Give Peace a Chance: Peacemaking as common ground

Talk given by Jim Forest 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia :

“All we are saying,” sang the Beatles, “is give peace a chance.” We sing it still, not only with a fond memory of John Lennon, who wrote the song in 1969, but remembering all the people who made it into an anthem of the peace movement during the long struggle to end the war in Vietnam.

“Give peace a chance” is a line notable for its modesty. It’s a polite invitation to live in a way that makes it more likely that we can do with our lives something constructive rather than destructive.

Perhaps those few words might be seen as a pop translation of the words of Jesus in the first part of the Sermon in the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Blessed — that’s not a word we use very often. When’s the last time you used it in conversation? What does it actually mean?

The original New Testament texts are in Greek. The Greek word we translate as “blessed” is makarios. In classical Greek makar was associated with the gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but with the negative prefix ma the word means “deathless, immortal, no longer subject to fate,” a condition desperately longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones. One way to translate makarios into English would be to say “Risen from the dead.” “Risen from the dead are the poor on spirit … Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…” Each of the eight beatitudes has to do with what it is like to be a person living in the kingdom of God, and not at some future time but here and now. Such a person is poor in spirit, such a person mourns, such a person is meek, such a person hungers and thirsts for righteousness, such a person is merciful, such a person is pure of heart, such a person is a peacemaker, such a person is ready to be insulted and persecuted for his or her their faith. Such a person as already risen from the dead — that is from the kind of mortuary life we experience every time we make choices based on fear rather than love.

The Beatitudes are a brief summary of the Gospel. Peacemaking is one of the most basic elements of Christian life. However many Christians fail to practice peacemaking, or even become war makers, peacemaking is one of the essential components of the life Christ calls his followers to lead. In fact it’s emphasized in other religious traditions as well — in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. While followers of these other traditions may be just as likely as Christians to participate in war, and even at times to regard war as a sacred duty, in fact they too belong to religions in which peace and mercy are supposed to be at the core of religious life.

The problem isn’t the principle, it’s our practice. We sing “all we are saying is give peace a chance,” and we approve of Jesus’ saying “blessed are the peacemakers,” while all the while doing very little in our day-to-day lives to be peacemakers. In fact many of us actively promote division and conflict. We argue over just about anything, from who took the biggest slice of pie to whose ideas about God are more correct. Not too may people these days would remark about Christians, “See how the love one another” — and still fewer would express amazement at how well Christians practice Jesus’s commandment to love our enemies.

But there are important examples of Christians who gave an extraordinary example of peacemaking. Earlier in the day I talked to students at the School of Education about one of them, Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th century academic and educator. Let me repeat here a little of what I said a few hours ago.

Erasmus was one of the great scholars of western civilization. His most famous book, The Praise of Folly, remains one of the most brilliant satires ever written. Erasmus lived in a time of war and extreme religious conflict — the Reformation — yet was one of the great peacemakers of all time. Through letters and his published works, Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war between nations and schism between Christians.

“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war],” he wrote, “nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome. …Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” In common with many artists of the period, he saw death, portrayed as a skeleton carrying a scythe, striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.

In The Complaint of Peace, a book similar to The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by everyone, including kings and generals, yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus was also one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries — but in this area too he fought to overcome enmity and promote unity. He wanted a reformation, but without a rush and without schism. His influence on Luther and other leading Protestants was huge, but Erasmus refused to sanction any solution that led to fragmenting the Church. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was also put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.” And no doubt he had occasions of seeing Catholics in a similar state. It was not easy finding Christ-like people on either side of the wall that was being built.

While himself involved in many theological debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other even when we disagree. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who was right.

For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. While condemning corruption, he urged patience, dialogue and toleration. Ironically, in times of conflict, such a stand rarely gains friends. Leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with them is against them. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index. Erasmus would have been grieved but not surprised. He knew what people are like when they get into combat mode.

One of the people who has most influenced my life, Thomas Merton, was very like Erasmus in many ways. Merton, also Catholic, was one of the most widely read Christian authors of the past half century — indeed, remains widely read even though it’s now 40 years since his death. There are passages in Merton that could have just as well been written by Erasmus.

Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, has sold millions of copies, appeared in numerous translations, and has never gone out of print. The Seven Storey Mountain is one of the most gripping accounts of religious conversion ever written, but it has its flaws. Every now and then Merton gets a little preachy. He tends to present the Catholic Church in an entirely uncritical light while only pointing out the shortcoming of Protestant Christianity. One has to keep in mind that he was a fairly young convert at the time and that, in those days, there was something a Berlin Wall separating Catholics and Protestants, and still another wall separating both Catholics and Protestants from the Orthodox Church.

What’s remarkable is how much Merton changed in the twenty years between publication of his autobiography and his death in 1968. He became one of the most prominent Catholic participants in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox, and then widened the circle even further to include people from other religious traditions. One of the last photos we have of Merton, taken just a few weeks before his death, shows him in the Himalayas side by side with the Dalai Lama. His friends came to include Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus.

There are a few passages in Seven Storey Mountain
that give a hint where Merton would be going in his later life. One of these concerns a Hindu monk named Bramachari whom Merton got to know when he was studying at Columbia University. It was Bramachari who encouraged Merton to read The Imitation of Christ — a book that was also important to Erasmus, by the way.

In Merton’s later writing there is a tremendous emphasis on opening doors that a lot of people prefer to keep closed and padlocked.

Merton came to see his own spiritual life as the place where one begins to overcome division. Here’s how he puts it in a key passage in one of my favorite Merton books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”

In fact Merton took the principle even further, to include not only with his fellow Christians but also non-Christians.

It’s striking to see how deep that dialogue was and also how wide open it was. For example, probably the best statement Merton ever wrote about how God is both One and a Trinity was not made to a fellow Christian but to a Moslem correspondent. It wasn’t that Merton forced the topic on his Moslem friend, but he was quite ready to answer a question like that when it was asked.

It is sometimes assumed that Merton’s deep interest in other religions suggests he was engaged in a search for a new spiritual home that met his needs better than Christianity, or perhaps was seeking to put religions into a blender and pour out of it his own “baptized Buddhism.” In fact for Merton the faith into which he had been baptized was never at issue. As he put it in a journal entry made three years before his death: “I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference — this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of reality as a source of grace and life.”

But it seemed to Merton that, thanks to the activity of the Holy Spirit, there was great wisdom to be found in other religious traditions and thus it was of mutual benefit for friendships to take root across all religious borders. At the very least, this kind of dialogue contributes to an increase of love and a lessening of enmity in the world.

One of the people Merton got to know was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and poet from Vietnam who has since become one of the best known Buddhist writers. In May 1967, Nhat Hanh spent two days at the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived.

Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, three words revealing the essence of the situation.

Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.

Less than two months before his death, Merton was in Calcutta to speak at a conference that brought together people belonging to various religions. In the talk he gave, Merton stressed that unity cannot be attained by “interminable empty talk, the endlessly fruitless and trivial discussion of everything under the sun.” This kind of “inexhaustible chatter,” which we imagine puts us in closer contact with each other, in fact is rarely remembered by anyone even a week later. “The deepest level of communication is not communication,” he said, “but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

But this didn’t mean, Merton added, that we can get closer to each other by minimizing differences or pretending they don’t exist. As he put it, “There can be no question of … a mishmash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness.” Rather “there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences.”

Merton is not remembered by those whom he met in Asia in those last few months of his life as a post-Christian, but rather as a Christian with genuine interest and respect for non-Christians and a readiness to learn from them and enjoy their company. One of the signs of the significance such conversations had is the visit made to Merton’s monastery by the Dalai Lama in 1994. He arrived by helicopter, then sat in silent meditation on Merton’s grave. Once when he was asked his opinion of Jesus, he replied, “Whenever someone speaks to me about Jesus Christ, I think of Thomas Merton.” Asked on another occasion if he believed in God, a question many Buddhists find problematic, the Dalai Lama replied. “It depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If you mean by ‘God’ what Thomas Merton means, then yes, I do.”

