Merton’s writings are key to understanding his contribution of mysticism. He was an incredibly prolific author, 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. His three most famous publications are The Seven Storey Mountain, The Ascent to Truth and Contemplative Prayer.
Starting with The Seven Storey Mountain, this is his autobiography from his childhood up until he became a monk. It gives us many details about Merton’s background. Merton was born in France. 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 title and format of the autobiography was inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Like The Divine Comedy, Merton’s biography is divided into three parts: The first describes his life without God (“Hell”); the second, the beginning of his search for God (“Purgatory”); and the third, his baptism and entrance into a monastic order (“Paradise”). The book continues to be extremely successful in influencing mysticism today, and it was pinpointed as the catalyst for an influx of young men joining monastic orders during the 1940s and 50s.
Moving on, in The Ascent to Truth Merton defines Christian mysticism, especially as expressed by the Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross, who greatly influenced Merton, and he offers the contemplative experience as an answer to the irreligion and barbarism of our times. Catholic World described the book as, “For those curious about mysticism, this is an excellent book.”
Contemplative Prayer is another work that has influenced mysticism, and it focusses specifically on prayer. Contemplative prayer uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness and is rooted in mysticism but often wrapped in Christian terminology. The premise of contemplative spirituality is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all). This is backed up by Colossians 3:11 – “Christ is all, and is in all.” Although this prayer movement existed centuries before he came along, Merton took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to and popular with the masses.
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 Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. Merton has written in The Asian Journal of several mystical experiences he had during the trip. In India, he visited a Buddhist shrine and there had what seems to be a mystical experience, when he wrote of being visited by a presence that took him out of the body.
His ongoing development also led him into the political arena, where he wrote about other faiths and took a nonviolence stance during the 1960s race riots and Vietnam War. He encouraged dialogue among people of different religions to achieve understanding. His positions on social activism and his broad views on religion led to severe criticism from some Catholics and non-Catholics, who questioned his true devotion and integrity.
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. Ed Rice, close friend and biographer of Merton, said: "Merton was a mystic in the classic sense… His mystical practices were similar to those of most holy men, whether European or Asian. There is a common thread that unites them."
Thomas Merton’s mysticism continues to be influential even today. Thomas Merton was the subject of a speech given by Pope Francis during a joint session of Congress in 2015. The Pope referred to Merton as “a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people… He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”