Twenty years after Thomas Merton's death, the most famous monk of the 20th century remains a highly influential guru for thousands of admirers worldwide as well as a man shrouded in mystery.

Born in France and educated at Cambridge and Columbia universities, Merton's fame originally stemmed from an autobiography penned in 1946 - "The Seven Story Mountain."A surprise bestseller, the book recounted the young intellectual's spiritual struggles in which he first embraced the Roman Catholic faith and then forsook a budding New York academic career for the solitude and strict life of a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani abbey in rural Kentucky.

Nearly 50 books followed, taken from journals the redubbed "Father Louis" compiled at the monastery.

His renown spread as a poet and social critic on such issues as human dignity, peace, race relations, the environment and the common strivings of Christianity with Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic spirituality.

Accidentally electrocuted in his hotel room while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand, on Dec. 10, 1968, Merton lies buried with other monks in the Gethsemani cemetery near Bardstown, Kentucky.

By the time he died at age 53 - 27 years to the day after entering the monastery - Merton had moved far beyond his initial Catholic awakening. He even found himself embarrassed by some of the pious writings that made him famous.

But Merton's books became celebrated by many Catholics and members of other churches and faiths worldwide as well as many non-religious people for his ideas on the struggle for inner peace and the inter-connectedness of humanity.

"He was kind of a universal mystic for our time," observed Father Benedict Reid, abbot of St. Gregory's Episcopal (Anglican) monastery near Three Rivers, Mich.

"The ideas Merton wrote about were on the edge of the consciousness arising in the world then. He was articulating what was going on in many people's minds. And the more contemplative he became, the more concerned he became about the issues of the world. He looked for the divine within everyone as well as the universal."

Merton's shadow has even lengthened beyond the grave as the earthy humanity of the mystic hermit who wrote on life's paradoxes continues to have wide appeal.

"Merton went into the abbey to be silent. It's the ultimate paradox that he became so famous," observed Robert Bies, who uses the monk's work in teaching business students at Northwestern University near Chicago.

"His writings have had a strong influence on my teaching on such things as changing organizations, power, ethics and the value of people in organizations - that people aren't just means but are ends in themselves," he said.

The 20th anniversary of Merton's death was observed in relatively low-key fashion with prayer services at many U.S. Catholic parishes.

However, in the past year conferences on Merton have been sponsored by several colleges and church groups nationwide. National Public Radio recently aired a retrospective on his life and influence, and a documentary film has been shown on the Public Broadcasting System.

Almost all of Merton's books remain in print, and they circulate in 26 languages - including some in underground typescript form in Eastern Europe and texts used in Chinese universities, where he is studied as an American writer.

"He wasn't necessarily the best monk of our time, but he certainly was the most famous," Father Benedict quipped.

A new series of taped Merton lectures to novice monks at Gethsemani enjoys brisk sales. Books published about him have passed 40, including Michael Mott's 1984 bestseller biography, "The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton."

And the first international gathering of "Mertonists" has been scheduled for next May by Louisville-based Bellarmine College to bring together enthusiasts and scholars for four days of study and a visit to the Gethsemani abbey.

"I don't like to think that he's a cult figure, but at times it seems that way. People get hooked on Merton - and not just Catholics," said Dr. Robert Daggy, director of Bellarmine's Merton Center, which is major repository for the monk's papers and effects.

The legacy has also raised as many questions as books published posthumously have tried to answer. It wasn't until Mott's biography that it was revealed to the public that Merton had fallen in love in the mid-'60s with a student nurse he met while hospitalized.

Would he have married the nurse, left his monastery or embraced Buddhism had he lived? Daggy says no to each, but admits his answers are necessarily fuzzy.

"He was aware that if he married and left (the monastery) it would destroy or muddy his whole message," Daggy said.

"What came out of his love for the nurse was a deepening of his own humanity - that what he'd been writing about the inner self, this was the living out of it in action.