Skip to content

Merton's wisdom literature has taken me into the ultimate cause of things.

—Sue Monk Kidd

Thomas Merton

20th Century Theological Poet

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at painting school in Paris, were married at St. Anne’s Church, Soho, London and returned to the France where Thomas Merton was born on January 31st, 1915.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and on December 10th, 1941 he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960’s. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk’s trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.


On Christian Contemplation

Poetry by Thomas Merton

Edited by Paul M. Pearson

"Every moment and every event in every man’s life on Earth plants something in his soul," wrote Thomas Merton. A Trappist monk, Merton was both a poet and a theologian who pondered monastic life. He was praised for his meditations and conversations with God, as well as interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and non-violent activism during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. On Christian Contemplation, edited by Merton scholar Paul Pearson, is a collection of the great monk’s work, compiled into a gift-size edition. With poems, reflections, and social commentary, this is the perfect book to nurture the spirit of faith and duty guided by one of the twentieth century’s leading voices of theology and social justice. 



On Eastern Meditation

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton

Edited by Bonnie Thurston

Merton’s biographer, George Woodcock, once wrote that "almost from the beginning of his monastic career, Thomas Merton tentatively began to discover the great Asian religions of Buddhism and Taoism." Merton, a longtime social justice advocate, first approached Eastern theology as an admirer of Gandhi’s beliefs on non-violence. Through Gandhi, Merton came to know the great Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita and in time came to have dialogues with the Dalai Lama and Taoist leader D. T. Suzuki. Merton then became deeply interested in Chuang Tzu and Zen thought. On Eastern Meditation, edited by Bonnie Thurston (author of Merton and Buddhism), gathers the best of his Eastern theological writings into a gorgeously designed gift book edition.



The Way of Chuang Tzu

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton

with a contribution by Dalai Lama

Working from existing translations, Thomas Merton composed a series of his own versions of the classic sayings of Chuang Tzu, the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu, who wrote in the fourth and third centuries B.C., is the chief authentic historical spokesperson for Taoism and its founder Lao Tzu (a legendary character known largely through Chuang Tzu’s writings). Indeed it was because of Chuang Tzu and the other Taoist sages that Indian Buddhism was transformed, in China, into the unique vehicle we now call by its Japanese name—Zen. The Chinese sage abounds in wit and paradox and shattering insights into the true ground of being. Thomas Merton, no stranger to Asian thought, brings a vivid, modern idiom to the timeless wisdom of Tao.



Gandhi on Non-Violence

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton

with a contribution by Mark Kurlansky

"One has to speak out and stand up for one’s convictions. Inaction at a time of conflagration is inexcusable." — Mahatma Gandhi.

The basic principles of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) and non-violent action (satyagraha) were chosen by Thomas Merton for this compendium in 1965. In his challenging introduction, Merton emphasizes action rather than pacifism as essential to non-violence, and illustrates how the foundations of Gandhi’s universal truths are linked to traditional Hindu Dharma, the Greek philosophers, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. For Gandhi non-violence was also very personal, as Merton observes: "the spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself." Kurlansky’s new Preface offers further insight into Gandhi’s character as well as the relevance of his ongoing political legacy.



New Seeds of Contemplation

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton

with a contribution by Sue Monk Kidd

New Seeds of Contemplation is one of Thomas Merton’s most widely read and best-loved books. Christians and non-Christians alike have joined in praising it as a notable successor in the meditative tradition of St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the medieval mystics, and some have compared Merton’s reflections to those of Thoreau. New Seeds of Contemplation seeks to awaken the dormant inner depths of the spirit so long neglected by Western man, to nurture a deeply contemplative and mystical dimension in our lives. For Merton, "Every moment and every event in every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love."



