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The Death of Thomas Merton, A Novel

A Confessional Portrayal of the Last Day in the Life of Thomas Merton, the Famous Catholic Monk and Writer

A Fact-Based Novel set on Thomas Merton's last dayby Paul Hourihan
168 pages, 8.5“x 5.5” (Quality paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-931816-01-4
$13.95  Retail Price

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Paul Hourihan’s powerful new voice challenges our most basic assumptions about religion and spirituality in this intense, unforgettable rendering—in semi-fictional form—of the last hours of Thomas Merton’s life.

Why did the famous Catholic monk and acclaimed writer, die so mysteriously and suddenly in a cottage room outside of Bangkok in December 1968?

In this radical reinterpretation of Merton’s character, Hourihan provides a convincing explanation to this question, which a multitude of Catholics, and others, have asked themselves. He probes the enigmatic event with such insight that the significance of Merton’s death is finally illuminated.

He sees Merton as a tragically divided soul unable to resolve his conflicts within a Christian framework and was driven for release into the world of Oriental mysticism. He also views him as a man who should not have become a monk in the first place, falling victim as he did to his own spiritual inadequacies, as well as to fame, and uncritical hero-worship from laity and clergy, both lacking knowledge of what constituted a true mystic. This fact-based confessional novel will appeal to ex-Catholics and others with a Christian background searching for guidance outside of their traditional faith.

Revealed in this spiritual book, is the unsuspected gap between the reality and the image of this 20th century Catholic icon, exposing the truth behind the façade. Consequently, it is not recommended for warm admirers of Thomas Merton, who want to maintain their cherished image of him.

Hourihan demythologizes Thomas Merton, a man sadly unsuited for the role his followers imposed on him. His basic conclusion is that Westerners lack grounding in a mystical orientation that would instruct them about the nature of spirituality. Hourihan, an American himself, reveals Western religious institutions as inadequate for understanding the mystical traditions of the world.

A Note of Caution

Rooted in the mysticism of the East, The Death of Thomas Merton is not intended to confuse or disturb the faith of anyone, but it is a novel likely to seem overly provocative to many, that may offend Westerners comfortable in their religious beliefs—especially warm admirers of Thomas Merton.

As religious faith is our most treasured possession, those who have it should guard it carefully. The present work is not for some.

No one should be ashamed of acting prudently in so crucial an area. We all know the experience of exposing our minds to books or films which, in retrospect, we would have done better to avoid. For certain individuals The Death of Thomas Merton may be such an experience.

The “Preface” should be examined to help in coming to a decision.

“In this complex work of fiction based on the last day in Thomas Merton’s life, Paul Hourihan has worked with words on the canvas of Merton’s life to create a dynamic picture of how his inner dialog and his spirit’s quest may have evolved on that December day of 1968 in Bangkok. Through Hourihan’s words Merton has become even more exalted in my consideration, because through The Death of Thomas Merton I see myself in him and him in me. He is even more to be called venerable for his confrontation with a conflict that, were it fully known by his higher-ups, could potentially have raised the roof of theological and philosophical attitude.

“In Hourihan’s book we sample what life is all about in our inner worlds through his portrayal of Merton. I highly recommend it to all readers, no matter what their opinion is about Thomas Merton, for they’ll put down the book—having finished it—with greatly enhanced insight.

“To me, the real question raised by Hourihan’s novel is, on that day when Thomas Merton died so suddenly, did something really die or was something being born?”

– Lily G. Stephen, author of The Third Verse Trilogy, Blooming Rose Press

“… A profound and thoughtful testimony … very highly recommended reading both as a work of fact-based fiction and as a thoughtfully speculative portrayal of Thomas Merton in terms of his life and his thought.”

– The Midwest Book Review, Oregon, WI


WHY DID THOMAS MERTON DIE—at such a time, in such a way?

