Thomas Merton on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death

In his journal dated April 6, 1968, Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist Monk and spiritual writer, reflected on the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just two days before. King had been planning to visit the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani to make a retreat with Thomas Merton shortly after his trip to Memphis, where he was murdered on April 4, 1968. Here are some of the thoughts that Merton wrote two days later as he reflected on the event.

April 6, 1968

So the murder of M. L. King — it lay on the top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. And it finally confirmed all the apprehensions — the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year. That the things are finally, inexorably, spelling themselves out. Why? Are things happening because people in desperation want┬áthem to happen? Or do they have to happen? Is the human race self-destructive? Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must on just “love” in an impossible situation? And what sense can possibly be made by an authoritarian Church that comes out 100 years late with its official pronouncements?

…yesterday I wrote a letter to Mrs. King and sent it via June Yungblut. June had written a letter Wednesday from Atlanta — a curiously sensitive and prophetic letter (she and John had been urging M. L. King to make a retreat here): “Martin is going to Memphis today…He won’t be back until the weekend so John won’t see him (i.e., about the retreat) until next week. I hope both he and Nhat Hanh will soon go to Gethsemani…If Martin had taken a period there he might have had the wisdom in repose to stay out of Memphis in the first place, and it was a mistake to go there. He had done no preparation and come in cold to a hot situation where the young militants had him just where they wanted him… If there is violence today Memphis will be to King what Cuba was to Kennedy…If Memphis is to be Martin’s Jerusalem instead of Washington…”

April 9, 1968. Tuesday in Holy Week

…The funeral of M. L. King is today. June wrote again, about the calm and heroism of Coretta King. John Howard Griffin — a shocked note from a Motel in Utica “when will they also shoot the rest of us?”

Text and Photo: Merton Legacy Trust
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