Musings on Thomas Merton

January 30, 2015

By Sister Diane G.

January 31, 2015, marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton–a great scholar, mystic and social justice advocate.

Thomas Merton

Photograph of Thomas Merton by Sibylle Akers. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.

Merton died in a tragic accident in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968. Electrocuted by a faulty connection in a fan, this Catholic convert and well-known writer died 27 years to the day that he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as a Trappist monk. The world mourned his passing, but still celebrates his prolific writings and social activism.

The occasion of his 100th birthday provides opportunities to revisit and reaffirm our own commitment to work for a world transformed by relationships, grace and action.

Merton describes his own personal epiphany in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. A passage found in this book entitled “Fourth and Walnut Street” recounts an experience in which he realized that he was connected to the fate and lives of every man, woman and child:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…”

This experience of epiphany was a profound influence in shaping Merton’s life and journey.  

Moved by this realization and aware that this was a turning point, Merton made a conscious choice that he would no longer be a spectator. This decision toward activism demanded a call to constant discernment.

Thomas Merton experienced an epiphany that radically altered his perception of what it means to be connected one to the other. How many of us may have had a similar experience but discounted it, giving it little importance. Have there not been times when you, too, felt in a very real sense this same bond with others, with the universe?

In a world often divided and a culture that focuses on the individual, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that we are part of a web of life that is inextricably interconnected. It can be easy to not see those disenfranchised or forgotten. We may choose not to see, so our world will remain comfortable.

The gift Thomas Merton offers us in this day of remembrance is to be attentive to our own epiphanies. Allow them to touch you deeply and to call you into relationship with one another. Wake up, reach out, embrace all, encircling the rich and the poor, the young and the not-so-young, the healthy and the sick, the citizen and the immigrant and all those seeking inclusion. Then we will have learned what Merton means when he speaks of relationships, grace and action.

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  1. Renee Yann,RSM

    Powerful reflection. Thank you, Diane.