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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (CC '38) is an influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century and the most prominent among Columbia Catholic alumni. (Learn more.)

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"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him"

— John 3:16-17

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About Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, CC '38 (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century and definitely the most prominent among Columbia Catholic alumni. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

Merton, known in the monastery as Fr. Louis, was born on 31 January 1915 in Prades, southern France. The young Merton attended schools in France, England, and the United States.

At Columbia University in New York City, he came under the influence of some remarkable teachers of literature, including Mark Van Doren, Daniel C. Walsh, and Joseph Wood Krutch. Merton entered the Catholic Church in 1938 in the wake of a rather dramatic conversion experience. Shortly afterward, he completed his masters thesis, “On Nature and Art in William Blake.”

Following some teaching at Columbia University Extension and at St. Bonaventure’s College, Olean, New York, Merton entered the monastic community of the Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, Kentucky, on 10 December 1941. His autobiography, which was published under the title The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), became a best-seller and a classic. During the next 20 years, Merton wrote prolifically on a vast range of topics, including the contemplative life, prayer, and religious biographies. His writings would later take up controversial issues (e.g., social problems and Christian responsibility: race relations, violence, nuclear war, and economic injustice) and a developing ecumenical concern. He was one of the first Catholics to commend the great religions of the East to Roman Catholic Christians in the West.

Merton died by accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, while attending a meeting of religious leaders on 10 December 1968, just 27 years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Many esteem Thomas Merton as a spiritual master, a brilliant writer, and a man who embodied the quest for God and for human solidarity. Since his death, many volumes by him have been published, including five volumes of his letters and seven of his personal journals. According to present count, more than 60 titles of Merton’s writings are in print in English, not including the numerous doctoral dissertations and books about the man, his life, and his writings.

At Columbia University, every year a prominent Catholic figure gives a major talk named for the late Thomas Merton which is sponsored by the Catholic Chaplain's office. Since its inception in 1978, this annual lecture has become the most prestigious religious lecture given at Columbia University.

(Some biographical information of Thomas Merton courtesy of The Abbey of Gethseman.)

Thomas Merton Lecture Series

This annual lecture has been a premier Catholic event at Columbia since 1978. Our last lecture was delivered by Professor William Theodore de Bary of Columbia University October 11th, 2010. Click here for the full text of Professor de Bary's lecture on "Merton, Matteo Ricci, and Confucianism".