Trappist Father Thomas Merton passed away on Dec. 10, 1968. Today, the 50th anniversary of his death, America remembers him with this obituary—originally published on Jan. 4, 1969—by Mark Van Doren, a professor at Columbia University and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1939.
An immense amount of life went out of the world when Thomas Merton died suddenly in Bangkok on Dec. 9, 1968. And I can imagine no better evidence of this than the following paragraphs from the last letter he wrote to me when he was planning in Gethsemani the Eastern trip from which, to the entire world's loss, he never returned. The letter, dated July 23, began with a report on the third issue of a poetry magazine he had been editing at the monastery; there was to be a fourth issue, and after that, no more. “And then…
“And then, man, I fly to Asia. Really, that is the plan. All sorts of places I am supposed to go to if I don't faint from delight at the mere thought. Since I hop from Singapore to Darjeeling, and have a meeting there with various swamis gurus etc, I hope to sneak into Nepal. Then maybe a bit more of the top of India. Then Thailand ( if not Burma, hard to get into, but may manage), then Indonesia (a monastery of ours there) then Japan, then home. Maybe. If they can get me home, l should say. This doesn't begin until October but at the moment I am itching with vaccinations and expectations and being photographed for the passprops and phonographed for the pesthouse and air-lifted to the quarantine and divided up into computers. If I survive I may manage to get to a country where they don't even have roads. And where if you ride on an ox or not at all. Or a yak. Or an eleflamp...
“And then, man, I fly to Asia. Really, that is the plan. All sorts of places I am supposed to go to if I don't faint from delight at the mere thought.”
“Right now, as I say, I am taken up with getting shots and visas, and cleaning up my premises and finishing up all the absurd jobs I took on when I was a low creature of earth and not a prospective world traveler. I assure you I hope to make the best of it while it lasts! (Think of all the cablegrams saying ‘RETURN AT ONCET’ being shot to Bali, Tibet, Kamchatka, Ceylon, the Maldives, the Endives, the Southern Chives, the Lesser Maundies, the Nether Freeways, the Outer Salvages.)”
A card did come from Darjeeling: "This has been a marvelous trip—Lamas and all sorts. I will be gone another four months or so.” And from New Delhi, dated Nov. 9, came “Asian Letter I,” multigraphed for all the friends whom he could not individually address. It contained a wonderful account of three long interviews with the Dalai Lama of Tibet, now of course a refugee in India, high among the Himalayas, “the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen”; and accounts too of other meetings with Buddhists, Sufis, and indeed “all sorts.” “I hope,” be added, “you will understand why I cannot answer my mail these days. I am entirely occupied with these monastic encounters and with the study and prayer that are required to make them fruitful. I hope you will pray for me and for all those I will be meeting. I am sure the blessing of God will be upon these meetings, and I hope much mutual benefit will come from them. I also hope I can bring back to my monastery something of the Asian wisdom with which I am fortunate to be in contact—but it is something very hard to put into words.”
Earlier in this “Asian Letter” he had indulged in what he called “gossip” concerning among other things the traffic of Bangkok, where he had already been and where of course he was to be again. “Bangkok was the worst place for traffic I ever saw, no lights, you just step on the gas and race five hundred cars to the crossing. The main rule of Asian driving seems to be; never use the brake, just lean on the horn. It is wildly exciting. Especially in the Himalayas where you whiz around corners at dizzy heights and speeds and meet these huge buses coming the other way painted like dragons. Usually the road is just about one lane wide anyway, but somehow one manages. I am still alive.” Exactly a month later he was not alive.
I for one have never known a mind more brilliant. more beautiful, more serious, more playful. The energy behind it was immeasurable, and the capacity for love.
He will be missed as few persons of his time will be. I think it may be safe to say that there was never anybody else on earth like Thomas Merton. I for one have never known a mind more brilliant. more beautiful, more serious, more playful. The energy behind it was immeasurable, and the capacity for love. The energy and the love, the passion and the joy—these things, in his case so miraculously and effortlessly mixed, were evident in him when he was my student at Columbia College more than thirty years ago, and as time went on they grew rather than diminished. The man seemed never to be tired; or if he was, he said so in language so laughable that I knew the lightning still played beyond the clouds. Soon he was back in his stride: writing endlessly, book after book; keeping up with the affairs of the outside world—but for him it was never outside, and he knew more about it than most of us did; maintaining contact with his innumerable friends; reading everything within reach; praying for mankind, whose manifold miseries he knew at first hand and lived with daily; performing his offices at the monastery, and when he was free from those, retiring to his hermitage in the woods; and always, always dashing off those letters, which of course he had no time for, yet nevertheless managed to make infinitely delightful to us who received them.
On the four occasions when I visited him at Gethsemani he was perfect in hospitality; seemed not to be busy, though I knew he was; spoke to me of my friends who were bis friends too, by proxy or otherwise—James Thurber, Joseph Wood Krutch, Robert Lax, Robert Giroux; went riding with me about the monastery grounds and beyond; told stories, asked me if I remembered this or that, commented acutely upon current events around the world; and at the gate, when I was leaving, sent messages of great sweetness to those he knew were nearest me.
His death was more than a blow; it was heartbreaking, and that is why I began as I did with the letter of July 23rd which showed how boyishly eager he was to set out for Asia. That he did not come back is more terrible than I can say. The character of this man—“but it is something very hard to put into words.”