Thomas Merton, born on January 31, 1915, eventually became a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky — and was a “spiritual giant” who influenced countless thousands of people in their search for God and for the meaning of their lives. He was a personal “hero” of mine and I am one of the many beneficiaries of his copious writings and tapes on contemplation, spirituality, peace and war (as the monastic contemplative life did not keep him from reflecting on some very pressing and timely challenges to a Christian response to political and armed conflicts, especially in the Fifties and Sixties).
This dedicated monk hardly ever left the cloistered monastery in Kentucky and its commitment to silence. But he died on December 10, 1968 of electrocution near Bangkok, Thailand.
Merton had requested a rare permission to respond to the invitation of Asian monastics to share his thoughts with them at a significant meeting to be held at a Red Cross conference center at Samut Prakan, 30 kms. north of Bangkok. He had presented his paper that morning, and had returned to his room in one of the cottages to shower and rest. He died immediately after an accidental shock from a large electric fan he turned on near his bed.
From the day the world received the tragic and unexpected news, I’ve always been moved to reflection on the fragility of human life — no difference in how valued and lauded was the victim.
When the opportunity arose in 1985 for a priest-friend and me to plan a visit to Thailand (actually to hike for a week or so in the northern jungle area known as the “Golden Triangle”–where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet), I was determined to follow that adventure with a “pilgrimage” to pray at the place where Merton died. In keeping with the common Asian culture of not drawing attention to tragic or embarrassing events (especially of worldwide interest), after the Conference was over the place was never used again and, pretty much, never discussed at all. “Nothing happened” was the attitude.
Fortunately, Dom Bede Griffiths, a noted Benedictine monk, was also at the Conference and later wrote some details of that day in one of his books. I found it and discovered the “time-line” and a description of the cottage and the room in which Merton was staying. To spare you the details, through considerable inquiries and use of maps and translators, we hired a taxi to drive us the 18 miles to where the Conference Center had been. Finally we came upon an overgrown and almost abandoned group of small cottages — with one caretaker who knew no English. Somehow, we managed to get his permission to wander through the area and take a look at where, unknown by him, a wonderful spiritual conference of monks (Buddhists have them too!) had taken place in 1968. The doors to the cottages were not locked though no one lived in any of them nor did they seem in regular use.
The first two cottages did not match Bede Griffith’s description of a partition-type wall which was about twelve feet long and ceiling high, but oddly open about two feet from the floor. This was the room Merton was assigned. We found it in the third cottage, and opened the door to find a bedroom about 12 by 16 feet, with a single bed and mattress in the far right corner — and a tall metal electric fan up near the bed! He had noted that Merton hit his head and bled when he fell by the fan after the shock. The floor was terrazzo, but no sign of anything unusual. Apparently someone had moved the bed to cover the rather large blood stain because, when I moved it away, our quest was completed. We were awestruck, and humbled.
After about a half-hour of silence and deep prayer– grateful for the gift to the world of Thomas Merton– and joyful that our pilgrimage had been rewarded so wonderfully, we returned to the taxi which had been waiting at the entrance to the compound. For us, it is even twenty-nine years later as profound and real as though it were yesterday. And we still profit greatly from his wisdom and holiness. May he be with God forever.