Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)


– Brother John Samaha, S.M.

The conversion of Thomas Merton led to a prolific writing apostolate and was widely followed and celebrated. His parents were artists with little religious interest. Educated in France and England, his interest in religious questions grew out of his study of literature and philosophy. In 1938 he entered the Catholic Church, and later became a Trappist at the Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky. His talented pen produced voluminous writings in a personal style on topics pertaining to monastic spirituality, mysticism, racial justice and peace.

Merton's references to the Virgin Mary are personal and deep, a response to a mystical attraction. The Seven Storey Mountain is the autobiographical account of his early life and conversion. One passage concerns his departure from England to a new life in New York City. He describes his experience of Mary's guidance at this turning point in his life.

"Lady, when on that night I left the island that was once your England, your love went with me, although I could not know it. ...I was not sure where I was going, and I could not know it.... I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got to New York. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which even then you were preparing for me to be my rescue and my shelter and my home. And when I thought that there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while in the midst of His love and His mercy, and taking me, without my knowing anything about it, to the house that would hide me in the secret of His Face. Glorious Mother of God, shall I ever again distrust you?"

At crucial points in his life he actively sought the presence of Mary and her direction. When discerning his vocation to the priesthood he embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Cuba.

"There you are, Caridad del Cobre. It is you that I have come to see; you will ask Christ to make me his priest, and I will give you my heart, Lady; and if you will obtain for me this priesthood, I will remember you at my first Mass in such a way that the Mass will be for you offered through you in gratitude to the Holy Trinity, Who has used your love to win me this grace."

Bewildered in the struggle to decide about becoming a Trappist, he turned naturally to the Mother of Jesus as any child would turn to his mother. "I give this whole Advent, every minute, to the Blessed Virgin, begging her to help me and bring me to her house at Gethsemane to be her loving child and servant, a child of God in silence and labor and sacrifice and obscurity." After receiving the diaconate he wrote, "Our Lady has taken possession of my heart. Maybe, after all, she is the big grace of the diaconate."

For Thomas Merton, Mary is always gently persuading from within. "Mary does not rule us from without, but from within. She does not change us by changing the world around us, but she changes the world around us by first changing our own inner lives."

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