It’s not surprising that Merton had a special interest in Gandhi. Here was a Hindu who, partly inspired by the Sermon in the Mount, developed a nonviolent method of struggle which contributed hugely to India obtaining its freedom. It seemed to Merton that Christians could learn a great deal from such a man. One of Merton’s books has the title Gandhi and Nonviolence.

Merton also greatly admired Martin Luther King, a Baptist Christian who had been influenced by Gandhi. King was due to visit Merton in 1968 and would have done so had be not been murdered in Memphis.

We see in all these lives that “giving peace a chance” is not something that just happens. It’s a way of life made up of big and small choices that are based on respect for life, a respect for the other person, a refusal to dehumanize those whom we regard as opponents or enemies, a readiness to listen, an active effort to prevent division or overcome it once division occurs, and a real search for nonviolent alternatives in situations that otherwise could easily turn to violence. It’s a refusal to be dragged along like cattle being herded to wherever the trail boss wants to take us. We can see what these qualities look like in the lives of people like Erasmus, Merton, Gandhi and Martin Luther King — famous people — but we can also see what they look like in unfamous people whom we happen to know, perhaps someone in our family, some teacher or friend or neighbor. Such people exist and most of us know one or two or them.

Let me end with a story of how these qualities looked in the life of one ordinary family.

At the center of the story is an elderly black woman, Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathan. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Primitive Baptist Church. The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. Along with four other inmates, he had escaped from Pillow State Prison several days before. Somehow they obtained weapons. Once on the run, Riley went his own way. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.

Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathan with his
shotgun, shouted, “Don’t make me kill you!”

Here comes the astonishing part. Louise responded to their uninvited guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild playing with a toy gun. She started out by identifying herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. “Young man,” she said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in no violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”

She had a certain authority and also showed not a trace of fear. Riley obediently put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

Louise calmly asked Nathan to please get dry socks for their guest while she made breakfast. Within a few minutes she prepared bacon and eggs, toast, milk and coffee, setting the table not only for Riley but for Nathan and herself. A striking detail of the story is that she put out her best napkins.

When the three of them sat down to eat, Louise took Riley’s shaking hand in her own and said, “Young man, let’s give thanks that you came here and that you are safe.” She said a prayer and asked him if there was anything he would like to say to the Lord. Riley couldn’t think of anything so she suggested, “Just say, ‘Jesus wept.’”

Later a journalist asked how she happened to choose that text. She explained, “Because I figured that he didn’t have no church background, so I wanted to start him off simple; something short, you know.”

The story crosses yet another border with a confession of love. After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She had asked about his family and learned of the death of his grandmother. Riley, trembling all over, said that no one in this world cared about him. “Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves all of us, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much.”

All the while the police had been searching for Riley and the other convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived — as a result of the abrupt ending of the call, the friend she had been talking with alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars.

“They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said. Louise told Riley to stay where he was while she went out to talk to the police.

Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they found themselves face to face with Louise Degrafinried. Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”

There are people who have a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response to this determined grandmother as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathan escorted their guest to one of the police cars. He was taken back to the prison. No one was harmed .

The story of what happened to two of the other escaped convicts is a familiar tragedy. They came upon a family preparing a barbecue in their backyard. The husband, having heard about the escaped prisoners on the radio, had armed himself with a pistol. He tried to use it but was himself shot dead. The men took his wife hostage, stole the family car, and managed to drive out of the state before they were captured and the widow was freed. Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shot-out with police the following month.

The Degrafinried story does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise and Nathan were asked to press charges against Riley for holding them hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” Louise insisted. As both she and Nathan refused to testify, the charges were dropped.

Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence for having escaped. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley’s release. “He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.

Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview. Riley recalls praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.’” “That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God,” Riley said. In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”

Louise Degrafinried was often asked about the day she was held hostage. “Weren’t you terrified.” “I wasn’t alone,” she responded. “My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”

It’s similar to a comment Riley made when explaining the events that led to his conversion. “Mrs. Degrafinried was real Christianity,” he told mourners at her funeral. “No fear.” Riley sat in the front pew at the service and was among those carrying Louise Degrafinried’s coffin to its burial place.

Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville where he works as a foreman of a tent and awning company. He and his wife have a son. Not long ago Riley was invited to tell his story to the children of a local primary school in Mason, Tennessee, whose principal is one of Louise and Nathan’s children.

The story hasn’t yet reached an ending. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 are still underway. Thanks to the welcome extended by two elderly people, no guns were fired at the Degrafinried house. No one was looks back on that day with regret or grief. A man who might have remained a lifelong danger to others has instead become a respected member of society and a committed Christian. Louise and Nathan have died, but their pilgrimage from fear continues to touch the lives of others.

Time to end. Let me just suggest that you hang on to that story for a while and think about the Degrafinrieds and their unexpected guest. Think about it the next time you happen to hear “Give Peace a Chance” or the next time you read the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

* * *

Does Erasmus have anything to teach us in the 21st century?

portrait of Erasmus by Holbein

a talk given 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, in Langley, British Columbia, at the invitation of Kimberly Franklin, dean of the College of Teaching

By Jim Forest

My interest in Erasmus is long standing, though I’m not an Erasmus scholar. In fact, not being a Latinist, I can only read him in translation. Nonetheless Erasmus has been an influence in my life ever since I first read his best-known book, The Praise of Folly. What renewed my interest and inspired this text was attending a major Erasmus exhibition at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam this past January.

It was in Rotterdam that Erasmus was born in 1466, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician’s daughter. His early education occurred mainly at a renowned school in the Dutch town of Deventer. His educators were the Brothers of the Common Life, best remembered for a book, The Imitation of Christ, written a generation earlier by one of the members of that community, Thomas à Kempis. Erasmus later went to Paris to further his education. He was ordained a priest in 1492, the same year that Columbus made his first voyage to the New World.

Erasmus became one of the greatest writers and scholars not only of his era but of western civilization. All Europe was his home. At various times he lived in Holland, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. No matter where he was, he seems never to have felt out of place. His friendships were numerous, one of the closest being with Thomas More, “the man for all seasons” who paid with his life for declining to support Henry VIII in the matter of the king’s divorce from his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Henry’s related decision to declare himself head of the Church in England.

The Praise of Folly, written in a week’s time as a gift for Thomas More, uses satire not only to expose — chiefly with sympathy — the irrationalities that ensnare so many of us, but also to reveal his most profound thoughts. In the book, Folly — dressed in the colorful, bell-embellished costume of a medieval professional fool — rises to the lector’s pulpit before a crowded assembly to defend herself from her detractors, pointing out that, after all, she alone “has the power to bring joy to both gods and men.” In her oration, she targets every sort of human being and social enterprise, from those who worship money to idolaters of power, from the sex-driven to those for whom the table provides the meaning and purpose of life.

The religious follies of Christians are among her targets — for example those who would rather venerate the relics of saints and walk to faraway shrines than live according to the example of Christ, for, as Erasmus said, “it is easier to kiss a bone than to forgive a neighbor.” In its mischievous way, The Praise of Folly is ultimately a defense of Christ’s Gospel, whose teachings — to love God and neighbor, to grant forgiveness, to heal, to care for those in need, to give rather than to take, to live in peace — are so often dismissed as foolishness but which, in fact, are the only true wisdom.

Hard as Erasmus’ book was on the rulers of state and church — it wasn’t a work many popes or kings would have offered to friends as a gift — it was so funny that it’s more than likely all Europe’s rulers read it themselves when no one was looking. The Praise of Folly went through numerous printings across Europe.