In December 1968 Merton, the Trappist monk and world-famous author, expired suddenly in Bangkok while attending an international monastic conference. Accidental death by electrocution was the verdict.

He would have died instantly—with no warning, no time to prepare himself.

Merton, at the height of his powers and peak of his influence, had come to mean much to great numbers of Christians in his generation. For tens of thousands he was a pathfinder, an exemplary figure of his age. That a life so vital and expanding was so indifferently extinguished violates for many their sense of justice and appropriateness.

The apparently meaningless end cries out for some attempt at clarification of what took place that December day—and of the background that led to it. The present work is an imaginative version of what might have happened; one answer perhaps to the nagging question, why?

We make this effort not only to interpret as pivotal a figure as Thomas Merton but for the sake of our own lives with their ever-shifting measures of light and darkness.

When Merton died with such brutal suddenness and, as it were, neglect, the darkness of ignorance seemed to increase perceptibly and has so remained … as long as we continue to turn away from the challenge of the mystery.

If we can achieve greater insight not only into Merton’s death but into his life as well, we may cast more light upon the problem of how we ourselves propose to live.

At issue, then, is not so much the enigma of Thomas Merton and his death as that of our own destinies. The profound reflections that arise in our minds after pondering the manner of his departure are of greater moment than particular ideas his individual career may generate. He is essentially the catalyst in the mixture, the precipitating agent for our investigation.

Many will discourage the attempt on the grounds that it is not for us to question the will of Providence. But here the mystery compels us to question—not in the sense of opposing or doubting but of discovering what that Will actually was.

Or we are told that we cannot know the ways of God. Yet in fact we can know, in part at least. Surely that is one of the purposes driving human life: our ability to know or conjecture the ways of Providence. What goal is more rewarding to pursue?

We hear that his death was simply “accidental.” But in a world ruled by law and justice, as, despite appearances, we must believe, can there be true accidents in a life that has gained significance?

“He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? … He that teacheth man knowledge, shall he not know?” (Psalms 94:9-10)

Or one is told that God takes care of his own. Someone who was not—not yet necessary to the divine purpose—might well have died precisely as Merton did, as so many do in the same sudden, “accidental” fashion. Souls whose time—for Truth, for saintliness, for release from the bonds that fetter us—has not yet come.

Why was Thomas Merton one of them?

For his time had come, or seemed to have. But perhaps not. We may have been mistaken in what we took him to be.

This will be a disturbing train of thought for many, and no doubt it is out of wariness toward just such ideas that devoted Merton followers choose not to look too closely into any aspect of his death. One can sympathize with them, but the need to know, where knowledge may be possible, is more compelling, and that is the motive that must guide us.
Merton’s journals and letters of his last two months—those written during the Asian journey—have been examined closely for clues to his mysterious end; they tell us little. In these communications he seemed, outwardly at least, his normal self. But in tracing the course of his tragedy the dutiful record of the final weeks should not be our principal criterion. To find the truth that has eluded us, we have to look elsewhere and intuit what was going on in his life. For, in view of what befell him, something assuredly was.

Indeed, our sense of Merton’s known personality has shed no real light on his death or on the factors that may have led up to it. It is the unknown Merton we must call into being.

Since nonfiction is comfortable with known parameters, and fiction with the unknown, I have chosen the form of the novel to search out hidden facets of his complex nature of which hitherto we have been too little aware. In this effort the role of the creative imagination—fortified by meditative practice and brought to bear upon important aspects of his life—has been indispensable.

Although it is the unknown Merton I am seeking, I have made use of familiar events of his career as a realistic framework to provide immediate verisimilitude and ease of recognition. In short, the character of Thomas Merton portrayed here is based, more or less freely, on the historical figure, and the work as a whole on facts generally verifiable. The interpretation is new.

In analyzing him we should not forget how different Merton’s time—the fifties and sixties—was from our own today, nor how much he was a product of his era. Its religious belief—system and mindset may still be real for only a few today but, both in acceptance and rejection, they were real for him then. Feeling acutely its passions, discontents, and changes, and often contending with the transitional mid-century atmosphere of its Catholicism, Merton fought the battles that others in our time do not have to fight. In the overall assessment of his life, his courage is never in question.

A Technical Note

A large, defectively wired fan killed Merton with a current of 220 volts. It is believed he may have attempted to move it while still wet from a shower or that, slipping on the stone floor of his room, he had reached out to the fan to support himself.

If either supposition is correct, his hands would have been inevitably burned along with other parts of his body. In fact, while his torso was severely burned, his hands were untouched. Which obviously means that he had not tried to grasp or adjust the fan, and that when he collided with it he was not fully conscious: it being impossible to imagine anyone falling against a large electric fan while conscious without thrusting out his hands for protection or support.

A likelier explanation is that, dazed by a stroke or heart attack, he fell against the fan in his convulsion, the front of his body first to come in contact with it.

The seizure itself could not have been “accidental”—that would merely beg the question of why. It must have been purposeful in expressing symbolically some major conflict in Merton’s psyche. From that standpoint we could interpret the attack as suicidal, or semi-suicidal—as doubtless many such in essence are.

Seen in this light, his death—and life—assume another dimension, and the approach taken in the following pages is corroborated by the actual circumstances of his demise.

The interpretation taken in The Death of Thomas Merton, A Novel is both heretical and controversial.

It is cast in the form of a confessional novel depicting the last day in the life of Merton, the Trappist monk and acclaimed writer, a hero and role model for great numbers of Catholics in the 1950s and 60s … and even today. In December 1968 at the age of 53, during a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand, he died of electrocution in his hotel room. (The “Preface” provides an explanation of this, as well as the significance of my choice of the literary form of the novel.)

I view Merton as a tragically divided soul for several years prior to his death. On the one hand there was his faltering allegiance to the Roman Church and his still strong, though anxious loyalty to his multitude of followers—on the other, his realization of unfitness for the monastic life. I see him as unable to solve his conflicts within a Christian framework and driven for release—unsuccessfully, and too late—into the world of Oriental mysticism; as a man who should not have become a monk in the first place—victimized by his fame, by uncritical hero‑worship from both laity and clergy, and by his own spiritual inadequacies.

For a month prior to the Bangkok conference he visits India and is emotionally overwhelmed by the experience.

He wishes to renounce the Church, to embrace Oriental religion and throw himself completely into its path, but he cannot and will not—for the sake of so many followers who, as he well knows, would be crushed by such an action. He cannot take that step, cannot remain in India, cannot set up a new and independent movement—yet cannot return as he was, cannot go back and be a Trappist monk any more, cannot be a Catholic again.

He does not know what to do, there is no one he can talk to about his problem, the pressure becomes intolerable. Throughout the book a Voice—the voice of his new emerging self, like a voice heard in dreams—speaks to him as a higher consciousness to guide, enlighten, and warn him. Now again he engages in dialogue in extremis with this subliminal voice that cautions him not to take his own life as a way out—suicide will not be permitted either: for the same reason—namely, the shock and disillusion it would arouse in so many of his readers and admirers.

He feels that he has lived too long, that he can never solve his problems, that his hypocrisy in masquerading as a monk and deep mystical thinker will soon betray him, that if he lives much longer everyone will find him out.

Racked by his conflicts, he suffers a heart seizure in his room; in his convulsion he blindly staggers against a huge electric fan, the current turned on—the wiring faulty. He is electrocuted and falls to the floor with the fan clinging to him. 

Paul Hourihan, mystic and teacher, was born and educated in Boston where he earned a doctorate in American literature. For 15 years he taught dozens of courses and gave many lectures on the subject of great mystics and mysticism in Ontario, Canada. Committed to the spiritual path for over 45 years and a close student of India’s Vedantic philosophy, he becomes a suitable commentator on the significance of the death of the influential monk and writer.