, one does not fear to risk oneself. fascinating post, dear mouse.

Alan Burnett said...

There is something very peaceful about the expressions on both faces in that photograph.

Lisa Ursu said...

"ever seeking"
thank you for this thoughtful post.

Betty said...

I'd heard of Thomas Merton, but didn't know about him. That was s. Will check out the link

Meri said...

I have read Merton but knew little about him. Thanks for this tribute and bio info.