Few writers of Erasmus’ generation wrote or published so much. Erasmus is sometimes thought of as the first man to take full advantage of the printing press. Kenneth Clarke remarks that the printing press “made Erasmus, and unmade Erasmus” — made him in the sense of his being widely read and greatly respected, unmade him in the sense that he sometimes got into hot water for what he wrote. Clarke goes on to say that Erasmus “had all the qualifications [a writer requires]: a clear, elegant style (in Latin, of course, which meant that he could be read everywhere, but not by everyone), opinions on every subject, even the gift of putting things so that they could be interpreted in different ways. … [T]he extraordinary thing is what a huge following he had and how close Erasmus, or the Erasmian point of view, came to success. It shows that many people, even in a time of crisis, yearn for tolerance and reason and simplicity of life — in fact for civilization.”

Nothing is rarer than an academic celebrity, but Erasmus — though living in an age without publicists — belonged to that special category. Only the more important kings and queens of the period were the subjects of so many portraits. Paintings and engravings of Erasmus were to be found across Europe done by such artists as Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys. Today these paintings are treasures of such museums as the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Among Erasmus’ most important projects was a new Latin translation of the New Testament that corrected some of the errors made by St. Jerome and others translators in earlier centuries. He also edited a massive collection of proverbs and adages to many of which he added commentaries. He was the author of collections of colloquies — play-like conversations that were intended as teaching aids for students learning Latin and rhetoric, but which also served as a means for Erasmus to popularize his ideas, many of which had to do with the renewal of Christianity.

Erasmus was one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His influence on Luther was huge, yet, unlike Luther and others who became advocates of schism, Erasmus refused to sanction splitting the Church or becoming part of any splinter group. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the fierce Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

While himself involved in many debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding many aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who, if anyone, was right.

Pope Julius Excluded from Heaven

Even so, words can be as inflammatory as matches and Erasmus sometimes lit matches. In one of his most famous satires, “Julius Excluded,” the highly militaristic pope of the time, Julius II, is shown, just after death, standing impatiently at the gates of heaven, military armor gleaming under his papal robes, demanding that Peter open the door and roll out the red carpet. Julius has in his hand a golden key but unfortunately it doesn’t fit the lock. It turns out to be the key of worldly power, not a key to the kingdom of heaven. Despite Julius’ furious demands to clear the way, Peter — though a mere fisherman, as Julius has pointed out — won’t budge. “I admit only those,” Peter tells Julius, “who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison.” One could get into very hot water by ridiculing a man as powerful as Pope Julius, who was very much alive at the time. Erasmus never actually denied writing “Julius Excluded,” but felt it was prudent to take distance from the text by asking such a rhetorical question as, “Who could possibly believe me so foolish as to author such imprudent words?”

For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings and generals than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. He opposed the promoters of division, urging patience, dialogue and toleration. But such a stand is rarely popular in a time of conflict, with leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with me is against me. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean that he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index.

Erasmus was also the most articulate advocate of peace in his time. As someone who was read and respected by rulers and their advisers, through letters and published works Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war. “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war], nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome.…Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” Like many artists of the period, he saw death itself striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.

In The Complaint of Peace, a small book that has much in common with The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” Again and again, we turn our backs on peace and set off to kill those whom we currently regard as enemies or whose territory and wealth we covet. It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus was a scholar. Probably his best known words these days are, “When I have money, I buy books, then, if anything is left over, I buy food and clothing.” In his early years, he often didn’t have money, which is lucky for us as, thanks to his occasionally empty pockets, economic necessity forced him to turn to teaching, and thus not only to take an ever-deepening interest in how best to help students develop their gifts but also to take issue with teaching methods that he was convinced had little or no positive effect, or even did great harm. It seemed to him the future of the human race depended to a great extent on what happens in classrooms. “Education.” he said, “is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character.”

Holbein’s drawing of a teacher thrashing a young student

If you look at paintings or engravings of the classrooms of Erasmus’ day, one of the details rarely if ever left out is the bundle of birches held firmly in the teacher’s hand, ready at a moment’s notice to strike any offending pupil. In a margin of Erasmus’ own copy of The Praise of Folly, Holbein drew a teacher with a handful of birches beating a bare-bottomed child. In the same book, Erasmus notes how many classrooms were little more than “beating mills.” Many of the students’ talents and good qualities were destroyed rather than fostered. Erasmus would surely have agreed with Bob Dylan’s remark that “the only difference between schools and old age homes is that more people die in schools.” What was obvious to Erasmus was that dread of teachers completely undermines the climate of learning. Think of the David Copperfield in his childhood cowering before his stepfather, holding a rod and poised to beat the boy the moment his recitation falters.

What would Erasmus think of our school systems today? It was his view that the classroom isn’t for everyone. If a student consistently behaved in such a way that it made clear an aversion to study, then Erasmus thought it was best to free him from the classroom and send him back to the plow. What was needed were not birches but the development of an attitude on the part of the teacher, coupled with appropriate methods, methods that made learning, as much as possible, a delight for both student and teacher.

Because Erasmus believed in a close relationship developing between teacher and student, he believed in small classes — one teacher to five students was his ideal number. This is because the larger the class, the harder it is for a teacher to really know each student, and vice versa.

One gets a glimpse of Erasmus’ approach to building student-teacher relationships by reading a letter he sent in 1498 to one of his first students, Christian Northoff, who was apparently away at the time and had failed to write. “If you don’t break your silence,” Erasmus told him, “I will call you a scamp, hangman, rascal, rake, criminal, blasphemer, monster, phantom, manure pile … wastrel, jailbird, scourge, cat-of-nine-tails or any other abuse I can think of.” My guess is his student replied in equally funny terms. In the process, it was clearer than ever to him just how much he mattered to Erasmus.

Erasmus saw teaching as an art whose foundation is respect and love. The classroom must provide an environment of warmth and good humor. Several of the books for which Erasmus was to become famous in his lifetime were teaching manuals, books through which Erasmus sought to share with other teachers the methods he found most effective.

While these methods are not ones that could easily be copied in today’s educational world, it is nonetheless interesting to be aware of Erasmus’ reliance on memorizing adages — sayings and proverbs — and then discussing their meanings. His largest collection contained 3,000 adages, among them “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Then there is “the folly of taking owls to Athens.” One gets an impression of his method from a portrait of a young scholar painted in 1531, five years before Erasmus’ death, by Jan van Scorel. The proverb the boy has written on the paper he holds in his left hand reads, “The Lord provides everything yet has nothing less,” while the text at the base of the painting reads: “Who is rich? He who desires nothing. Who is poor? The man who is greedy.”

Education, of course, was far more than memorization of proverbs. Erasmus advocated a spirit of freedom and inquiry. As he wrote: “When faith came to be in writings rather than in hearts … contention grew hot and love grew cold. … That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ.”

The emphasis here is on freedom, not in the sense of simply doing as you please, but freedom in the sense of acts that occur in relations of love and respect.

Erasmus put great stress on conversation and the art of dialogue. Without dialogue, how could we become people capable of living in peace? He produced a steady stream of model conversations — colloquies, he called them — which provided those using them with models of well-framed communication while at the same time introducing a wide range of topics that stretched one’s intellectual and spiritual borders. Precisely because these were dialogues, at least two viewpoints were presented, and both sides at their best and most convincing. One side might be a series of arguments in favor of the monastic life and celibacy, the other of marriage and parenthood. The result for students was learning to see things from more than one point of view and developing a capacity to respect opinions other than one’s own.

One of the great admirers of Erasmus was Roland Bainton, longtime professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale. In his biography, Erasmus of Christendom, Bainton offers this observation: “Education for Erasmus did not consist in drawing out of the pupil what was not there. The student must first be steeped in the knowledge and wisdom of the ages. Only thereafter is he in a position to express himself.”

For Erasmus education was far more than a process of acquiring information, certain skills and a facility with languages, but of acquiring wisdom, or at least being in a state that makes one more capable of acquiring wisdom. A tall order. I cannot recall often hearing the word “wisdom” being used or its meaning discussed in any classroom in which I was a student.

