The centenary of Merton’s birth

Thomas Merton

ON THE LAST DAY OF JANUARY 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the border of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

Many online appreciations for Thomas Merton, on the centenary of his birth, start with the above quote. It’s the opening to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s landmark spiritual autobiography.

One of my favorite Merton books is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which is an edited version of his journals. Conjectures contains Merton’s famous Louisville sidewalk revelation entry. But I want to post another quote here, a different but still very personal, reflective quote about his life. Merton rarely mentioned his family in his writing. His parents died when Merton was young and his only sibling, a brother, John Paul, was killed in action during World War II. Here is Merton nearly two decades later, all of which was spent living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:

The flow of events: our youngest postulant, from Canada, is busy today with a wrecking bar, smashing up the partitions of the room in the old guesthouse, on the third floor, where, twenty years ago, I first came on retreat, that silent, moonlit night at the end of Lent. I remember the spiritual awe of that night! And now, in the clear light of a summer day, the plaster crashes to the floor and sunlit clouds of dust float out the window where I wrote that poem about the abbey and Matins. This kid was not even born then. He is the son of an airman who married an English girl, as my brother did, during the war. He was born in the Blitz, in England. And now he is tearing down that room and my own history – a fact which I gladly accept, but with this sense of loss nevertheless!

Eighteen years since the three survivors in John Paul’s crew dropped his body off the lifeboat into the North Sea. His back was broken when the plane hit the surface.

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