The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor
In last week’s column I wrote about John Moffitt, the America poetry editor from 1963 to 1987 who was a disciple of Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda for many years, and of Moffitt’s correspondence with another disciple of Vedanta Hinduism, J. D. Salinger. The author of The Catcher in the Rye was one of many Western devotees of Hinduism and Eastern monastic traditions whom Moffitt met or corresponded with over the years. Another was Thomas Merton, whom Moffitt met at a conference on monasticism outside Bangkok in December 1968—the conference where Merton died.
The two had never met in person before, though their youthful interests in religion have a curious point of connection. In his autobiography The Seven-Storey Mountain, Merton traced his interest in religion to reading Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means, a collection of essays on religion, ethics and the nature of the universe.
Huxley was among the many literary and cultural luminaries who had taken an interest in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, and he eventually became associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, even writing the introduction to an English translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. (Readers interested in Sri Ramakrishna, the Hindu monk whose teachings Vivekananda sought to spread, might profit from this 1986 America essay on him by Francis X. Clooney, S.J.) The Bengali translator of the book was Swami Nikhilananda, the spiritual guide to both Salinger and Moffitt. Credited with rendering Ramakrishna’s mystic hymns into free verse was (you guessed it) John Moffitt.
John Moffitt: "There seemed no need of getting acquainted with Thomas Merton; it was as if one had known him always.”
Moffitt was himself an accomplished poet, with several published collections to his name (his best-known poem is from his 1962 book The Living Seed, “To Look at Any Thing”). Because of his rare status as a Western Christian steeped in Eastern monasticism (he converted to Catholicism in 1963), he was invited to the 1968 Meeting of Monastic Superiors in the Far East, held from Dec. 8 to 15 and organized by French Benedictines; the conference “brought together for the first time responsible representatives of all the monastic orders in the Far East under the Benedictine rule,” Moffitt wrote in “New Charter for Monasticism,” a 1969 article for America.
The meeting also included specialists on “several of the non-Christian monasticisms of the East” as well as other men and women religious, with almost 70 in all in attendance. Presiding over the conference was Dom Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., the then-abbot primate of the Benedictine order.
Merton spoke to the conference on the morning of Dec. 10 on the subject of “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” a talk that Weakland recalled as not well received in a later memoir: “[T]he talk did not fit into the aims of the meeting and there was general disappointment in the group, a view I shared.” Merton and Moffitt met on Dec. 8, and Moffitt said upon meeting him that “there seemed no need of getting acquainted with Thomas Merton; it was as if one had known him always.”
Because the two shared a four-room bungalow with two other participants, “there were many opportunities for exchanges of ideas,” Moffitt wrote in America. “Though I felt that his faith was unshakably serene, and sensed no desire on his part for any change in his way of life, I was nevertheless aware of a felt need in him for fuller intellectual satisfaction—for a larger formula, perhaps, that would enable him to include more of what felt was valid ‘outside’ the explicit Christian tradition.”
"I was aware of a felt need in [Merton] for fuller intellectual satisfaction—for a larger formula, perhaps, that would enable him to include more of what felt was valid ‘outside’ the explicit Christian tradition.”
The next night, Dec. 9, Merton said something to Moffitt that would find its way into almost every later biography of Merton: “After the meeting broke up, we were again conversing, this time about Hinduism and Zen,” Moffitt wrote, “when Fr. Merton exclaimed with unfeigned enthusiasm: ‘Zen and Christianity are the future!’”
The next afternoon, Moffitt went on a sightseeing trip with some other monks. Returning home at 5 p.m., he was told Merton was dead—the result of a heart attack, possibly caused by electrocution from a faulty electric fan. “What really caused Fr. Merton’s death will probably never be known,” Moffitt wrote in America. “As Dom Weakland said to me: ‘There is often something inexplicable about the death of great men. Perhaps we should just accept it as a mystery.’”
Moffitt was asked to move to other quarters. “When I arrived at the cottage to remove my belongings from my room, which was just above Fr. Merton’s, Dom Rembert was seated outside, waiting for the police to arrive,” Moffitt remembered. “They were slow in coming. As I passed by the open door, I could see Fr. Merton’s body lying where it had originally fallen, with a dark red burn down his right side. All night, by turns, monks kept vigil by his bed.”
The participants held a Requiem Mass for Merton the next morning. “The occasion was a moving one, but not at all sad,” Moffitt wrote in America. “All the delegates felt that by this unexpected happening the conference had been given far greater depth—as one Indian delegate wrote to me afterward, it was ‘sealed with the blood of Thomas Merton.’”
“We were again conversing, this time about Hinduism and Zen,” Moffitt wrote, “when Fr. Merton exclaimed with unfeigned enthusiasm: ‘Zen and Christianity are the future!’”
In January of 1970, an edited collection of the proceedings of the conference was published as A New Charter for Monasticism, with Moffitt serving as editor. Four years after Merton’s death, Moffitt published a poem in America in honor of Merton, “By His Death”:
In Memoriam: Thomas Merton
December 10, 1968
By his death we are not diminished.
He has entered
into the space of thought,
he walks on the light
and serves where he serves.
In his death
surely we have no cause for dismay,
being not diminished.
When, in this little after hour,
death sounds our summons,
we too shall walk on the light
if our cup is rinsed,
and serve where we serve,
with him in our Lord
joined in perpetual act of creating.
By his death and ours
surely we are increased,
we are not diminished.
The participants held a Requiem Mass for Merton the next morning. “The occasion was a moving one, but not at all sad,” Moffitt wrote in America.
Our poetry selection for this week is “Why Some Look Up to Planets and Heroes,” by Thomas Merton. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
The priests and politicians of Edwin O’Connor’s novels
Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane