Priests are an endangered species. Hardly a month passes without headlines of a priest murdered in Africa. Cameroon, Central African Republic, Nigeria and South Sudan have all lost Catholic clergy this year due to violence. Two years ago an ICIS jihadist stabbed and slit the throat of an elderly French priest on his parish altar in Normandy.
Catholics are now praying to St. Oscar Romero, canonized in October just 38 years after he was shot by an assassin as he lifted the host in the act of consecration. Scores of missionaries in Latin America, Asia and Africa have lost their lives to violence since Romero’s killing in 1980.
But what about Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose death 50 years ago this week (Dec. 10, 1968) in Bangkok, Thailand is being marked by thousands of his devoted readers? Was he murdered by CIA or other assassins for his outspokenness against the Vietnam War, his critical stance on nuclear weapons, on made-in-America racism, or his cry against capitalism’s empire-building by way of global violence?
In The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, an Investigation, Hugh Turley and David Martin conjecture that the monk was struck in the back of the head by either a pointed object or a bullet fired from a gun with a silencer while in his room at the Sawangke Vivas center, 15 miles south of Bangkok. Merton and other religious were staying at the center while attending an international meeting of Catholic abbots. The monk had returned to his room after giving a speech earlier that morning and after eating lunch.
The authors call “preposterous” the long-held explanation that Merton stepped out of the shower and then tried to move a large floor fan with an apparently faulty cord and was electrocuted. They describe Merton as lying on the floor, his legs and arms straight, his palms facing down as if placed in a coffin.
Turley and Martin base their description on a photo taken by Benedictine Fr. Celestine Say as Merton’s body lay on the floor, the fan still atop his thigh and reaching to the opposite side of his lower waist.
Say of the Philippines and Benedictine Archabbot Egbert Donovan of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Penn. both shared rooms close to Merton’s and were among the first to come upon his body, the authors report. Both found the death scene with the still-running fan “suspicious,” the authors write, and Donovan urged Say to take a photo before Merton’s body was moved. “His body had several cuts and burns,” according to an obituary in the Kentucky-Standard of Bardstown Dec. 19, 1968.
A copy of Say’s photo is part of the archives of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ken. and of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ken., where Merton lived 27 years, Dr. Paul Pearson said. Pearson directs the Merton Center at Bellarmine.
The original film, which includes two photos of the death scene, is part of the John Howard Griffin archives in Columbia University’s Butler Library. Griffin was the first official biographer of Merton, but was unable to finish the project due to ill health.
Neither photo appears in the book as the authors failed to gain the permission of Fr. Elias Dietz, the Abbot of Gethsemani, to reproduce them. However they are described in great detail.
Whether Merton’s death was an accident or a crime might well have been determined 50 years ago with an autopsy. None was done. Instead the Abbey was told by the U.S. Embassy that according to Thai law if an autopsy was done, Merton would have to be buried in Thailand. The monks wanted him to be buried at Gethsemani. But the authors say there was no such law, only an invention of the embassy.
Though many people might have been glad to see Merton out of the way, or at least relieved that his prolific outpourings of essays and letters critical of the war – two written to President Lyndon Johnson --had been halted, the authors have no proof of his presumed murderer. But the curious reader may find intriguing their descriptions of a Belgian Benedictine, who has seemingly managed to fall off the face of the earth – and his abbey-- since the deed was allegedly done. The monk, Fr. Francois De Grunne, was the last person known to have been with Merton when he returned to his room after lunch.
A few years ago Matthew Fox spoke with two CIA agents who were in Southeast Asia at the time of Merton’s death. Fox asked them if they killed Merton. The first replied: “I will neither affirm it nor deny it.” The second talked about how inundated with money they were at that time in Southeast Asia and how there was no accountability whatsoever, said Fox, a spiritual theologian and Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Northern California.
“Any CIA agent who felt Merton was a threat to the country could have had him killed with no questions asked,” Fox said via e-mail. He also reports this in his book, A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey.
More recently Fox met a third CIA agent and asked him pointblank: “Did you guys kill Merton?”
“Yes,” the agent replied, adding: “The last 40 years of my life I have been cleansing my soul from the actions I was involved in in the name of the CIA in Southeast Asia as a young man.”
For Fox that admission is proof the CIA killed the monk. “Merton died a martyr for peace – as did his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the hands of the U.S. Government,” said the former Dominican priest and author of 36 books.
Conjectures about Merton’s death may still be rife when the centenary of his passing arrives in 2068. A heart attack as suggested in the Thai police report. Electrocution from a faulty fan as in the most- quoted death scenario. Head wounds as a result of a fall. These are all possibilities, Pearson noted. “The cause of (his) death is uncertain.”
Commemorations of the 50th anniversary of whatever death Merton experienced have been going on for months across the nation and the world. From Argentina to Britain, Canada to Poland and across 12 American states exhibitions, Masses and services of remembrances have been held or are planned.
Louisville artist Joe McGee wondered what is it about Merton that “draws so many of us together like a magnet 50 years after he left this Earth.” The answer may be found not only in McGee and artist Penny Sisto’s art works on display at Bellarmine, but also in many of the 70 books the monk authored.
Merton once said he would rather hoe beans or pitch hay than write books. He often disowned the main character in The Seven Story Mountain, his sensational autobiography written at the Abbey and published in 1948. But Fr. Daniel Walsh, his teacher and friend since their days at Columbia in the late 1930s, said Merton loved when readers told him the book “brought them closer to God.”
In his homily preached at Merton’s funeral and available on the Merton Center website, Walsh speaks of the monk’s lifelong search for God, which was at times “thorny,” but one in which he “never wavered in his steadfast devotion to the God of his deeply religious faith.” In return Merton “was given great gifts of mind and heart,” Walsh said. “His humility, patience and perseverance were the added reward of his abiding faith.”
Walsh likened Merton’s spiritual and intellectual gifts to those of John XXIII with whom he exchanged letters and gifts. The Trappist and the Pontiff shared the charism of recognizing “the unity of spirit and person in all of us.” Both men understood that “the spiritual is primarily the work of God… not man,” Walsh said, calling this truth “humbly satisfying to the people of God.”
Merton’s superior and friend, Abbot Flavian Burns told monks at a Mass the day following Merton’s death that the monk was ready for death. The two spoke of death before Merton set off on his Asia trip. “The possibility of death was not absent from his mind,” Burns said. “He even saw a certain fittingness in dying over there amidst those Asian monks, who symbolized for him man’s ancient and perennial desire for the deep things of God,” the abbot said.
Merton’s death at 53 while sad and shocking was celebrated – and continues to be recalled – with the alleluias of Easter. Would that have been possible 50 years ago in the midst of a terrible war had anyone suspected he had been murdered? The question – like the search for God – continues.
© Patricia Lefevere and used with permission.