Thomas had only stepped out of the shower--such an innocuous thing--but it proved to be the last action in a chain of actions that resulted in his death. He was in Bangkok and had recently given a talk to an eager and interested audience. Indubitably, most (if not all) of them had read his work and were happy to hear him talk about it. It was the 27th anniversary of his entrance into the monastery--the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky--and he must have been aware of it. He reached out to the fan--perhaps to turn it on or off--and when his hand made contact, the poorly grounded fan electrocuted him. He died nearly instantaneously. In the forty years since his death, people--many who never met him and who might not have even been born when he died--have mourned his death and insisted that he died too young and too soon.
Thomas' story is a long and interesting journey that he recorded in his own spiritual autobiography: The Seven Storey Mountain. He had been born into a family of nominal religious affiliation in France but had been baptized in the Anglican church. His mother was a Quaker by birth but died young and had a limited impact upon him. Her death, however, haunted him for the rest of his life. As a child, he moved very often because of the rootless life of his artist father. For many years, he lived in America with his baby brother and grandparents but during his adolescence he was a student in European boarding schools while his father traveled and attended art shows. He had little to no spiritual involvement at the time and by his own recollection only rarely attended a religious service. At the age of fifteen, Thomas' father died from a brain tumor and Thomas began to live upon his inheritance as it was watched over by his father's friend and physician.
Years later, Thomas would begin to feel and resist a calling toward the Church. It seems that synchronicity and serendipity were constantly at play and Thomas became more and more connected with the Church. At first, it was the Byzantine mosaics that brought him into sanctuaries. He wrote:
"I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found...thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim...though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher."So, Thomas became a pilgrim on a path that unknowingly was drawing him to Jesus and to service. Yet, he struggled deeply with the death of his father and mother and the declining health of his grandparents. He descended into a world sustained by alcohol and sexual conquest. It seems incredibly likely that he fathered a son during one of these trysts. Yet, no matter how much he resisted the call upon his life, he was drifting inexorably toward redemption. Eventually, after many years of fighting and resisting, he took his vows as a Trappist monk and was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemani. There, he was able to live in silence, write, and live a life of contemplation and prayer. His writings have comforted and challenged people ever since. So also have his interests in comparative religion and radical hospitality for others.
It is impossible to share the impact of Thomas Merton upon others without reading some of his writing. Thomas was called to write and lived into the calling with a passion that occasionally got him rebuked by those in power. Any telling of Thomas' story that did not include some of his writing would be remiss and so I include my own favorite passage:
"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking form a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream."