Born in Prades, France, Thomas Merton had a trying and painful childhood—his mother died when he was six, and his father (an artist who moved from place to place, often leaving young Thomas unattended) died when he was fifteen. In his teens and early twenties Merton led a prodigal, sensual life in his search for fulfillment.
In his mid-twenties Merton experienced a profound conversion while attending Columbia University, and he joined the Roman Catholic church. At the age of twenty-six he entered Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky where he would live the rest of his life as a Trappist monk.
In 1948 he published The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography that mirrored the spiritual climate of the times. It quickly became an international best-seller. Merton went on to write many more books that made a significant impact on the face of Western spirituality. Known for his journal writing, meditations, and social critique, Merton continues to influence the late twentieth century in many ways.
Some criticize his attempts to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western spirituality, but he never surrendered his belief in the importance of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In the same vein, Merton also held a delicate balance between the inner and the outer life—contemplation and action. Because of this he was able to have an influence not only in the Church, but in the secular world as well. His accidental death in 1968 was a tragic loss, yet Merton continues to inspire countless men and women.