In The Dark Before Dawn

Poetry by Thomas Merton


Poet, Trappist monk, religious philosopher, translator, social critic — the late Thomas Merton (1914-68) was all these things. Yet until now, no single selection from his great body of poetry has afforded a comprehensive view of his varied and progressively innovative work. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems is not only a gathering double the size of Merton’s earlier Selected Poems (1967), it also arranges his poetry both thematically and chronologically, so that readers can follow the poet’s many complex, interrelated lines of thought as well as his poetic development over the decades. "His genius," writes editor Lynn R. Szabo, "was to create an artistic vision fueled by the conflict between his calling as a writer and his vocation as a contemplative.” She has grouped her selections under a number of themes, which taken together "represent seminal aspects of Merton’s engaging his inner and outer worlds throughout his life." Included in this broad, new selection are most of the beautiful love poems (previously available only in a limited edition) that Merton wrote for a young woman to whom he had formed a brief attachment in the mid-’60s.



Bread In The Wilderness

Poetry by Thomas Merton


The Psalms, which Thomas Merton called "one of the most valid forms of prayer for men of all time," are the most significant and influential collection of religious poems ever written, summing up the theology of the Old Testament and serving as daily nourishment for the devout. Bread in the Wilderness sets forth Merton’s belief that "the Psalms acquire, for those who know how to enter into them, a surprising depth, a marvelous and inexhaustible actuality. They are bread, miraculously provided by Christ, to feed those who have followed him into the wilderness." Merton’s goal in this moving book is to help the reader enter into the Psalms: "The secret is placed in the hands of each Christian. It only needs to be discovered and fulfilled in our own lives." The new ND Classic edition of Bread in the Wilderness faithfully reproduces the beautiful, large-format original 1953 New Directions book, created by the celebrated designer Alvin Lustig and lavishly illustrated throughout with photographs of a remarkable medieval crucifix at Perpignan, France.


Available: April 01 1997


Thoughts On The East

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


An ecumenical anthology, Thoughts on the East gathers Merton’s essential definitions of the religions that so much interested him—Taoism, Buddhism (in many forms, but especially Zen), Sufism, and Hinduism. Unified by Merton’s belief that East and West share “a unity of outlook and purpose, a common spiritual climate,” this eclectic selection also offers a fascinating introduction by the late George Woodcock, author of the acclaimed critical study, Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet.


Available: July 01 1995


Thomas Merton In Alaska

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton spent two weeks in Alaska in 1968 just prior to his fateful trip to the East. He had no thought of publication either of his journal or his conferences—the talks he gave to religious communities there. Although it was his nature to give his attention to what was immediately before him, he was counting the days until he would step onto the plane that would take off across the Pacific. This book contains the journal and letters Merton wrote during his Alaskan visit that were published in a limited edition in 1988 as The Alaskan Journal by Turkey Press. To this have been added the transcriptions of the informal but pithy talks he gave in Eagle River and Anchorage. These conferences are interesting for the direct light they throw on Merton’s thinking about prayer, religious life and community, the priestly tradition, and they are enhanced by their spontaneous quality which gives a palpable sense of being in Merton’s presence. Robert E. Daggy, curator of The Thomas Merton Studies Center, transcribed Merton’s journal and letters and has contributed a fine introduction. Also included is a preface by David D. Cooper of Michigan State University and a group of some of the photographs Merton took on his Alaskan adventure.


Available: March 01 1989


The Literary Essays Of Thomas Merton

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


As wide a following as the late Thomas Merton had while he lived, ever since his tragic accidental death in Bangkok in 1968, there has been a steady upsurge of interest in both his life and writings. A priest and Trappist monk by vocation, his theological works have been instrumental in reforming Western monasticism and in carrying on the religious dialogue between East and West; an enormously productive poet, his poems display an astonishing technical versatility and deeply felt humanity. Merton’s stature as a critic, however, was not fully appreciated until the publication in 1981 of the first full collection of his distinctly literary essays, now available as a paperbook. The fifty-six pieces included in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton present every known article by the author, though written for the most part during the last years of his life. The mature Merton ranges across the modern literary landscape with impressive ease. Joyce, Pasternak, and Zukofsky are only a few of the authors discussed in "Literary Essays (1959-68)." These are followed, in turn, by "Seven Essays on Albert Camus"; nine essays "Introducing Poets in Translation"; and "Related Literary Questions," linking Merton’s literary thought with his aesthetic, religious, and social concerns. His earlier work, such as his 1939 Master’s thesis on Blake as well as newspaper and periodical reviews written prior to 1941, are included in appendices; to these are added transcripts of two talks he gave on Faulkner in 1967. The Literary Essays were collected and edited by Brother Patrick Hart, Father Merton’s secretary at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.