One last comment regarding Erasmus as educator: Probably he would have loved the internet. What is certain is that he placed great value on visual aids and saw the printing press as a boon for teachers. What a difference it makes for a student to see and not simply hear about a fabulous creature. One can imagine Dürer’s famous engraving of a rhinoceros hanging in one of Erasmus’ classrooms. After all, Erasmus and Dürer were good friend. Erasmus owned some of Dürer’s engravings of biblical scenes. These would provided the sort of classroom imagery that Erasmus welcomed. Whether an image of an animal a student had never seen or of the Annunciation, pictures seen day after day in a classroom will never be forgotten and may contribute, each in its own way, to the development of wisdom. For finally what mattered most to Erasmus was that he might pass on to his students not only the love of learning, but the love of God and neighbor.

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a set of Erasmus-related photos is in this folder in my Flickr site:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157613109469667/

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Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

a talk given 7 and 14 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing up?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

In a passage in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he made the comment: “I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.” In the same book there is also this passage: “If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

Glenn Hinson, a Baptist who in 1960 brought some of his students to the abbey for a meeting with Merton, tells this story:

[Merton] made such a profound impression on me and my students when he talked to us about life in the monastery, and he seemed like such a “real human being,” [that] we couldn’t understand why he would be a monk. In fact, one student asked, “What is a smart fellow like you doing throwing his life away in a place like this?” I waited for Merton to open up his mouth and eat this guy alive. But he didn’t. He grinned that cheshire cat grin, let love flow out, and said, “I’m here because I believe in prayer. That is my vocation.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had never met anyone who believed in prayer enough to think of it as a vocation.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch running the length of it. A simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, it was built in 1960 and stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe his first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

“It is the task of the iconographer,” Merton wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

In a letter sent in March 1968, Merton explained to June what he meant by his phrase, the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,

represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ’sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.

We come upon a final clue to the importance icons had in Merton’s inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand in December 1968:

1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Rosary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One thing leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the impact on him of mosaics he found there? Would he have later become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copied the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icon he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did at the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basics of Christian life — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

I heartily recommend, as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling [Holy Spirit], etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.

It is not that Merton lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

* * *
text as of 26 February 2009
* * *

Draft of a talk to be given 7 and 15 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found in buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch tended to be. It simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, was built in 1960 an stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication wrote that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

“It is the task of the iconographer,” Merton wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

In a letter sent in March 1968, Merton explained to June what he meant by his phrase, the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,

represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ’sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.

We come upon a final clue to the importance icons had in Merton’s inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand in December 1968:

1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Rosary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One things leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the mosaics he sought out? Would he have become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copies the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icons he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but to a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basic of Christian life for us — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their example of hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

I heartily recommend, as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling [Holy Spirit], etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.

It is not that Merton is lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, the Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

* * *
text as of 25 February 2009
* * *

Draft of a talk to be given 7 and 15 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found in buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch tended to be. It simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, was built in 1960 an stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication wrote that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

“It is the task of the iconographer,” Merton wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

In a letter sent in March 1968, Merton explained to June what he meant by his phrase, the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,

represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ’sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.

We come upon a final clue to the importance icons had in Merton’s inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand in December 1968:

1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Rosary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One things leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the mosaics he sought out? Would he have become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copies the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icons he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but to a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basic of Christian life for us — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their example of hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

I heartily recommend, as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling [Holy Spirit], etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.

It is not that Merton is lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, the Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

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text as of 25 February 2009
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Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

Draft of a lecture to be given at the Vancouver Public Library on 3 March 2009….

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

by Jim Forest

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the latest Indiana Jones film — Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull — was the glimpse it gave of the open-air nuclear testing program the United States was conducting in the fifties, and then resumed for a time in the sixties.

We see Indiana Jones fleeing for his life in the wastelands of southern Nevada when he is astonished to stumble upon a tidy little town with houses that look fresh as daisies, complete with emerald-green lawns, ice cream trucks, laundry drying on the lines, and a newspaper boy on a bike that for some reason isn’t moving. Entering the nearest house, Jones sees a nuclear family — mother, father and son — sitting on their living room couch while watching The Howdie Doody Show. The family pays no attention to their guest because, as Jones quickly discovers, their eyes and ears are nothing but plaster and paint. They’re only shop-window mannequins. Then in the distance comes the far-away announcement of a count-down. Ten, nine, eight… It dawns on Jones that this is no town, only a set to be used for observing the impact of a nuclear test, and that test will occur in only a few seconds. The ever-resourceful Indiana Jones uses the refrigerator as a bomb shelter and, though hurtled through the air before crashing into a distant landing place, survives the blast unscathed. The houses, of course, and their mannequins and green lawns, are less than smoke. Looking up at Indiana Jones, we see the mushroom cloud and its molten, hellish center enlarging over his head.

In fact there was exactly such a test in 1953, when nuclear explosions had become almost an entertainment industry. Again and again, thousands came to Las Vegas so that they could get a good view of the mushroom cloud rising from the nuclear test site to the south. The explosions could be seen a hundred miles away. Millions watched on live TV from their homes, as I did as a child on the other side of the country, in New Jersey. I was eleven at the time. I’ll never forget the sudden flash-bulb illumination of those doomed buildings, the instant blackening of the outer walls with dense smoke pouring out of the clapboards, and then, a split-second later, the full impact of the explosion as the burning buildings were swept away by a nuclear hurricane.

It was a different sort of reality television, nothing less than a preview of the end of the world. But the politicians and generals were pleased. The bomb worked. The Atomic Bomb Show had a mass audience. The world could see our apocalyptic strength and already knew, thanks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s willingness to use it.

It’s not surprising that I watched those TV broadcasts. Anyone who had the opportunity did so. But not everyone had the chance. Among those not watching were the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani living on their patch of rural Kentucky. They had no television, nor did they read the newspapers. The whole idea of Trappist life was to be cut off from the headlines. It was a life of prayer, meditation and labor, rising well before sunrise for the first prayers of the day and going to bed on their straw mattresses when the sky got dark. The Trappist attitude in those days was along the lines of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “If you have read one newspaper, you’ve read them all.”

Even the bridge of correspondence was closed most of the time — letters were delivered and went out four times a year, in connection with four major feasts on the church calendar.

In those days of nuclear testing, the envelopes delivered to the monks would have been postmarked “Pray for Peace,” advice the monks didn’t need as they prayed for peace many times a day. In those days the US Postal Service was a major promoter of prayer.

Despite the barriers between the monastery and the rest of the human race, the world managed to make some of its activities known to the Trappists. Letters from friends and relatives inevitably related some of the main events of the day, if only to remind the monks how urgently their prayers were needed. And occasionally the abbot would make reports to the monks on some of the headlines — a new president or pope elected, the death of Stalin, war in Korea, the establishment of Communist China, or some other world crisis.

But Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as he was known in the monastery — was a special case and had more access to correspondence and news sources and thus was able to pay closer attention to what was happening in the world, with its weapons and wars and nuclear tests. He had accidentally become famous. In 1948, an autobiography written by Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been published and quickly became a runaway bestseller. It’s one of those rare books that, more the sixty years later, has never gone out-of-print. It’s a page-turner — Merton’s account of his bohemian childhood, chaotic adolescence, conversion to Christianity in its Catholic form, then finally embracing a monastic vocation in a community so low-tech and so austere that it was nearly medieval. The book was a celebration of escape from a madhouse culture and finding refuge in a place of sanity, faith and prayer. The Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton wrote, was the real center of America, the place that was holding things together.

Most readers came away from The Seven Storey Mountain thinking of it as the author’s goodbye to the world. Any Merton books that might yet emerge from the other side of the monastic wall would surely be about aspects of the ascetic and silent life. Few could imagine that the author of The Seven Storey Mountain would, not many years later, become one of the prominent voices of protest against nuclear weapons and war in general, a passionate critic of racism, and an advocate of a society which relied on nonviolent methods to protect itself and overcome injustice. Still fewer could envisage the controversy that would surround his name or the fact that he would eventually be forbidden to publish articles or books on war and peace.

