Lecture given at the International Thomas Merton Society conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 8, 2007
by Jim Forest
Given that we are in the midst of war, it seems appropriate to reflect on Thomas Merton’s life and thought in regard to war and peacemaking. And there is also the fact they we meet in Memphis, the city in which Martin Luther King was struck down. Dr. King was America’s greatest exponent of nonviolent methods of seeking social justice and also a brave opponent of war — a man Merton greatly admired and looked forward to meeting.
It’s not surprising that war was a major topic for Merton. He was born in France on the last day of January, 1915, not even half a year after the start of World War I. In its battlefields, soldiers were dying by the tens of thousands. Among the lesser consequences of that war was its impact on the Merton family. It tore their hopes and plans to shreds. Though a New Zealander by nationality, Owen Merton would have been subject to French military conscription. Owen’s objections to war were of no consequence to the French authorities. No exceptions were made for foreigners or conscientious objectors. In the summer of 1916, Owen, Ruth and their infant son, Tom, left France for US, living not far from Ruth’s parents on Long Island. It must have been a hard adjustment for Owen. The vast majority of Americans had a severe case of war fever. Men like Owen who opposed the war were generally regarded as traitors and cowards, but at least non-citizens like Owen were not being forced into the military.
War involves death on a factory scale — the mass production of corpses. Ordinarily death is a remote concept for children, but that was not the case for Tom Merton. While he would have known little about the Great War in Europe, when he was six death became something all too real when his mother died of cancer. Death meant a gaping absence, a collapse of the most basic structures of life. Death meant abandonment.
In 1930, just nine years after Ruth’s death, Merton’s father would also be on his death bed. He died of a brain tumor the following January, just two weeks before his son Tom’s fifteenth birthday.
In those years Merton was living in a Britain deeply maimed by war. Men of a certain age were in short supply. Every day he saw the physical and mental damage done by war.
In the fall of 1930, Merton began for the first time to think about alternatives to war. He became one of the admirers of Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign against British imperial rule in India. Rarely one to be part of any majority, Tom took Gandhi’s side in a formal debate at Oakham, his school, arguing that India had every right to demand Britain’s withdrawal. Merton’s side in the debate was easily defeated — the motion was carried by the pro-Empire side, 38 to 6. Until the end of his life, Merton was to remain not only a supporter but an advocate of Gandhi’s form of struggle, what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power that comes from embracing truth; the power the comes from seeking the conversion of opponents rather than their annihilation.
Among the formative events that both added another layer of meaning to the word “death” and also brought him close to the annihilating potential of toxic ideologies occurred in the spring of 1932. Now sixteen and still a student at Oakham, Merton went for a holiday walk along the Rhine River in Germany. It was an excursion that happened to coincide with Hitler’s rise to power. Along the way he witnessed villagers hurling bricks and fighting with pitchforks as political passions spilled over. Then one morning, while walking down a quiet country road lined with apple orchards, he was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, the car’s occupants showering him with Hitler leaflets as they passed.
In fact he was slightly injured. Pain in one toe cut the Rhine walk short. By the time he was back at his school in Oakham, the soreness had gotten worse. Then came a toothache. The school dentist extracted a tooth, which turned out to be the cork capping an infection that had spread throughout Tom’s body. By now the aching toe proved to be gangrenous. For weeks Tom was in a sanatorium, in the early days barely conscious and close to death. He later recalls how, at that time of deep estrangement from Christian faith, death seemed quite a suitable revenge on life. In fact Merton recovered, but his sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life remained unchanged. Still, he had painfully acquired an entirely unromanticized sense of what the Nazis were like at a time when Hitler and his followers enjoyed a good deal of sympathy, even admiration, in both Britain and America.