Available: March 01 1985


The Collected Poems Of Thomas Merton

Poetry by Thomas Merton


In 1944, New Directions brought out Thomas Merton’s first book of verse. By the time of his tragic, untimely death in 1968, Father Louis (as he was known at the Trappist monastery where he lived for twenty-seven years) had published upwards of fifty books and pamphlets, including several more collections of poetry. All of these poems have been assembled in a single, definitive volume (first published by New Directions in 1977) which includes much additional unpublished or uncollected material drawn from the archive of the Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, or supplied by the poet’s friends and associates. Brought together in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton are: Early Poems (1940-42, published posthumously in 1971), Thirty Poems (1944), A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), Figures for an Apocalypse (1947), The Tear of the Blind Lions (1949), The Strange Islands (1957), Original Child Bomb (1962), Emblems of a Season of Fun (1963), Cables to Ace (1968), and The Geography of Lograire (completed in 1968 and published posthumously). These are followed by Sensation Time at the Home and Other New Poems, a book which Merton completed shortly before his death. There are also sections of uncollected poems, humorous verse, poems written in French, with some English translations, Merton’s translations of poetry from various languages, drafts and fragments, and a selection of concrete poems. With the availability of The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton as a New Directions paperbook, an ever wider audience may more fully appreciate the impressive range of the poet’s technique, the scope of his concerns, and the humaneness of his vision.


Available: September 01 1980


My Argument With The Gestapo

Fiction by Thomas Merton


Of the full-length prose works that Thomas Merton wrote before he entered the Cistercian Order in 1941, only My Argument with the Gestapo has survived––perhaps in part because it was a book that Merton never ceased wanting to see in print. Although it first appeared after his death in 1968, he had arranged for its publication, written a foreword for it, and was delighted with the prospect of its at last becoming a part of his published works. My Argument with the Gestapo tells of the adventures of a young man, clearly identified by the name Thomas Merton, who travels from America to Europe to report on the war with Germany from the viewpoint of a poet. He hates the war, yet is driven to come to terms with it. There is a pervading sense of dreamworld or hallucination, heightened by the device of passages written in a macaronic language, invented from multilingual roots, to satirize and parody political propaganda speeches dealing with the war. A work of imagination (Merton did not in fact return to England after the start of World War II in Europe), it nevertheless contains much that is autobiographical and revealing of the young Merton. Most clearly visible are the seeds of his never-forsaken concern with peace and nonviolence and his abhorrence of war. Indeed, his outspoken criticism of Britain at a time when all the emphasis was on ’’the brave little island standing alone" foreshadows his devotion to truth as he saw it, no matter what the cost. And students of Merton will find scenes in the book that are straight autobiography, amplifying and perhaps filling in gaps in what later was to be the beginning of Merton’s great literary success, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948).


Available: November 01 1975


The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


"The moment of takeoff was ecstatic… joy. We left the ground — I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering…” With these words, dated October 15, 1968, the late Father Thomas Merton recorded the beginning of his fateful journey to the Orient. His Asian journal is a record of the people he encountered and his impressions of Asian cities and landscapes, and is amply illustrated with photographs he himself took along the way. Merton’s travels led him from Bangkok, through India to Ceylon, and back again to Bangkok for his scheduled talk at a conference of Asian monastic orders. There he unequivocally reaffirmed his Christian vocation. His last journal entry was made on December 8, 1968, two days before his untimely, accidental death. Fully indexed, the book also contains a glossary of Asian religious terms, a preface by the Indian scholar Amiya Chakravarty, a foreword and postscript by Brother Patrick Hart of the Abbey of Gethsemani, as well as several appendixes, among them the text of Merton’s final address.


