Thomas Merton still strikes a chord when new readers find him

Thomas Merton in November 1964 (Jim Forest)

New York — Thomas Merton -- orphaned at 6 and at 15 by the deaths of his parents -- harbored a premonition of his end some five years before he was electrocuted by a faulty fan in his hotel room in Bangkok in 1968. He was only 53. The world can only wonder what he may have become had he lived to a ripe old age.

Many will mark the centenary of Merton's birth on Jan. 31 just as dozens commemorate each year his Catholic baptism at Corpus Christi Church in New York on Nov. 16, 1938. The parish has long served as a campus ministry site for students attending Columbia University, where Merton studied and taught from 1935 to 1940.

Had he not died in 1968, America's most famous monk, mystic and hermit might have produced more books, poems, photos and calligraphy. Or might he have renounced the fame he did not seek, but rarely avoided, for a more perfect solitude? We shall never know.

Merton wrote some 50 books during the 27 years he lived the discipline of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists. Although he intended to stop writing after entering the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky in 1941, Abbot Frederic Dunne assigned him to produce certain monastic works, later approving Merton's request to author an autobiography.

"You have no idea how busy a Trappist can get," Merton wrote to his friend James Laughlin, publisher and poet, in 1947. Not much later, another Columbia friend, Robert Giroux, launched The Seven Storey Mountain. Within months, Merton's story of his retreat from the world sold 600,000 copies in hardcover, surpassing a million copies shortly after its paperback release.

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A version of this story appeared in the Dec 5-18, 2014 print issue under the headline: Thomas Merton at 100 .

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