First at Clare College in Cambridge and then at Columbia University in New York, like any student of his day Merton was in a maelstrom of radical political movements — Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, Nazism, Fascism, etc. For a time, Merton was among those who thought Communism was the path to a better future. The Soviet Union was widely regarded as a place where an oppressive old regime had been swept aside and a new order set up in which everyone had a fair share and a job: no Great Depression, no evictions, no homeless people sleeping under bridges, no one without education and health care. But, at least for Merton, perhaps the most attractive feature of Communism was that it absolved individuals of personal responsibility for sins they had committed. As he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain, “It was not so much I myself that was to blame for unhappiness, but the society in which I lived…. I was the product of my times, my society and my class … spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived.” Merton went so far as to sign up as a Communist, but attending a single meeting of his cell group proved to be more than enough for him.
For Merton, a not unimportant part of his argument with Communism was that it was only sporadically anti-war. The Communist Party was anti-war in 1935, the brief period when Merton had been seriously attracted. The Party went pro-war during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, resumed an anti-war stance when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, then did another about-face when Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union. Merton, whose one radical action during his year at Cambridge had been to sign a pacifist pledge, was not only looking for something with steadier principles, but especially for moral consistency about bloodshed. Merton came to realize that the Communist Party would “do whatever seems profitable to itself at the moment,” which was, he reflected in The Seven Storey Mountain, “the rule of all modern political parties.”
In 1938, with his baptism at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, Merton crossed the most important border of his adult life. For the rest of his life, every question was to be viewed in the light of Christ.
The following year, World War II began in Europe. Though it would be another two years before the United States became part of it, German bombs were falling in Britain, which only recently had been home to Merton. What was remote to most Americans was familiar ground to Merton. The question of how to respond if and when the US joined the war was the subject of many long-running conversations Merton had with such friends as Bob Lax and Ed Rice.
For Merton, a baptized and deeply convinced Catholic, it was a question that had to be regarded not in terms of political or ideological theory, but rather in terms of Christian discipleship. This led he him to formulate a response — conscientious objection — that, for an American Roman Catholic at that time, was along lines that were, to say the least, unusual. Here is how he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Keep in mind that the patriotism of American Catholics was still held suspect by the Protestant majority. Catholics bent over backwards to make clear their gratitude to have found a home in America. One would find the slogan, “Pro Deo et Patria,” over the door of many a Catholic church and school in America. Catholics were outshining their neighbors in doing whatever was required to be seen as “good Americans.” Merton, a convert with Anglo-Saxon family roots, had never had to face the prejudices so many of his fellow Catholics knew all too well. He didn’t think in terms of social acclimation, but rather tried to make choices that resembled those he believed Christ would make. Christ was not a Zealot. Christ joined no armies. Christ killed no one. Christ never blessed any of his followers to kill. Christ was merciful to all who sought his mercy. Christ accepted execution without resistance. In rising from the tomb, he buried death. Should it be the work of Christ’s disciples to resurrect the grave? Merton said no.
If Merton’s convictions regarding war were unusual, so were the basic vocational issues he was wrestling with. He had tried to join the Franciscans, whose founder had written a rule banning weapons and forbidding all bloodshed. When the Franciscans turned him away due to his checkered past, his next vocational attraction was to be part of a community of hospitality. People like Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day inspired him. While teaching at St. Bonaventure’s, he regularly traveled back to Manhattan to work as a volunteer at Friendship House in Harlem. It was in this period that he went on retreat at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and found himself powerfully drawn to monastic life. He found it extremely difficultly to choose between Friendship House and the Abbey of Gethsemani — between a life shaped by the works of mercy and a life centered in prayer.
At last comes that other great defining choice in his life: to be a monk. Perhaps the war was a factor. His draft status had just been changed — he was no longer classified as physically unfit. His arrival at the monastery occurred just two days after the US declared war on Japan and a day before and the declaration of war with Germany. But as a monk he was exempted from military service.
One would have thought that, once within a monastic enclosure, Merton might have lost interest in the issue of war. Not so. Once Merton began writing for publication, war was among his topics, and what he had to say in that regard was not at all what Catholics were used to hearing. There were the many paragraphs in his autobiography about his own response to World War II and what had led him to be a conscientious objector, and then, a year later, in 1948, there was a chapter in Seeds of Contemplation with the remarkable title, “The Root of War is Fear.”
This was one of the few essays Merton was to write twice. In 1961, the text was greatly expanded for inclusion in New Seeds of Contemplation. In fact it was in connection with this revised text that my own correspondence with Merton began.
