Thomas Louis Merton (1915-1968) was an American monk and writer who was born in Prades, France, the son of artists. In his teen years he was orphaned and then lived a very unsettled life until he moved to the United States in 1935. (His mother was an American.) After studying literature at Columbia University he became familiar with Catholicism and after study and prayer entered the Catholic Church in 1938. (Not your typical spiritual journey, via literature at Columbia University, to the church.)
Merton then taught at both Columbia and St. Bonaventure, writing poetry and fiction on the side. In 1941 he entered a Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky. His monastic name was Brother Louis. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1949. It was his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), that brought him the first international fame that he received. It became a huge best-seller and continues to sell to this day. From 1949, until his untimely death from electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968, Thomas Merton published prolifically and maintained extensive personal correspondence with numerous people, famous and otherwise. His most enduring emphasis was on contemplation, the simple every-day awareness of God. He maintained that the way to escape the "prison" of false, egocentric self-hood was to pursue every moment of the day with a complete openness to God. He argued that contemplation was not just for monks but for active people who lived and worked in all stations of life. This emphasis has made Merton quite popular with readers from all backgrounds. (He later explored the common ground that Christians can have with non-Christian religions, making his work controversial as well.)
I find Merton quite helpful in some ways but certainly not as theologically sound as I would like. His spirituality is intensely practical but it was also highly mystical in ways that move away from some biblical categories of sanctification. Even among Catholics his work is not universally popular. Though I have read some Thomas Merton I much prefer Henri Nouwen when it comes to modern contemplative Catholic writers. Nouwen speaks more simply and practically to my own heart and deep need.
A Catholic friend, who is on the front lines of real evangelism in Chicago, sent me an email today that had this quote from Thomas Merton in it. Read this quotation and see how it speaks to your heart. It is vintage Thomas Merton.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.