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Thomas Merton, Theologian and Writer

Image from the Morgan Atkinson Production "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton" Often referred to as one of the most prolific religious writers and spiritual masters of the 20th century, monk and theologian Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) is inextricably linked to Louisville.

Educated in France, England and the U.S., Thomas Merton earned his M.A. in English literature in 1938. He converted to Roman Catholicism the same year.

On December 10, 1941, Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Kentucky, near Bardstown. His superiors encouraged his writing. This resulted in a number of classics including The Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography.

The French-born Merton became a U.S. citizen in 1951, during a ceremony in Louisville.

On March 18, 1958, Louisville was the site of Merton’s pivotal “vision”, which marked a change in his writing from books mostly on monastic prayer to those dealing mostly with social problems.

Marker at Thomas Merton Square Merton’s moment of enlightenment, which occurred at Louisville’s Fourth and Walnut, now Muhammad Ali Boulevard, is now recognized with an historical marker. The corner was formally dedicated as Thomas Merton Square in 2008.

Ten years after his spiritual experience on Fourth Street, Thomas Merton died while visiting Thailand. He is buried at the Abbey of Gethsemani, his home of 27 years.

The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville is the largest Thomas Merton collection in the world. The center is a repository of Merton’s writings, photographs and drawings – an archive of over 50,000 materials. It is the international resource for scholarship on the Trappist Monk.

More on Merton:

  • The Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, Kentucky, is one of the best-known monasteries in the world. It is a community of monks belonging to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists.
  • The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was Merton's first book.
  • On May 26, 1949, Thomas Merton was ordained priest.
  • From 1965 – 1968, Merton lived as a hermit on the grounds of the abbey.
  • Thomas Merton died tragically 27 years to the day he entered the Abbey at Gethsemani. He was accidentally electrocuted while in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at a conference on Buddhist-Christian monasticism.
  • A year before his death, Merton created the Merton Legacy Trust, which named Bellarmine College as the repository of his artistic estate. The college established the Thomas Merton Center two years later, in 1969. The center is located on the second floor of Bellarmine’s W.L. Lyons Brown Library.
  • Both of Thomas Merton’s parents were artists: his father was a New Zealand-born watercolor painter; his American-born mother was an artist-designer. A special room at the Thomas Merton Center is dedicated to them and features a collection of watercolors by Merton’s father, Owen.
  • According to the Merton Center, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography, sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. Currently more than 60 titles penned by Merton are in print in English.
  • According to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, Merton wrote about Louisville, Kentucky, in the poem “The Ohio River – Louisville” and in the collection Eighteen Poems (1985).
  • Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in 1968 In October 2008, Tibetan monks chanted during a ceremony dedicating a new banner of a photo of the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton on the building housing the Center for Interfaith Relations along Muhammad Ali Blvd., in Louisville.

Additional images for this Etcetera segment are from "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton" by Morgan Atkinson Productions and The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College.

Program 309
Local resale stores, artist Billy Hertz, Jeffersontown Historical Museum, and a profile of spiritual icon Thomas Merton. "Louisville Life" also meets the associate artistic director of the Louisville Ballet. (#309)