On December 10, 1968, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton died in Bangkok at a conference on monasticism. In setting forth on this journey he had written, “May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion. . . .I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body.” On this trip he met with Buddhist and Christian monks and experienced an epiphany in the presence of an enormous statue of the dying Buddha. Exclaiming that this was the purpose of his trip, he wrote, “Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.” He died later that week from an apparent accidental electrocution.
By coincidence, December 10 is also the anniversary of his entry into the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, an event memorialized in his famous memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. At that time he had seen this as the culmination of his spiritual search. But in his life as a monk he was constantly challenged to go deeper into the heart of his vocation. This involved at one point a mystical breakthrough in downtown Louisville when he seemed to awaken from “a dream of separateness.” It was a kind of rebirth: “Now the pain and struggle of fighting my way out into something new and much bigger. I must see and embrace God in the world.” He would become a guide and companion for many other spiritual explorers.
“Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
—Pope Francis, in his 2015 address to the US Congress
Photograph by John Lyons. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.