During his recent speech to Congress on September 24, Pope Francis paid special tribute to the contributions of four great Americans – two Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and two non-Catholics, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this third installment, we examine the life and legacy of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who Pope Francis highlighted for "the capacity for dialogue and openness to God."
Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915, but he spent time in the United States as a small child. He returned to America in 1935 to attend Columbia University, where he graduated in 1938. During this time, Merton began to explore Catholicism and was deeply inspired by the writings of poet and priest Gerald Manley Hopkins.
After hearing a call to the religious life, Merton first explored becoming a Franciscan friar. However, in 1941, he instead entered a Trappist monastery at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1949 and given the name Father Louis.
Merton was a gifted poet, writer, social activist, and student of comparative religion. His bestselling 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was named as one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th century by the National Review.
To many, Merton is a symbol of peace and dialogue. The Thomas Merton Award, a peace prize, has been awarded since 1972 by the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Social Justice located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pope Francis used the legacy of Thomas Merton to underscore the ongoing importance of dialogue in resolving conflicts in our modern times, especially the recent improvement in relations between the United States and Cuba, of which the Holy Father played a key role:
"From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility."
These are important words to keep in mind. Our world constantly faces enormous challenges that threaten peace across the globe. Today, those threats range from Syria and throughout the Middle East, to Africa, to the Ukraine and in so many other areas. Merton stands as a powerful example of a "man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."
Yet, Merton and his inspiring conversion story also demonstrate important lessons for the peace that is necessary in each individual's heart. Another great 20th century American Catholic, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, famously talked about the "peace of soul" that is a prerequisite to achieving world peace: "Wars come from egotism and selfishness. Every macrocosmic or world war has its origin in microcosmic wars going on inside millions and millions of individuals."
In discussing Thomas Merton in his remarks before Congress, Pope Francis quoted Merton’s autobiography, highlighting this internal struggle inherent to mankind:
“I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
The legacy of Thomas Merton is a powerful example of the continuing need for dialogue and peace in a world plagued by sin, violence and war. However, as Merton's own inspiring life illustrates, this is a battle that must first be waged within the hearts and souls of each individual person.