Available: March 01 1975


The Geography Of Lograire

Poetry by Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton’s final testament as a poet is his most ambitious long work and a remarkable poetic achievement. It was completed in the summer of 1968, a few months before he set out from Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky on the Asian journey from which he did not return. The text is as he left it. It lacks that final editing that he would have done in proof, but it is substantially a completed, self-contained work. Lograire, as with William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, is first of all a country of the imagination, but it is also a person––Merton himself––for its "geography" is the map, the inner choreography, of his mind. The charting in the poem is his search for self-location: where, and even how, does a man find himself in the geography of all men? Sections of personal experience are set against passages re-imagined from anthropological and historical texts, material that Merton chose for its character of myth to illustrate the general experience of mankind. The myths of Lograire form a mosaic of African legends, Mixtecart motifs and Mayan religious customs, the pantheism of the fanatical Ranters in 17th-century England, the records of an early arctic expedition and of Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Arab traveler, the Cargo Cults of Melanesia and the Ghost Dances of the American Indians. "A poet," Merton wrote in his prefatory note to Lograire, "spends his life attempting to build or to dream the world in which he lives. But more than that he realizes that this world is at once his and everybody’s. It grows out of a common participation which is nevertheless recorded in authentically personal images. I have without scruple mixed what is my own experience with what is almost everybody else’s." Many modern poets have used history and myth in their work; what sets The Geography of Lograire apart is the invention of Merton’s method––his process for elevating fact to the level of myth. It is a complex technique of fractured syntax, multiple meanings; the distortion of dream, irony and parody.



Zen And The Birds Of Appetite

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton, who died in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968, was internationally recognized as having one of those rare Western minds which was entirely at home in Asian experience. In this collection of essays he wrote about complex Asian concepts with a Western directness. One reason for this skill is that he had not only studied Buddhism from the outside, but had grasped it by empathy and living participation from within––while remaining a priest and Trappist monk. Like his friend, the late D. T. Suzuki, Merton believed that there must be a little of Zen in all authentic creative and spiritual experience. The Study of Zen, then, is not a study of doctrine, still less a polemic about ultimate religious principles. It is simply an attempt to reach the ground of pure, direct experience which underlies all creative thought and activity. Father Merton’s essays approach this experience through Japanese art and philosophy (Kitaro Nishida), through the Zen of Suzuki, and through the Classic Zen Masters themselves. The dialogue between Merton and Suzuki ("Wisdom in Emptiness") explores the many congruencies of Christian mysticism and Zen.



Raids on the Unspeakable

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


This paperbook collection of his prose writings reveals the extent to which Thomas Merton moved from the other-worldly devotion of his earlier work to a direct, deeply engaged, often militant concern with the critical situation of man in the world. Here this concern finds expression in poetic irony and in meditations intentionally dour. In these brief, challenging pieces, Father Merton does not offer consolation or easy remedies. He looks candidly and without illusions at the world of the Sixties. Though he sees dark horizons, his ultimate answer is one of Christian hope. To vary the perspective, he writes in many forms, using parable and myth, the essay and the meditation, satire and manifesto, prose poetry and even adaptations from a medieval Arab mystic (Ibn Abbad) to humanize and dramatize his philosophical themes. The themes of Raids on the Unspeakable are as old as the myths of Prometheus and Atlas, and as new as Adolf Eichmann. They range from the "Message" written for an international congress of poets to the beautiful yet disturbing Christmas meditation, "The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room." And there are essays inspired by the work of three significant contemporary writers: the late Flannery O’Connor, the French novelist Julien Green, and the playwright lonesco. A number of Father Merton’s own drawings are also included in the book — not as "illustrations," but as "signatures" or "abstract writings," which stand in their own right as another form of personal statement.



The Wisdom of the Desert

Nonfiction by Thomas Merton


The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books — surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit. The personal tone of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East. The hermits of Scete who turned their backs on a corrupt society remarkably like our own had much in common with the Zen Master of China and Japan, and Father Merton made his selection from them with an eye to the kind of impact produced by the Zen mondo.