In the late summer of 1961 I happened to be one of the first to made aware of Merton as a voice of social engagement, protest and peacemaking. I had recently left the U.S. Navy with a special discharge as a conscientious objector and had joined the staff of the Catholic Worker community in New York City. Our main work was making meals and providing clothing to homeless people, many of them alcoholics or mentally ill, who were surviving on the streets of lower Manhattan. The founder of the community, Dorothy Day, had enlisted me to devote part of my time to helping with the newspaper we published, The Catholic Worker. It was issued monthly and had nearly a hundred thousand subscribers. Among other things, it addressed such issues as the Cold War, the arms race, racism and social injustice. It was a compelling voice for Christ-like living.

We did our best to practice what we preached. One consequence was that members of the staff, starting with Dorothy, were not strangers to jail cells. Dorothy had been locked up several times for sitting on a park bench in front of City Hall when, had she been obeying the law, she would have taken shelter in a subway station in a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear attack. It was the most bizarre ritual of life in New York City in those days. For a short time one day each year, the sirens howled, traffic stopped and the sidewalks and stores were emptied of their usual crowds, draining into subways or other designated fallout shelters. Instead of taking shelter, Dorothy and others who shared her view that such activities protected no one and even spread the illusion that nuclear war was survivable, quietly gathered in the little park on front of City Hall and awaited arrest. Ironically, they were charged with “disturbing the peace.”

We were out of step with many aspects of the society around us. The result was that the Catholic Worker was often dismissed as a group with “Communist leanings” — not that Marx, Lenin or Stalin would have had anything good to say about people with the sort of “God delusions” that motivated us.

One day a packet arrived from the Abbey of Gethsemani containing a letter from Thomas Merton with a submission, his first ever to our publication. It turned out to be a chapter — “The Root of War is Fear” — from the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation, which was a revised and expanded edition of an earlier work, Seeds of Contemplation. Seeds of Contemplation was the only book Merton ever rewrote. This particular chapter had been three-pages in the earlier edition, its meditative paragraphs only loosely connected. Merton had now transformed it into a ten-page chapter that contained only a few fragments from the earlier version.

One of the many additions was a comment on the cold-war mentality — the tendency of Americans to see only the best and purest motives in ourselves and to ascribe the very worst motives to our adversaries. As Merton put it: “In our refusal to accept the partially good intentions of others and work with them (of course prudently and with resignation to the inevitable imperfection of the result) we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism and political quackery.”

Merton asked, “What is the use of postmarking our mail with exhortations to ‘pray for peace’ and then spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? This, I would think, would certainly be what the New Testament calls ‘mocking God’ — and mocking Him far more effectively than atheists do. … Consider the utterly fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care which go into the production of weapons which almost immediately become obsolete and have to be scrapped. Contrast all this with the pitiful little gesture ‘pray for peace’ piously canceling our stamps! … It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination… It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.”

In a preface to the chapter written especially for readers of The Catholic Worker, Merton made a call for action: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, 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.”

In this hard struggle, Merton saw the Church as being called to play a prominent part promoting nonviolent alternatives to conflict, leading 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.”

Not a great many people in the American Catholic Church in those days were ready to say “amen” to such ideas. In fact even now, nearly half a century later, Merton’s words are strong stuff, but in the climate of the time, when to display an interest in peacemaking or social justice could easily result in one being labeled a “Communist sympathizer” if not a “pinko” if not an outright “Red,” Merton was really putting his neck on the chopping block. That such thoughts should come from the most widely read Catholic author of his generation was more than startling.

At Dorothy Day’s encouragement, I began corresponding with Merton. In his first response, he mentioned that he had said the Mass in Time of War that morning. It definitely wasn’t, he said, a “belligerent Mass.” It fails to ask that anyone “be struck down.” Merton pointed out that “nowhere in [the text of the Mass] are there promises of blessings upon the strong and the unscrupulous or the violent.” The text, he said, suggested that “we shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.”

One sees a great deal of Merton’s basic outlook in that short letter. If he wasn’t in fact shutting up, he was attempting to speak as a Christian monk, with humility and clarity, and with trust that God would somehow find ways to make good use of our efforts for the good of everyone’s souls.

Regarding how a Christian should respond to war and what it might mean to be a peacemaker, Merton’s point of entry was neither political nor ideological but deeply rooted in the primary sources of Christian life — the Gospel and other biblical writings, the Mass plus all the offices of prayer that were an integral part of monastic life, and the lives and writings of the saints.

Early in 1962, at Merton’s invitation, I hitchhiked to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton gave me a warm welcome, seeing me daily until I left for New York to take part in a protest against US resumption of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. (My next letter from Merton would be hand-delivered to me as I sat awaiting arrest on an icy pavement before the main entrance to the Manhattan offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. The A.E.C. was then the government agency responsible for manufacturing and testing all U.S. nuclear weapons.)

As I discovered during that first visit to the monastery in Kentucky, Merton’s attitude toward war was not shared by all his brother monks. One of them, seeing Merton and me walking together, demonstrated his opinion of The Catholic Worker and of Merton’s writing for that journal by compressing the latest issue into a ball about the size of a tangerine and hurling it into the garbage can that he happened to be standing next to.

While wandering about monastery guest house, I found a small booklet for sale that had to do with war and was addressed to young men like myself. It gives a much more typical impression of American Catholic thinking about war and soldiering in those days. The author, Father Raymond, was also a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani and the community’s other noted author. I paraphrase, but the text began roughly along these lines:

“So, you’ve received an induction order and have to report for an Army physical? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You either pass or you fail. So, you’ve passed your physical and you have to serve in the Army? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either sent into combat or you are assigned behind the lines. So, you’re sent into combat? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either injured or you’re not injured. So, you’re injured in combat? Now there’s something to worry about — you either recover or you die. So, it turns out to be a mortal injury and you die? Now at last there is something to worry about. You either go to heaven or you go to hell.”

The rest of the text was an exhortation to the hell-avoiding soldier not to curse or use profanities, not to commit fornication, to go confession regularly, to fast on Fridays, and to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. The Catholic soldier, if he practiced purity of mouth and groin and fulfilled his religious duties, could look forward to heaven. The author had nothing to say about the love of enemies. He offered no cautions about the possible abuse of obedience by the state or the soldier’s superiors. He said nothing about a soldier’s obligations to respect the lives of the innocent and to refuse participation in war crimes. While the author clearly believed in hell, not a word was said about war itself being hell.

What stood behind the turning in Merton’s mind that made the issue of war and peace so important, that he felt compelled to write about it? What led him to start publishing articles on these matters in such journals as The Catholic Worker, Jubilee and Commonweal? Or to write Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era? Or to play, as he did during the last several years of his life, an important role in developing the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship?

It was a slow process with deep roots. There were many turning points in the development of Merton’s thinking about the world and his place in it.

Surely the beginning was with his anti-war parents. His New Zealand born father, Owen, was one of the relatively few men of war-fighting age not to take part in World War I or to have any sympathy with it. He had opted to leave France, Tom’s birthplace, and go to the US because in France even foreigners like himself might be drafted. As would be the case with his son, Owen was immune to propaganda, recruiting posters and military songs. So was his American-born wife, Ruth, who had become a Quaker. For Merton, failing to march to the drumbeat of war was something of a family tradition.

While Ruth Merton had died too young for Merton — who was only eight at the time — to understand or be influenced by her religious convictions, his father’s influence was considerable. Though he was put off by churches, which did little to remind Owen of Christ, Owen took Christ’s teachings very much to heart.

“I shall never forget,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “a casual remark Father happened to make [to me as a boy] in which he told me of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ, and how, on hearing the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly. … We were just talking casually, standing in the hall of the flat we had taken. … I have never lost the vivid picture I got, at that moment, of Peter going out and weeping bitterly.”

