Thomas Merton had early experiences of death as both his parents died – his mother when he was six and his father when Merton was nearly 16. Looking back Merton writes that he ‘never doubted the fact that his father’s soul, or his mother’s, were immortal’, but as a child and adolescent he did not experience the comfort that religion can offer. When his brother John Paul died years later it was different as Merton’s faith allowed him to give this some meaning and to see death as no longer a wall, but rather a door to a homecoming, an act of complete liberation into a new mode of being.
As a monk Thomas Merton was taught how to live and how to die; he saw living solitude as a way of preparing for this. In December 1964 he writes, ‘How often in the last years I have thought of death. It has been present to me and I have “understood” it, and known that I must die. Yet last night, only for a moment, in passing, and so to speak without grimness or drama I monetarily experienced the fact that I, this self, will soon simply not exist. A flash of the “not-thereness of being dead”.’ This insight Merton thought was a real fruit of his increasing opportunity for solitude in the hermitage. Living in solitude was a way of preparing for death and influenced by further reading Merton saw death as a critical point of growth or ‘transition to a new mode of being, to maturity and to fruitfulness’. Eternal life is pure reality in the ‘hidden ground of love’ that is God.
In ‘Love and Living’ Merton wrote about the ‘death-orientated society’ where ‘the fear of death becomes so powerful that it results in a flat refusal of life … the empty power of death creeps into everything and sickens everything …Thus we live as if death were always ready to exercise this inescapable power over us. Death is life afraid to love and trust itself because it is so obsessed with its own contingency and its own ending … in seeking to convince themselves of their own power to survive, men seek to destroy others who are weaker than themselves … In the society of men who are exclusively intent on their own pleasure and survival, even though it has no meaning, just because they are convinced that their life ought to be interminable, death begins to play a very important part … obsession with power and wealth inevitably means obsession with death … in a death-orientated society, even though it may seem very dynamic and powerful, death becomes the end of life in the sense of its goal, and this is made at least symbolically evident by the fact that money, machines, bombs, etc., are all regarded as more important than living people.’
Once again Merton’s prophetic voice speaks to our contemporary age…