December 10, 1968: The Death of Thomas Merton

by Bob Schwartz

Thomas Merton died on this date in 1968. It was an untimely and unusual death, and happened on the anniversary of his entering the monastery in 1941.

He was traveling in Asia at the time. We are fortunate to have not only his many books, but also seven volumes of his journals. At that moment, he was intensifying his long-time interest in Asian religions, particularly Buddhism.

Merton readers and students—and there are millions—see in his later writings and testimony of others suggestions that at the time of his death he was planning to leave the monastery and pursue (return to) a more worldly life. If I ever participated in that speculation, maybe a more mature spiritual life has made me realize the question is pointless. Not just because we will never know, but because for someone as spiritually rich and talented as Merton, and so generous with his spiritual wealth, doubts and all, it is beside the point.

Here is the last journal entry before he died:

December 8, 1968. Bangkok

A Dutch abbot who is staying with an attaché of the Dutch Legation came around to the hotel yesterday and we went to Silom Road again, to find Dom Leclercq and others who had arrived. Most of the delegates were arriving today and I will go to the Red Cross place where we are supposed to stay and where the meeting is to be held. It is 30 kilometers out of Bangkok. The Dutch abbot was trying to talk me into participating in a TV interview but I am not sure it is such a good idea, for various reasons. And first of all I find the idea very distasteful. The suggestion that it would be “good for the Church” strikes me as fatuous as far as my own participation is concerned. It would be much “better for the Church” if I refrained.

It is good to have a second time round with these cities. Calcutta, Delhi, and now Bangkok. It now seems quite a different city. I did not recognize the road in from the airport, and the city which had seemed, before, somewhat squalid, now appears to be, as it is, in many ways affluent and splendid. What has happened, of course, is that the experience of places like Calcutta and Pathankot has changed everything and given a better perspective in which to view Bangkok. The shops are full of good things. There is a lot to eat. Lots of fruits, rice, bottles, medicines, shirts, shoes, machinery, and meat (for non-Buddhists). And the stores near the Oriental Hotel are really splendid. So too is the Oriental itself. I have a fine split-level dwelling high over the river, and you enter it through an open veranda on the other side, looking out over the city.

I went to Silom Road, walked into the French Foreign Missions place and found it deserted. I wandered around in the rooms looking at the titles of books on the shelves: [Sir Walter) Scott’s Marmion, André Maurois, along with Edward Schillebeeckx, a set of Huysmans, I forget what else-lots of magazines from Études to Paris-Match. Finally Fr. Leduc appeared, and presently-he told me to wait-the superior, P. Verdier, came in with Abbot de Floris, who is running the meeting, and Fr. Gordan. They said there was mail for me; it turned out to be a letter from Winifred Karp, the young girl who stayed with the nuns at the Redwoods, forwarded from Calcutta. I have a hunch some of my mail will be getting lost in this shift.

The flight over Malaysia: dark-blue land, islands fringed with fine sand, aquamarine sea. Lots of clouds. It was a Japan Air Lines plane. They made me weigh my hand luggage, which put me overweight for the economy class allowance, so instead of just paying more for nothing I paid the difference for a first-class ticket, thus covering it with the bigger baggage allowance. And had a very comfortable ride, overeating, drinking two free, and strong, Bloody Marys, and talking to a diplomatic courier for the State Department, who by now is getting ready to fly on to Karachi in Pakistan on the night Pan Am plane.

This evening I took a walk through Bangkok, down past the Post Office and into Chinatown. A Chinese Buddhist temple was all lit up and having some kind of fair, preparing a stage for a show, food for a banquet, and booths were selling all kinds of trinkets, lights, and incense. I went in and wandered around. There were hundreds of kids playing. Older people happy and fairly busy preparing whatever it was. Perhaps something to do with the king, whose birthday was yesterday. The city is full of flags, signs saying “Long live our noble King” and huge pictures of Phumiphol Aduldet himself, now as a Thai general and now as a bhikkhu in the lotus posture.

Last night I had a good Hungarian dinner at Nikas No. 1 (where, however, I seem to have been grossly shortchanged) and went on to see an Italian movie about some criminals in Milan, a quasi-documentary. It was not bad, very well filmed, and worth seeing.

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon.

The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (The Journals of Thomas Merton v. 7)