There is significant reflection today in print and the media about 1968. Remembrances of that tumultuous time 50 years ago include the TET Offensive, the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and Richard Nixon’s presidential victory over Hubert Humphrey.
There is, however, little or no mention of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who died suddenly Dec. 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand.
Nonetheless, Merton’s contributions to the Catholic faith — ecumenical outreach, especially to eastern religions, insights to peace, race and social justice and, most importantly, bringing people closer to God — should be remembered among the dramatic events and famous personalities of 1968.
For many American Catholics and people of various beliefs in our world, Merton’s 1948 autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” would quietly yet profoundly shake up their outlook on life and their faith. After much worldly experience and spiritual searching, Merton entered the Trappist Monastery outside of Bardstown, Kentucky, shortly after America’s entry into World War II in December 1941.
Merton’s book impacted many men pursuing a Trappist vocation during the postwar years. The world experiencing a moral collapse on an apocalyptic scale undoubtedly aided this trend.
Matthew Kelty, the late Trappist monk, who was a novice under Merton, mentioned to me that “After what these World War II veterans went through, they just weren’t going to come and sell golf balls for a living.” Because of Merton’s autobiography, Catholics and non-Catholics awoke to the long-standing contemplative tradition of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic faith wasn’t only about doctrine and structured worship. There was room for solitude, silence and focused prayer. A friend of Merton, Edward Rice, suggests that there were many books with similar themes, but “The Seven Storey Mountain” connected with modern man. Merton’s endeavor as a monastic writer would not stop with his autobiography.
For instance, Merton supported Mohandes Ghandi’s campaign of non-violence against British Imperial rule of India while attending Oakham School in England in the 1930s, and he wrestled with whether he should be a social activist in Harlem long before the days of Dr. Martin Luther King or become a Trappist monk.
Merton seriously thought about issues of peace and justice before they entered the mainstream consciousness. Being a conscientious objector during World War II, he naturally opposed the early forays of the United States in Vietnam. Merton biographer Monica Furlong quoted Merton from his 1965 article for Commonweal magazine: “... the Vietnam War is taking on the aspect of folly, brutality and massive stupidity that characterizes the blindness of the power politicians and leads eventually to its own ruin — along with that of the nation, perhaps!”
How prophetic Merton was since the United States would begin to unravel morally, socially and politically in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Michael Mott’s biography on Merton quotes Merton’s astute analysis on race and religion when it came to Catholics blending their cultural heritage with their Christian faith: “One clear instance of this is the acceptance by some Catholics of the American social tradition of race prejudice, in complete and sinful contradiction of the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ.” This message on religion and race was important then as it is today, especially in our Pittsburgh community.
Merton’s life, dedicated to non-violence, would be contradicted by his body being flown back from Thailand in an Air Force bomber with bodies of dead U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam. His tragic, mysterious death — there was no definitive cause since an autopsy wasn’t done — should be remembered by many as the closing act for the tumultuous year of 1968.
Bercik is a member of St. James Parish in Sewickley.