I was a young volunteer at the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan who had just a few months before been discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector. Merton had sent his new version of “The Root of War is Fear” to Dorothy Day for possible use in The Catholic Worker. It was his first submission to a paper well known for its passionate opposition to war. Dorothy had passed along both Merton’s letter and the manuscript to me, asking that I prepare the his essay for publication.
When Merton wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, he framed his views on war in very personal terms. In “The Root of War is Fear” he expressed a view of what he thought ought to be normative for Catholics in general, if they were to be more than compliant citizens whose faith had to be adjusted to governmental demand and nationalistic ideologies.
In an addendum to the essay especially added to The Catholic Worker version, he argued that the current war crisis was not God’s doing but was entirely of our own making. Though there were no compelling reasons for war, the world was plunging headlong into destruction, even “doing so with the purpose of avoiding war.” This was, he said, “true war-madness,” which Merton saw “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world,” with no country so afflicted with it as America. “On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering.” All the while, “we claim to be fighting for religious truth, freedom and other spiritual values. Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance….”
He then asked what is the place of the Christian in all this? “Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? …. Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers?”
The last option was, Merton said, “the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.”
Then he asks what are we to do? His answer to the question follows: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence … to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.” Unless war is abolished, he continued, “the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation,” always on the verge of catastrophe.” Unless we set ourselves to this task, “we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”
The first task is simply to study and discuss the issues involved. “Peace is to be preached,” Merton wrote, “nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”
Especially in the expanded version of his essay as published in The Catholic Worker, Merton crossed a border, no longer simply confessing in public his personal sense of being called to renounce violence but to appeal to others to play a collective role in opposing any reliance on or use of weapons of mass destruction. More than that, he called on his readers to take nonviolent methods seriously as a practical and effective way of battling evil without imitating the methods of evil — not to fight fire with fire, but to fight fire with water.
That same summer Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:
I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of.
Indeed there were those, in and out of his order, who were not at all happy to see Merton focusing on the highly controversial issue of war.
Just a few months later, still in 1961, Merton wrote me that the censorship he was encountering was “completely and deliberately obstructive, not aimed at combing out errors at all, but purely and simply at preventing the publication of material that ‘doesn’t look good.’ And this means anything that ruffles in any way the censors’ tastes or susceptibilities.”
Early in 1962, an editorial in The Washington Catholic Standard accused Merton of disregarding “authoritative Catholic utterances and [making] unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”
Looking for a way to share his thinking about the religious dimension of social and political problems without having to pass through the labyrinths of censorship, Merton produced Cold War Letters, a mimeographed collection of his recent correspondence, a work which only a few months ago was at last published in book form. In 1962, it was Merton’s first experience of being read Russian-style in samizdat. Note, by the way, that Merton had a significant degree of support in doing this from his abbot. The self-publishing Merton did during the last seven years of his life was all done with his abbot’s backing and with a great deal of practical assistance from the monastery.
The early months of 1962 involved a great effort on Merton’s part to write a book on the issues of war and peace that he hoped would be regarded as moderate enough to pass inspection by the order’s censors. He christened the book Peace in the Post-Christian Era. The manuscript had just been completed when Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordering Merton to abandon all writing projects having to do with war.
“Now here is the axe,” he wrote me April 29, 1962. “For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.”
The decision, Merton said, reflected
an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. lt reflects an insensitivity to Christian and ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.
Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and the Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. In his letter, Merton stated,
The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God.’ The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.
Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but
to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy…. He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.
What strikes me as the most revealing part of this lengthy letter is what Merton has to say about obedience. Merton asked if he shouldn’t “just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?”
After all, many would say that he would be entirely justified in disobeying manifestly unjust orders. But Merton was convinced that a great many people would only find scandal in an act of disobedience and that public denunciation of the abuse of authority, far from being seen as a witness for peace and for the truth of the Church, would be seen by his fellow monks and many others as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint. For those outside the Catholic Church, it would be regarded as fresh proof that the Church had no love for private conscience. Whose mind would be changed?
