Authors: Thomas Merton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American theologian and poet

Identity: Christian

Author Works


Cistercian Contemplatives, 1948

The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948

What Is Contemplation?, 1948

Exile Ends in Glory, 1948

The Waters of Siloe, 1949

Seeds of Contemplation, 1949

What Are These Wounds?, 1950

Seasons of Celebration, 1950

The Ascent to Truth, 1951

A Balanced Life of Prayer, 1951

The Sign of Jonas, 1953

No Man Is an Island, 1955

The Living Bread, 1956

The Silent Life, 1957

Silence in Heaven, 1957

Thoughts in Solitude, 1958

The Secular Journal, 1959

Disputed Questions, 1960

New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961

The Behavior of Titans, 1961

The New Man, 1962

Life and Holiness, 1963

Raids on the Unspeakable, 1964

The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1965

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966

Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968

Faith and Violence, 1968

Contemplative Prayer, 1969

The Climate of Monastic Prayer, 1969

Opening the Bible, 1970

Contemplation in a World of Action, 1971

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973

The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, 1981

When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax, 2001

Long Fiction:

My Argument with the Gestapo, 1969


Thirty Poems, 1944

A Man in the Divided Sea, 1946

Figures for an Apocalypse, 1947

The Tears of the Blind Lions, 1949

The Strange Islands, 1957

Selected Poems, 1959, 1967

Original Child Bomb, 1962

Emblems of a Season of Fury, 1963

Cables to the Ace, 1968

The Geography of Lograire, 1969

The Collected Poems, 1977


The Wisdom of the Desert, 1960 (of the church fathers)

Clement of Alexandria, 1962 (of the church fathers)


The Merton Reader, 1962

A Hidden Wholeness, 1970 (photographs and calligraphy)

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, 2000


Thomas Merton is not only the United States’ most famous monk but also one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in France, the son of Owen Merton, an itinerant painter, and his American wife, Ruth Jenkins. Merton had a difficult youth in which he was shuffled from one place to another–the United States, where his mother died of cancer, the south of France, and eventually England, where he received a secondary education. In 1933 he entered the University of Cambridge. During these years Merton became less inhibited and began to revel in films, girls, and harmless pranks. Yet he remained restive and oftentimes unhappy. The untimely death of his father from a brain tumor, in addition to fathering a child out of wedlock, may have contributed to his decision in 1934 to settle permanently in the United States. In 1935 Merton enrolled at Columbia University with a major in English and very quickly became absorbed in the world of student activities, though he continued to suffer from bouts of depression and various physical problems. After obtaining his B.A. in 1938 Merton entered graduate school and taught briefly at Columbia University and St. Bonaventure’s University. Along the way Merton wrote several novels, but only one of these, My Argument with the Gestapo, survived. Although largely fictional, it is filled with people and moments from his difficult, transient youth.{$I[AN]9810000947}{$I[A]Merton, Thomas}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Merton, Thomas}{$I[geo]CHRISTIAN;Merton, Thomas}{$I[tim]1915;Merton, Thomas}

Thomas Merton

(Library of Congress)

A major turning point occurred in Merton’s life in 1938 when he came to believe that the void in his life could be filled by joining a religious order. He converted to Roman Catholicism and, although his first attempt failed, in 1941 became a Trappist monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton proved to be a good monk, though he never lost interest in writing and the affairs of the world. From 1946 until his death Merton wrote and published a prodigious number of books and articles. His magnum opus, which made him an international sensation, was his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In language that appealed to Catholics and Protestants alike, Merton chronicled his spiritual odyssey from birth to Gethsemani through a changing, very difficult world. Merton had also kept a journal, eventually published as The Sign of Jonas, which describes five years of his life as a Trappist monk, working, praying, and studying.

As his literary notoriety grew, so did the conflicts with monasticism. Merton was inundated with letters and besieged by friends, the press, and curiosity seekers. His superiors were not always pleased with this popularity and tried to channel his literary energies in the direction of more spiritual works. In this vein, Merton published The Waters of Siloe, a history of the Trappist Order, and a number of works such as Seeds of Contemplation, No Man Is an Island, and The Ascent to Truth, which are concerned with various aspects of monastic and religious life. As the demands upon his time grew, so did Merton’s need for greater solitude. He was eventually granted permission to live in a hermitage about a mile from the monastery. Merton remained very interested in the world and its problems, however, especially in the threat of war, racial discrimination, and the search for common ground with religions of the East. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Contemplation in a World of Action, and Mystics and Zen Masters are representative of his concerns in the 1960’s. On December 10, 1968, Merton died while attending a conference on monasticism in Bangkok, Thailand, apparently from being electrocuted by a faulty electric fan.

Merton’s impact as a writer, even during his lifetime, was considerable. His frank, honest, and, at times, humorous approach in The Seven Storey Mountain endeared him to his readers the world over, and it popularized the monastic movement in the United States to such a degree that Gethsemani and other monasteries were besieged by a veritable army of postulants. Merton was a Trappist monk, a member of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Obedience, and, as such, he was obliged to abjure the frivolities of the world. Yet in most ways Merton was an atypical monk, for his interests went far beyond the gates of Gethsemani. He might also have qualified as a theologian, educator, humanitarian, and social activist, interests that manifested themselves in the many books, articles, and lectures he published and delivered during the last fifteen years of his life. In addition to the autobiography, Merton’s literary interests extended to biography, hagiography, theology, poetry, novels, and social criticism.

BibliographyCooper, David A. Thomas Merton’s Art of Denial: The Evolution of a Radical Humanist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. This work is an excellent study of the congruence of contemplative thought and social criticism in the writings of Merton. Cooper stresses both the unity and the evolution in Merton’s reflections on his commitment to spiritual values and his role as a social critic.Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. The details of Merton’s spiritual development and monastic life are explored. Cunningham follows the trajectory of the poet’s life after his entrance into Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941.Hart, Patrick, ed. Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1974. A thoughtful assessment of Merton’s significance as a writer by fellow monks who knew him well. The essays by Jean Le Clerc, Thérèse Lentfoehr, and James Fox stress the originality of his writings on monasticism and spiritual renewal.Inchausti, Robert. Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Both a critical biography of Merton and cultural criticism of the 1960’s. Inchausti places Merton’s work within its historical context and shows how Merton’s rejection of both radical and conservative points of view allowed him to produce a profound analysis of contemporary civilization.Kramer, Victor A. Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian, 1984. The eighth chapter, “Experimental Poetry,” analyzes the links between poetry and contemplative thought in Merton’s last two books of poetry, Cables to the Ace and The Geography of Lograire. Contains an annotated bibliography of studies on Merton.Labrie, Ross. The Art of Thomas Merton. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1979. Examines Merton’s stylistic creativity and analyzes well the impressive blend of prose and verse poems in Cables to the Ace.Mott, Michael. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. This volume is an essential introduction to the life and works of Merton, an authorized and well-researched biography. Mott interviewed several people who knew Merton personally. Contains a thorough list of primary and secondary sources and an index.
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