Thomas Merton

On the 50th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Death

Monday, December 10th marks the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death—which has now been confirmed as a martyr’s death by the recent solid and important investigative study, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton by Hugh Turley and David Marin (as well as by my own encounters over the years with three CIA agents who were in Southeast Asia at the time).

Photo of Thomas Merton by John Lyons, from

Photo of Thomas Merton by John Lyons, from

A martyrdom (consider the recently canonized Archbishop Romero or the martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang, an eco-saint) is not about a death any more than Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross of the empire of his day was about his death or Dr. Martin Luther King’s martyrdom was about his death.  It is about one’s life and teachings: What Good News is someone bringing into the world that so threatens the powers that be that they must hire assassins to silence the teacher?

In Thomas Merton’s case, there is much that he was preaching and teaching that we need to hear still today.  I have tried to lay that out in my recent book, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey.  Here I will summarize just some of his challenges to our awareness. 

--He stood strongly with Dr. King and the civil rights movement--indeed, he and King were scheduled to have a retreat together at his monastery along with Thich Naht Hanh the weekend King was murdered.  King cancelled the retreat offering a “rain check” in order to march with the garbage workers in Memphis.  A “fateful” decision, as Merton commented in his journal following the assassination.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

--Merton stood with those who opposed the Vietnam War and coached the Berrigan brothers about the ways of non-violent resistance.  His last public lecture, delivered three hours before his death, was entitled “Karl Marx and Monasticism”—not the most prudent of topics to lecture on in Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War.

--Merton was a pioneer in the interfaith or deep ecumenism movement—which is why he took his fateful journey to Asia where he met, among others, Hindu and Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama,  He interacted with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Zalman Schactner, and it was in his encounters with Dr. D. T. Suzuki (who admired Eckhart profoundly) that Merton was opened up to the wisdom and power of Meister Eckhart, about whom Merton said, “whatever Zen is, it is there in Eckhart.”

--Merton stood up with Rachel Carson and celebrated what we now consider the beginnings of the Ecological movement when her book, Silent Spring, came out.  He praised her for her research about DDT and the other poisons we were putting into the soil: that explained for him the disappearance of so many birds from the monastery farm.

--Merton criticized his own church on numerous occasions, speaking of a “spiritual sickness” within it and the “glorified infantilism” that always looks to hierarchy for answers.  In an Easter Sunday sermon delivered to his fellow monks he wondered aloud if Christianity has become a “cult of the dead body of Christ.”

--Merton had an 18-month correspondence with a young and upcoming feminist Catholic theologian, Rosemary Ruether, that revealed his humility and willingness to learn from women’s experience.

--Merton’s conversion in 1958 from being a dualistic monk in the Augustinian tradition to being a prophetic Christian happened under the influence and inspiration of Meister Eckhart whom he called “my lifeboat.”

--Merton criticized the decision to go to the moon in the following language: “Even if we can fly, so what?  There are flying ants.  Even if man flies all over the universe, he is still nothing but a flying ant until he recovers a human center and a human spirit in the depth of his own being….What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from our selves?  This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

--Merton predicted that the marriage of religious fundamentalism and American nationalism would produce “the greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever seen.”

--Merton wrote extensively of the Cosmic Christ such as the following: “The Blinding One….speaks to us gently in ten thousand things….He shines not on them but from within them.”

--Merton of course led a disciplined inner life and taught people how to meditate and contemplate.  Here is one definition of contemplation that he offers us:  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is grateful for life, for awareness and for being.”*[1]

Speaking personally, it was in correspondence with Merton in 1967 that I was advised to pursue doctoral studies in spirituality at the Institut catholique de Paris.  It was there that I met my mentor, historian Pere M.D. Chenu, who named the Creation Spirituality tradition for me.  So I owe Merton, big time.  In a real sense all the trouble—and the joy-- I have gotten in since I owe to Thomas Merton.

This is a short list of many of Merton’s gifts to us.

Thank You, Thomas Merton!

Thank you for your life, your teachings, your wonderfully artistic writings, your courage and your death.  May we all be so alive and giving and generous.

[1] All citations are from Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journeye

A Review of "The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation"

For years I have spoken out about how fishy the official story of Thomas Merton’s sudden death smelled to me.  I have also, over the years, met three CIA agents who were present in Southeast Asia at the time and asked them pointedly whether they killed Thomas Merton.  One said: “I will neither affirm it nor deny it.” The second (who spoke to a friend of mine, not to me) said: “We were swimming in cash at the time with absolutely no accountability.  If there was just one agent who felt Merton was a threat to the country he could have had him done in with no questions asked.” The third I met a month after my book A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey came out and he answered: “Yes.  And the last 40 years of my life I have been cleansing my soul from what I did as a young man working for the CIA in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.”

Now, Hugh Turley and David Martin offer The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation - a solid and very convincing investigation that provides what seems to be a thorough inquiry of all the parties involved including the four religious (three men and one sister who was also a doctor, falsely called a “nurse” in official documents) who first discovered the body.  

The book includes important information about the body and the room, revealing, among other things, that there was blood coming from Merton’s neck and his body was neatly staged.  How could this be anything other than 1) a gunshot wound from a silencer gun? or 2) A stab with a pick knife or something similar? The problem is, of course, that no autopsy was performed.  Now whose decision was that?

The cover up was immense, involving the Thai police (very much in league with the American military at the time); the American Embassy; the American Army; even key members of Merton’s Gethsamine monastery including the abbot and Merton’s secretary, Brother Hart.  The latter two deserve a certain leniency since surely the monastery was threatened and urged to keep silent about the facts. But to make a cover story—that Merton stepped out of a shower soaking wet and plugged in a fan and was electrocuted—is a lie and a cover up.  

Turley and Martin provide detail after detail refuting the false information that has been disseminated for five decades.  There is even a Judas figure—a Belgian monk, whose room in the retreat center was above Merton’s, and who was the last person seen talking to Merton before he entered his fateful cell.  Others report this monk acting peculiarly after the murder. Strange to tell—or perhaps not so strange—he seems to have totally disappeared. Even his monastery claims to have no idea on earth where he could be.  It would seem he is either 1) sipping mai-tais on some island some place having been paid far more than 30 pieces of silver or 2) resting not at all in peace six feet under the sod.

So Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk and one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century, died a martyr. A martyr to peace (because he was a loud voice against the Vietnam War and a mentor to the Berrigan brothers and others committed to nonviolent protest).  And he died at the hands of the American government in the very year, 1968, that Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy also suffered a similar fate.

Pope Francis, who praised Thomas Merton’s work in his speech to Congress, might want to canonize three American martyrs together and do it swiftly (since in Catholic theology a martyr goes directly to heaven): Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a prophet for social and racial justice; Thomas Merton, a prophet for peace and deep ecumenism or interfaith; and Sister Dorothy Stang, a prophet for eco-justice gunned down in the Amazon by paid thugs for large land owners and corporate big shots.

History evolves and it is ironic that today’s CIA is less an enemy of the people than yesterday’s - in fact acting in some ways a welcome buffer against today’s enemies of American democracy, whether emanating from Russia or from internal bodies beholden to Russia.  But lessons abound. First among them is what a martyr is about: As Jesus put it, “no greater love has a person than this, to lay down one’s life for their friends.”

Thank you, Thomas Merton.  Thank you Hugh Turley and David Martin for getting to the truth.