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Thomas Merton: Trappist Monk and Civil Rights Activist

One afternoon in 1939 or 1940, a young Ph.D. student and aspiring writer named Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was sitting on the floor of his one-bedroom apartment at 35 Perry Street eating scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee with a couple friends who had lingered after the previous night out. As they ate and talked and cleaned up the mess, preparing to go down to the docks for a walk, an idea came to the young Merton. “I am going to be a priest.” As the day went on, the thought only solidified. And sure enough, as is wont to happen when a young Villager develops a nagging aspiration, Merton made it happen.

Thomas Merton. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Today, Thomas Merton is remembered as the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century, and as a civil rights and social justice activist who bridged the gaping divide between political and religious action.

Born in Prades, France to a New Zealand-born father and an American-born mother who had met at a painting school in Paris, Merton grew up between America and Europe. He had little religious training and was, in his own words, a “complete unbeliever” until 1938, believing religious institutions, he later wrote in a letter, “were purely the result of social and historical forces, and, however well-meaning their adherents, they were nothing more than social groups, which the rich made use of to oppress the poor!!!” However, while studying for his Masters in English at Columbia University, Merton decided to attend Mass for the first time in August of 1938. By November 16, 1938, he was baptized at the Corpus Christi Church on West 121st Street.

The following year, in 1939, he moved to 35 Perry Street. Merton was still deeply invested in his academic pursuits, and hoped to obtain a doctorate degree. He was also writing a book, The Straits of Dover, about a young man floundering around in Greenwich Village, which he could not get anyone to publish. Draft after draft, Merton’s hero could not figure out what he wanted to do, as Merton himself struggled to find his way.

Recounting this period in his 1948 autobiography, Merton wrote:

I suppose the apartment on Perry Street was part of the atmosphere appropriate to an intellectual such as I imagined myself to be and, as a matter of fact, I felt much more important in this large room with a bath and fireplace and French windows leading out on to a rickety balcony than I had felt in the little place ten feet wide behind the Columbia Library. Besides, I now a had a shiny new telephone all my own which rang with a deep, discreet, murmuring sort of bell as if to invite me suavely to expensive and sophisticated pursuits.

35 Perry Street, c. 1940 tax photo. Photo courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.

While here, Merton would sit on the balcony dangling his feet through the place where the boards had broken, drinking Coca-Cola, “surveying Perry Street from the east, where it ran up short against a block of brick apartments, to the west, where it ended at the river, and you could see the black funnels of the Anchor liners.” Inside the apartment, he had a deep armchair where he would sit studying the letters and notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins, about whom he planned to write his Ph.D. dissertation. He wrote book reviews for the Times and the Herald Tribune on his typewriter and played the records of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. He worried about the development of World War II, and his complicity in it.

Sometimes Merton would try to write a poem, but this was always difficult. He would go outside for inspiration, walk among the warehouses, past the poultry market at the base of 12th Street, and find himself at a dock where he could watch the fireboats and old empty barges. He continued to regularly attend Mass on weekends and even weekdays, sometimes at the nearby Saint Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue, the same church Dorothy Day attended before and after her conversion.

St. Joseph’s Church, 1939. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

For the year after the moment Merton decided, on the floor of his apartment, to become a priest, he spoke with a number of Franciscan figures in New York City, solidifying his newfound conviction. In fact, when he decided to apply for admission to the Franciscan Order, Merton solicited Saint Joseph’s Father Cassey for a letter of recommendation. Father Cassey, Merton later recalled, “was fine and enthusiastic and kind, and, of a remark I let fall, said I seemed to have the Franciscan spirit which was a kindness I was floored by.”

Though he ultimately did not join the Franciscan Order, on December 10, 1941, Merton traveled to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Otherwise known as the Trappists, this community was the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

Merton was immediately captivated and went on to spend 27 years here, reinventing his spirituality and his politics, becoming the writer and activist he is now remembered as. Despite ongoing disapproval from Catholics and non-Catholics surrounding his political work, Merton spoke openly and vehemently of race and peace as the most critical issues of his time, and was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement. He also actively pursued interfaith discourse, and was praised by the Dalai Lama for his extensive understanding of Buddhism. Merton’s teachings are now remembered as some of the greatest models of Christian faith in social justice action.

35 Perry Street (two-bay row house in the center of the image), 2019.

Merton continued to write prolifically for the rest of his life, until his tragic and uncanny death on December 10, 1968, the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day he joined the Trappists at the age of twenty-seven. Merton published over sixty books and hundreds of poems and articles about spirituality, civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race, and his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain sold over one million copies and was translated into fifteen languages. Today, Merton’s books and papers are now held at Columbia University. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University also maintains the legacy of Merton as a resource for scholarship and inquiry on Merton, his work, and the beliefs he promoted.

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