On the last day of January 1915, in the sign of Aquarius, in a World War II year and in the shadow of French mountains near the Spanish border, I came into the world ": With this sentence begins The Mountain of the Seven Stages, in which Thomas Merton describes his childhood and adolescence France and England, his wild years at Columbia University in New York, his conversion to the Catholic Church, and entry into the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, as Brother Louis - that was his religious name - committed himself The 27-year-old Merton wholeheartedly embraces a strict life of prayer, penance and silence.
By the end of the 1950s, the obedient, world-reneging young monk gradually became a questioning, cosmopolitan religious, a man of many interests, seeking and conversational. Merton studied philosophy and psychology, literature and politics. When he began to comment critically on nuclear armament and the Vietnam War, his religious superiors initially gave him a publication ban, because such questions were allegedly not an issue for monks.
Merton publizierte seine Beiträge zum Frieden deshalb zeitweise unter Pseudonymen. In einem Brief an den befreundeten Jesuiten und Friedensaktivisten Daniel Berrigan ließ Merton seinem Ärger über die Ordensoberen freien Lauf: "Nun, ich hasse es, vulgär zu sein, aber ein Großteil der klösterlichen Parteilinie ist reiner Schwachsinn. Versuche, irgendetwas Ernsthaftes zu machen, und sofort werfen sie dir Aktivismus vor. Kurz gesagt, es ist alles in Ordnung, wenn sich der Mönch bei der Käseherstellung den Arsch aufreißt und so Geld für das alte Kloster scheffelt. Aber wenn es um Dinge geht, die wirklich sinnvoll für die Kirche wären, schaut das alles ganz anders aus."
Merton was increasingly concerned with other religions and their spirituality, with Chinese Taoism, with the mysticism of Islam, Sufism and Zen Buddhism. He was visited by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the monastery, was given permission by his abbot to hold talks in New York with the Buddhist scholar Daisetz Suzuki about Zen and met on his trip to Asia for three long talks with the Dalai Lama.
Shortly after his talks with the Dalai Lama, Merton was dead. On December 10, 1968, he was found dead lying on the floor of his room at a conference of religious in Bangkok. An electric fan still energized lay on his chest. Probably Merton has showered, then suffered a heart attack and carried along the fan in the fall. Or maybe he got a fatal electrical shock when he stood barefoot on the stone floor.
Dialogue with Buddhists had changed Merton's understanding of prayer and meditation. He no longer regarded prayer as one of many activities to be on the list of good Christians, but as a fundamental dimension of human existence: "I pray is breathe, I pray by breathing."
In 1965 he received permission from his abbot to live in a hermitage ten minutes' walk from the convent, "a small house, but not that small," as a friend described it. Merton seldom wore his habit, and took long walks in the woods, watching the stars and the deer, listening to the wind, the rain, and the song of robins, primroses, and cardinal birds. Some time later Merton fell in love with a young nurse during a hospital stay. The intense and complicated relationship between the two lasted almost a year.
Merton corresponded with God and the world, with popes, cardinals, and other famous contemporaries such as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and the theologian Rosemary Radford-Ruether, with the writers Henry Miller and Boris Pasternak, but also with his close friends from Columbia University, especially with Robert Lax and Edward Rice. In his Merton biography, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, Rice described his friend, who died much too early, as "Buddhist Catholic Hippie Monk." This characterization is, of course, somewhat undifferentiated, but it is not completely wrong.
The recently resigned Styrian diocesan Bishop Egon Kapellari said regarding his upcoming retirement: "I hope, as I have already said many times, that then the 'monk in me' can develop more." I wish Bishop Kapellari that the monk he discovers has something of Thomas Merton. If that were the case, the old bishop would face exciting years.