Merton recalled another occasion when Owen expressed indignation with a woman who had been speaking hatefully of a neighbor. “He asked her why she thought Christ had told people to love their enemies. Did she suppose God commanded this for His benefit? Did he get anything out of it that he really needed from us? Or was it rather for our own good that he had given us this commandment? [Father] told her that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul.”

Perhaps there was also some influence from Gandhi. In the fall of 1930, Tom, then a fifteen-year-old student at a residential high school in England, took Gandhi’s side in a school debate, arguing that India had every right to demand its freedom from Britain. Later in his life, Merton came to see Gandhi’s use of nonviolent methods as a model for achieving justice without resorting to violence or incitement to hatred and edited a small book of selections from Gandhi’s writings.

Far more important was Merton’s encounter with Christ three years later, age eighteen, when he was on a solo visit to Rome. While the religious artwork of later periods tended to leave Merton cold, the Byzantine mosaic icons that he found in many of the city’s oldest churches arrested his attention in a way that later triggered within Merton a profound sense of the actual presence of Christ — not simply a legendary teacher who had lived in the days of the Caesars, been crucified and buried, but someone still living.

“For the first time in my whole life,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers, and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.”

This seems to have been Merton’s first mystical experience, in the sense of an experience of the reality of God. From that period of his life until his death, Christ remained for Merton not simply “a historical person,” as he explained in a letter to a Quaker correspondent, “but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down.”

It is one thing to study Christ and the Gospel, as one might study Plato and his books, and another thing to know — at least begin to know — that Christ rose from the dead and is the Lord of Creation: “Christ God, Christ King.” Such an event in one’s life may take years to be fully integrated, as was the case with Merton, but it shapes choices and decisions for the rest of one’s life. Merton’s religious conversion and reception into the Catholic Church came only a few years later.

Another factor was Merton’s experience, after finishing his studies at Columbia University, of doing volunteer work at Friendship House, a house of hospitality in Harlem. One of the hardest decisions Merton made as a young adult was choosing between work of that kind, in the poorest and most densely populated area of Manhattan, and going to the monastery. Harlem brought home to him the neglected beauty of people who had been marginalized by racism.

All the while, in the background of the choices Merton was wrestling with, was the widening war in Europe. Only one novel Merton wrote in that period has survived. It was finally published in 1968 with the title, The Journal of My Escape from the Gestapo. The text throws light on Merton decision to be a conscientious objector. “My sins have done this,” he wrote. “Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too.” Devout Catholic that Merton had become, he understood that there are threads of connection between the relatively minor sins each person commits and the calamities of the world.

In writing The Seven Storey Mountain, with the dust of World War II still settling, Merton thought it important to write at length about his conviction that Christian response to war ought to reflect the example of Christ, who neither took part in war nor blessed his followers to do so. It is interesting to note that the Western Christian theological tradition of the “just war” was not of special interest to Merton and goes unmentioned. His question was simply: What would Christ do? Would he shoot others or drop bombs on them? Merton found it impossible to say yes.

It isn’t surprising that, just as America was entering World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Merton gave up his teaching job at St. Bonaventure’s College, gave away what little he had, traveled to Kentucky and entered the monastery.

The early years of his monastic life were years of formation. The world beyond the monastic enclosure seemed far away, though even then there were many reminders of the suffering of others and the death of many. Among the casualties of the war in Europe was Merton’s younger brother, John Paul, who had joined the Canadian Royal Air Force.

Merton came to look back on some aspects of his early monastic formation as flawed. The border between the world and the monastery had seemed a kind of chasm — the monk belonging to a holier species of being. Merton had allowed himself to think of monastic life not just as a form of Christian life but as the truest and best model of Christian life. He had felt free to regard “the world” with contempt rather than compassion.

During the Fifties, in a gradual conversion of attitude, Merton came to see the monastic vocation as an authentic Christian option without any longer regarding it as the highest tier of Christian life. For each person, what was important was to embrace whatever vocation God intended for you, and do so wholeheartedly. No one, simply by virtue of his vocation, however “religious” it may seem to be, has a special entrance to heaven or goes to the front of the line by virtue of wearing monastic robes.

No less than any Christian, Merton realized, the monk is called to love his neighbor, and that love can at times require dissent and protest of events and structures which endanger life and make it hellish. Merton writes of his new understanding in the preface to Seeds of Destruction: “The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with all its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors.”

From about 1958 onward, we see in Merton’s journals how far he had moved from the “enclosed mentality” of the early years of his monastic life. He found himself dismayed with the “loud bluster” of his early poems in which, even more than in the prose of the same period, he ranted about the “futility of ‘the world’.”

Merton felt a growing sense of connection with ordinary people and a deep gratitude for such lay Catholics as Dorothy Day, with whom he began corresponding in 1959. Here was a person whose life was a continuing response to Christ’s words, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.”

Merton notes that the “refusal of all political commitments is absurd.” In a letter to Dorothy Day, he told her, “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.”

By 1961, when he had mailed his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” to Dorothy Day, Merton saw himself not only as a voice for the contemplative life but understood the contemplative life as inspiring a compassionate response to threats to life and a shield against dehumanization and propaganda.

His spiritual journey was taking a turn not altogether welcomed either by his religious superiors or, for that matter, by all of his readers. How thin the ice that Merton had stepped out upon was soon made clear. Six months later after “The Root of War is Fear” was published in The Catholic Worker, the head of the Trappist order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordered Merton to stop writing on the topic of war and peace. But in that half-year period, and despite the obstacles of censorship within the Trappist order, Merton had managed to publish a flurry of peace essays.

The silencing order left Merton deeply dismayed and discouraged. The Abbot General’s decision, he said in a letter to me, 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 his Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church and its monastic component. “The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep,” Merton said in the same letter. “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 … [The monk] 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 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.”

Despite his profound disagreement with the Abbot General’s order, Merton chose to obey. “In my own particular case,” he explained to me, disobedience and public protest “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.”

As events unfolded, Merton wasn’t altogether silenced. As things worked out, with the blessing and support of his own abbot, Dom James Fox, he was able to publish two books, Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, in non-commercial, mimeographed editions that, as often happens with banned books, were all the more carefully read and shared by those who managed to obtain copies. In various ways, again with his abbot’s assistance and approval, Merton succeeded to writing and publishing new pieces on war and peace, in some cases under such pen names and Benedict Monk and Benedict Moore. Merton’s banned peace writings were circulated among the bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council and played a part in shaping the Council’s final document, The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in which the Council’s only condemnation is included: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” This solemn declaration was the most dramatic vindication of what Merton had been advocating and seeking.

If for the time being Merton was unable to publish his peace writings in book form, one of the doors that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton became a source of encouragement and dialogue for a many people, for some a spiritual father, as he certainly was for me.

What is striking about all his letters is how free they are from jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous nor did he seek to remake others in his own image. 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, when the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties, and might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for their 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.”

As was made clear in his letters and other writings, what he 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, Hildegard and Jean Goss, and groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice such as the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

What was often missing in protest movements, Merton pointed out, was compassion for those who disagreed or felt threatened by protest. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me, “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. … [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.”

Beyond compassion, there is love. Without love of opponents and enemies, neither personal nor social transformation can occur. As Merton 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, its 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.”

At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service. In another letter, he reminded me: “[What is needed is a] complete change of heart and [a] totally new outlook on the world …. 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 a 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….

“As for the big results 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 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.”

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. On December 10, just after addressing a conference of Trappist and Benedictine monks and nuns meeting near Bangkok, Merton died.

Merton’s was an untimely and tragic death — he was only 54 — and yet for the corpse of a peacemaker to be sent home as part of a cargo of dead bodies, all the others being soldiers who had died in the Vietnam War, seemed somehow appropriate. These strangers, victims of war and of an ill-judged policy, were among those whom Merton had come to see as brothers.