“In my own particular case,” Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.”
Behind the silencing, Merton wrote a few weeks later, was the charge that he had been writing for “a communist-controlled publication,” as The Catholic Worker was said to be by some of its opponents.
He wrote me soon afterward that he wasn’t altogether pleased with Peace in the Post-Christian Era anyway. It had been written with a constant eye to what might be allowed through official channels. “What a mess one gets into,” he said in a letter that July, “trying to write a book that will get through the censors, and at the same time say something. I was bending in all directions to qualify every statement and balance everything off, so I stayed right in the middle and perfectly objective … [at the same time trying] to speak the truth as my conscience wanted it to be said.”
In fact, it was and remains a good book. It was at long last published two years ago, 42 years after it had been written, yet still a remarkably timely book.
While having to rely on the mimeograph machine and publication in tiny journals that his abbot regarded as too small for censorship to be required, occasionally the unfiltered Merton addressed wider audiences by writing for publication under pseudonyms. Under quite thin cover, one piece in The Catholic Worker was signed Benedict Monk. And to those acquainted with Merton’s delight in clownish names, who but Merton would sign himself Marco J. Frisbee?
Apart from prayer, for several years the only door that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton was able to act as a pastor to peacemakers — a spiritual father, as such people are called in the Orthodox Church. Certainly he was to me.
When I reread those letters, one of the things I find most striking is how free they are of jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous. While he believed following Christ ideally involved for us, as it did for the first Christians, a renunciation of all killing, he didn’t deny the possibility that just wars might have occurred in earlier times … wars of communal self-defense in which the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties. He was also willing to speculate that such wars might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for liberation.
But, as he wrote Dorothy Day in 1962, the issue of the just war “is pure theory…. In practice all the wars that are [happening] … are shot through and through with evil, falsity, injustice, and sin so much so that one can only with difficulty extricate the truths that may be found here and there in the ’causes’ for which the fighting is going on.”
Neither did Merton insist that a Christian was, simply because of his baptism, obliged to be a conscientious objector, even though this had been his personal position before beginning monastic life. Yet the highest form of Christian discipleship, he was convinced, involved the renunciation of violence. As he wrote in Seeds of Violence,
The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.
What Merton found valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed, and it was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and various groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice, most notably the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.
Despite his isolation from events and his physical distance from centers of protest activity, he had a vivid memory of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”
What was often missing in the protest movements of the thirties, he realized, and remained rare in similar movements of the sixties, was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion.
“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us,” he told me in another letter. “[These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”
Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice– which objectively endangers them. “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”
Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, Merton insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. As he wrote to Dorothy Day:
Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the “impersonal law” and to abstract “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who “saves himself” in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.
When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:
One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.
Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.
Merton noticed that peace groups tend to identify too much with particular political parties. Ideally its actions should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center, no matter how locked in they were to violent structures. He wrote me late in 1962:
It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.
At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service, without which we are easy prey to the ideologies of the day. As he wrote:
We have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hair shirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…. The great problem is this inner change…. [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.
Merton was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve. In his longest letter on this theme, he advised me:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything….
It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic…. As for the big results, they are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important…. The great thing, after all, is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments…. The real hope … is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.
Today we have some idea of how much impact Merton’s writings had not only in the lives of many individuals but in shaping the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Merton’s influence can be seen in Pope John’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris. It is again evident in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, Guadium et Spes: the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But at the time, Merton’s role in such documents was unknown.
Merton himself didn’t live to see the results of his efforts for peace. The war in Vietnam was raging when he flew to Asia in September, 1968. His death was now only weeks away. Surely he would have considered the return of his body to the monastery exactly right in all its details. He crossed the Pacific in an Air Force cargo plane as part of a shipment of the dead — all but him American soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Merton’s was the only body without a dog tag, and the only one without a war injury. Yet he was wounded. There was a long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width wide that ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin, where an electric fan had fallen across his body.
There was, as we only realized at the end of his life, a prophecy hidden in the final sentences of The Seven Storey Mountain.”
I will give you not what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand… Everything that touches you shall burn you …. that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.