December 10: The Life and Death Circle of Thomas Merton

Merton spoke of his life as a circle: “Our destiny is to go on beyond everything, to leave everything, to press forward to the End and find in the End our Beginning, the ever-new beginning that has no end.”

Thomas Merton with camera. Photographer unknown. From

Merton’s mentor and mine, Meister Eckhart, describes life as a circle: the soul is a “circle of the world,” and humans are meant to be a “circle…filled with the spirit of the Lord.”  For Eckhart, life is a “flowing out” and a “flowing back,” we flow out of the Godhead when we are born and we flow back to the Godhead when we return to our Source.  Thus, a circle. 

The Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, which Merton traveled in depth, also constitute a circle insofar as they name the ever-expanding spiral from the Via Positiva to the Via Transformativa and back to the Via Positiva again.

Chambered Nautilus. Photo from Pixabay on Pexels.

Merton spoke of life as a pilgrimage similar to anga, or pilgrimage in the Zen tradition: “The purpose of anga is to convince the monk of the fact that his whole life is a search, in exile, for his true home.”  In many ways that was Merton’s life: a search, a pilgrimage, a never-ending journey for truth and light.  A return to the Source.  And the sharing of what he found.  The circle is complete with his death, but it is not a closed circle as long as we are alive.  It is open, like a spiral. 

When Merton told us that “in my ending is my meaning”, he names a kind of circular journey.  If he died a martyr, as I believe he did and as research has demonstrated,* his death speaks as loudly as his life and his work. 

Vintage wagon wheel. Photo by Thomas Merton, from the Thomas Merton Center, reprinted in A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey by Matthew Fox.

Merton experienced a full circle that carried him beyond Western culture and religion and ideology.  He died far away from home.  As part of his meaning, he became an example of a world consciousness, as distinct from a nationalistic one.  And an ecumenical consciousness, as distinct from a sectarian one. 

That his death day was December 10 and his entrance into his monastery was December 10 twenty-eight years earlier is also a circle for sure. 

It is for this reason that I was so taken when I saw one of Merton’s photographs at the Thomas Merton center and asked to reproduce it in this book. It is of an old wagon wheel, very beat up and with many chipped and broken pieces on it, demonstrating how it has survived through years of a rugged existence. I think this photograph by Merton speaks loudly about his own journey: Our life journeys are rugged—as his certainly was—with many broken pieces and wounds acquired along the way.

Life, death, and return constitute another circle.  This is true of all of us.  So we call on Thomas Merton on this day to bless the pilgrimages that constitute our lives and which can be damaged—yet still a circle, still a whole.

See Hugh Turley & David Martin, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation (Hyattsville, Md., McCabe Publishing, 2018).

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 254-257.

Banner Image: Untitled. Photo by Sylvia Zhou on Unsplash

What does Thomas Merton’s journey mean to you? 

Do you see a circle at work in your life as well?

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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7 thoughts on “December 10: The Life and Death Circle of Thomas Merton”

    1. Phila Hoopes

      Hello Christine,
      If you read the book cited in the Endnotes (Hugh Turley & David Martin, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation) you can follow all the details of the investigation.

      Phila Hoopes
      Blog Coordinator

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      Because of his opposition to the Vietnam war. He was the first religious leader to oppose it publicly (even before his friend MLK, Jr). And he “coached” the Berrigan brothers and others on civil disobedience, etc. And because his final talk, “Karl Marx and Monasticism,” was given in southeast Asia and its title was announced well in advance all over Asia where he was traveling. And many in the American government were anti Karl Marx (tho most were ignorant of what he taught). I explain this in my book on Merton.

  1. Avatar

    Among mystics of the 20th century, Judaism’s Abraham Isaac Kook, Islam’s Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Hinduism’s Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Christianity’s Thomas Merton, and Buddhism’s 14th Dalai Lama were both esteemed within and respected outside their religion.

  2. Avatar

    Oh my God, this information about Thomas Merton was shocking news to me!! This was OUR government? Lord have mercy on us.

    1. Avatar

      He did not see the body. Those who did were interviewed by the authors of the book. AND there is a photo–I have it actually now–that they took and it shows blood coming from his neck. That is not what happens with electrocution (the made up story of how he died plugging in a fan). The monks and nun (who was also a doctor) who discovered the body with a fan on top of it ALL felt immediately that it was a staged situation. The Thai government and police together with the american embassy and military and Merton’s monastery all covered up the truth (and refused an autopsy). The fan electrocution story came from the monastery. No doubt the monastery was threatened by the cia not to do an autopsy or pursue any investigation. The book I allude to is the only serious investigation attempted.

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