* * *
text as of February 25, 2009
* * *

An Army that Sheds No Blood: Thomas Merton’s Response to War

This is a talk given March 6, 2009, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and March 14 in Victoria, British Columbia, at conferences arranged by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada.

by Jim Forest

One of Thomas Merton’s lesser known publications is a small booklet produced in Italy, the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, and issued by New Directions: Clement of Alexandria: Selections from the Protreptikos. It’s long out-of-print. If you are lucky enough to track down a copy, it almost certainly won’t cost the $1.50 it was sold for in 1962.

It appeared just two years after publication of a related book, The Wisdom of the Desert, Merton’s collection of stories and sayings from the inventors of Christian monasticism, the monks who, from the fourth century onward, populated the wastelands of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

Both books reveal Merton’s attraction to the early Church and its writers. Clement was among the earliest. He was born in Athens about 150 AD, at the end of the Apostolic Age. He later made his home in Alexandria, the most cosmopolitan city of that period, where he became a renowned Christian teacher and apologist – and later came to be regarded as one of the Fathers of the Church, that community of renowned theologians of the early centuries who were not only scholars but articulate mystics.

Merton found in Clement a kindred soul — “one of the Fathers I like best, with whom I feel the closest affinity,” as he records in a journal entry made in the summer of 1961. The word Merton uses most frequently in regard to Clement is “serene.” The “serene interior light” of Clement’s writings reminded Merton of the Gospel of St. John and the Pauline epistles — “the light which burned clearly in the souls of the martyrs, kindled by the agape of the primitive Church.” Merton sees Clement as someone “who fully penetrates the mystery of the … Risen Christ. … a victory over death, over sin, over the confusions and dissension of this world, with its raging cruelty and its futile concerns, a victory which leads not to contempt of man and of the world, but, on the contrary, to a true, pure, serene love, filled with compassion, able to ‘save’ for Christ all that is good and noble in man, in society, in philosophy and in humanistic culture.” And Clement wrote his serene words, Merton points out, not in the desert but in the city, “amid its crowds.”

In presenting the case for Christ to his well-educated pagan contemporaries, Clement drew from various wells, not only from the Gospels, Paul’s letters and other Christian sources, but also from the work of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. As Merton writes, “Clement was not a fanatic, but a man of unlimited comprehension and compassion who didn’t fear to seek elements of truth wherever they could be found, for the truth, he said, is one. … The full expression is to be found most perfectly in the Divine Logos, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.”

Clement’s theology, Merton stresses, is a theology of light, the nature of which is to banish darkness.

What Clement is not, Merton adds, is a Christian publicist, a PR man “with a bag full of spiritual slogans” or “a salesman representing a particular nation or culture.” Nor is he a self-promoter, using the Christian religion to draw attention to himself. Clement sees himself, a Christian philosopher and educator, as having a vocation to introduce others to “the true teacher, the Logos of God.”

Merton noted that Clement, even though recognized as one the Church Fathers, has been, at least for Western Christians, a somewhat controversial figure. At the beginning of the 17th century, Clement of Alexandria’s name was removed from the Roman Martyrology by Pope Clement VIII, an act later endorsed by Pope Benedict XIV, on the grounds that little was known of Clement’s life. But in that case not many names should be permitted to remain on our list of early saints, so little is known about nearly all of them. Typically all that can be said is that, following martyrdom, their graves became places of pilgrimage and prayer in the early Church.

For Merton, himself no stranger to controversy, Clement’s being not quite on the calendar of the saints was perhaps an attraction. Like Groucho Marx, Merton was nervous about belonging to any club that would have him for a member. But the real attraction was the purity of Clement’s writing, a transparency through which Christ shone like a sunrise. Clement writings, said Merton, were “a great treasury of authentic and profoundly Christian thought … whose culture, urbanity, simplicity, faith and joy welcomed all comers to the school of Christian philosophy.”

“The whole moral philosophy of Clement,” Merton writes, “can be summed up by his conviction that Christ is the true Master, the one who guides his disciple in every aspect of the Christian life.” Without the light of Christ, Merton continues, we human beings are little more than fowl being fattened in the dark for the butcher’s knife. But in Christ “everything is significant, everything comes to life, even the most simple and ordinary task acquires a spiritual and supernatural dimension.”

It is hard to think of anyone about whom Merton ever wrote in more glowing terms. His little book about Clement was a modest effort to make this all-but-forgotten name better known to readers of our own time, eighteen centuries later.

Not least appealing to Merton was the purity of Clement’s writings about war and peace. One line, as Merton translated it, provides a synopsis: The Church is “an army that sheds no blood.”

The final page of Merton’s translation of excerpts from Clement’s Protreptikos is headed “Soldiers of Peace.” The text is brief. Let me read it to you:

Now the trumpet sounds with a mighty voice calling the soldiers of the world to arms, announcing war:
And shall not Christ who has uttered His summons to peace even to the ends of the earth
Summon together His own soldiers of peace?
Indeed, O Man, He has called to arms with His blood and His Word an army that sheds no blood:
To these soldiers He has handed over the Kingdom of Heaven.
The trumpet of Christ is His Gospel. He has sounded it in our ears
And we have heard Him.
Let us be armed for peace, putting on the armor of justice, seizing the shield of faith,
The helmet of salivation,
And sharpening the “sword of the spirit which is the Word of God.”
This is how the Apostle prepares us peaceably for battle.
Such are the arms that make us invulnerable.
So armed, let us prepare to fight the Evil One.
Let us cut through his flaming attack with the blade which the Logos Himself has tempered in the waters (of baptism).
Let us reply to His goodness by praise and thanksgiving.
Let us honor God with His divine Word:
“While thou are yet speaking”, he says, “Here I am.”

The Church is “an army that sheds no blood.” Merton’s translation doesn’t lose the bright edge of the original Greek text. Sadly, while certainly there are a great many Christians today who give an impressive witness to being part of such an army, it’s not a remark many would apply to contemporary Christianity as a whole. For centuries Christians, by the hundreds of thousands, have been combatants in practically any war one can think of, killing each other when not killing non-Christians, and by and large doing so with the unreserved blessings of clergy — if not, as happened with the Crusades, at their actual summons.

Merton’s vision of peace was similar to that of Clement of Alexandria. He wanted to revive in Christianity, that is in each of us, those strengths that would equip us, we who are attempting to follow Christ, to become once again part of an army that sheds no blood.

Merton gave witness to wanting to be such a person well before becoming a monk. One of the many surprises in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is Merton’s thorough recounting of his decision, despite his disgust with Hitler and Naziism, to be a conscientious objector. As he explained:

[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.” [SSM, 111-2]

Remarkable words. One very rarely heard anyone, still less Catholics, saying such things at the time, least of all when World War II was underway or in the years that immediately followed, which is precisely when The Seven Storey Mountain was published. In their struggle to be accepted in a society whose default setting was anti-Catholic, Americans Catholics were notable for being more red-white-and-blue than many of their neighbors, a people doubly grateful to have found a home in the United States. Not that Merton was being critical of his adopted country. But it wasn’t every day a Catholic writer, or indeed Christians from other major churches, talked about their behavior, in wartime no less than peacetime, being modeled on Christ’s example. Against whom did Christ raise a deadly weapon? No one. How many were killed by Jesus Christ? Not a single person. He both taught and practiced love of enemies. He rescued people from death. Far from killing others, he was renowned for acts of healing. Dying on the cross, he forgave his executioners. Having risen from the dead, his said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.”

Those who would cut Merton in two — the “early Merton,” author The Seven Storey Mountain and various books of the Fifties, versus the “later Merton,” author of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and all the other books he wrote in the Sixties — overlook how much that became major themes in Merton’s later writing and work, not only regarding peace but even his debt to people from non-Christian religious traditions, was already clearly expressed in The Seven Storey Mountain. There is development, of course. His early parochialism and convert zeal evaporated. Even more significantly, his understanding of what it meant to “be in the world but not of it” was gradually transformed. But important concerns that he had developed as a young man were not dropped. Merton had come to baptism not because of Christianity but because of Christ — “the Christ of the martyrs,” as he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, describing his first significant encounter with Christ when he was in Rome at age eighteen.

The Seven Storey Mountain is an account of conversion. What Merton was to discover, once his autobiography was out of his hands, is that conversion is never finished. It is on-ongoing process.

A significant part of Merton’s conversion in the last two decades of his life was his realization that a monk, in his place of relative refuge, is sometimes called to see the world with a clarity that often eludes those who are in the midst of the world, and not just to see what is happening but to attempt to speak up in a way that might prevent disaster. It has to do with the second of the two Great Commandments: love of neighbor. If you see your neighbor rushing towards a precipice and fail to warn him, his death may be more on your hands than his. He was blind — you were not.

Almost anyone who knows anything about Merton is likely to recall that moment of illumination when, in 1958, he waited for the light to turn green at a busy intersection in downtown Louisville. I need not recite the familiar text. In a moment that contained all the time in the world, he saw those around him as bearers of the divine image, as persons loved by God, each of them as dear to God as anyone in any monastery. He knew not one of these strangers by name but the fate of each of them became a matter of eternal significance.

That transfigured moment helps us better understand the final decade of Merton’s life. Bill Shannon, the general editor of Merton’s correspondence, told me that after that event Merton’s letter-writing took off. It seemed he was writing to just about everyone in the phone book, from popes to the authors of banned books, from great scholars to high school students, from politicians to people like me who sometimes went to prison for acts of protest.

Just three years later, not many months before his little book on Clement was issued, Merton submitted his first article to The Catholic Worker. This was easily one of the more controversial Catholic journals. Its editor, Dorothy Day, was an outspoken pacifist who saw the works of war as being the polar opposite of the works of mercy. It was not, in her view, a coherent life to feed the hungry one day and kill them the next.

The piece Merton submitted, “The Root of War is Fear,” was an expanded version of a chapter he had just finished writing for a forthcoming book, New Seeds of Contemplation. In it he observed:

It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination. … It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.

In the additional introductory paragraphs written especially for The Catholic Worker, Merton saw “war-madness” as “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world.” Perhaps in our ears this may sound a bit extreme, somewhat “unnuanced.” One has to recall that, at the time Merton was writing these observations, there were a great many Americans, Catholics prominent among them, who seriously repeated such apocalyptic slogans as “Better Red than dead” and “The only good Red is a dead Red.” Uttering such bumper-sticker sentences passed for moral discourse. Just a month before Merton’s essay was published in The Catholic Worker, October 1961, an essay by a distinguished Jesuit ethicist, Fr. L.C. McHugh, was published in America magazine in which the author argued that it was morally unobjectionable to kill your next-door-neighbor in defense of your private fall-out shelter. Meanwhile advocates of nuclear war were promoting the benefits of a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union using arguments similar to those we have heard more recently in justification of the US “preemptive” war on Iraq. Scores of US nuclear weapons tests were occurring, first in Nevada and then, after the weapons became too destructive for open-air detonation in United States, in the Pacific Ocean. Millions of children in US schools took part in “duck-and-cover” drills to learn how hiding under their desks with the hands over the back of their necks might save them in the event of a nuclear attack. The “war-madness” Merton spoke of was truly a mass psychosis. The world Stanley Kubrick satirized in “Doctor Strangelove” was the actual world in which we were living. Millions of people, myself among them, did not anticipate dying of old age but rather of nuclear war. Indeed I didn’t expect to live to be thirty. There was a poster on my room at the Catholic Worker that bore the simple message, “Get Ready to Die.” These words were perhaps the verbal equivalent of the skull one was supposed to find in the cell of a medieval hermit.

Here is Merton’s description of the times in his first Catholic Worker essay:

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. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

Merton went on sketch out a vision of how Christians should respond to the dangers facing us in the post-Hiroshima world:

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? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic Communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be 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.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, 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. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, 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.

First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, 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.

These basic ideas of Merton’s never wavered. As a writer aware that many people had great respect for his work and that he was one of the relatively few whose voice might make a difference, and also aware that he might not be given an extended opportunity to say what was on his mind before his superiors hit the off switch, he plunged ahead with other writings, including a poem — “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces” — about Adolph Eichmann and the Holocaust that ends with Eichmann addressing the reader: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.” This too was published in The Catholic Worker and widely reprinted elsewhere.

Merton wasn’t finished with Eichmann or the implications of the death machine such bureaucrats served. In an essay published in Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton had this to say:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. … No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.

Merton’s peace writings provoked a good deal of criticism. Given the climate of the time, it’s not surprising that some — many of them Catholics — saw him as having become “a Communist dupe,” a popular phrase in those days. A monk, it was said, should write about prayer and meditation, the rosary and fasting, not about such “political”issues as war. Who does Thomas Merton think he is? What happened to the author of The Seven Storey Mountain?

It was quite a storm and achieved its goal. Merton, having been accused of writing for “a Communist-controlled publication,” was silenced. But it’s remarkable how much Merton was able to write and publish before the plug was pulled. Merton’s Abbot General, Dom Gabriel Sortais — a Frenchman who was in many ways an outstanding and courageous individual — decided to lower the curtain. Merton had just finished writing a full-length book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, when he received a letter from the Dom Gabriel ordering him not to continue publishing articles on war and peace. Only six months had passed since the publication of Merton’s first peace essay in The Catholic Worker.

As the focus of these reflections is Merton’s vision of peace, not his troubles in trying to communicate that vision, I am not going to into all that followed. It’s another story. But to sum it up, Merton obeyed the order in the sense that Peace in the Post-Christian Era was not published in book form in his lifetime. But Merton’s abbot, Dom James Fox, made it possible for Peace in the Post-Christian Era, and also a collection of letters, Cold War Letters, both to be published by the monastery in mimeographed editions that were privately circulated, widely read and proved influential. Dom James decided the such privately circulated books were not covered by the silencing order, only work sold commercially on the open market. (On the inside cover of both of the mimeographed books was the notation: “Strictly confidential. Not for Publication.”) Merton also continued to write and publish shorter pieces on war and peace, but using various pen names. Some were laconic but revealing, like Benedict Monk, while others playful. Who else but Thomas Merton could have written something signed Marco J. Frisbee?

Eventually, after Dom Gabriel’s death late in 1963, quite a lot of what Merton wanted say about peace to people whose only access to his writings was via book stores was published in such volumes as Seeds of Destruction, Raids on the Unspeakable and Faith and Violence.

It is noteworthy that the not-quite-silenced Merton did all this without abandoning his vocation or his religious order. His actions reflected his conviction that he would do very little good for peace in the world if it was at the cost of scandalizing and alienating his own community. As he put it to me in a letter sent at the end of April 1962:

If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend.

What is striking about all this is Merton’s determination to do whatever he could for peace, coping with all sorts of limitations as best he could.

Throughout those next several difficult years, what Merton was able to do without interruption, in his own name and also without the heavy burden of censorship, was to carry on a great deal of significant correspondence with people like Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Tom Cornell, myself and others deeply engaged in efforts to prevent war or reduce conflict. These were never letters of the how-are-you-I-am-fine variety. The full text of nearly all them is available in The Hidden Ground of Love, and now exist, in an abbreviated form, in a section of the one-volume anthology, Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters. Meanwhile, Orbis Book has brought out both Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

Correspondence is important work. Evelyn Waugh so admired Merton-the-letter-writer that he once advised Merton to give up writing books in order to have more time for correspondence. Letters matter — certainly Merton’s did. I can recite by heart parts of certain letters Merton sent me. Through his letters, Merton played the role of spiritual father to many people engaged in the world.

In my own case, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that nightmarish time without those letters. Peace work is not always, or even often, peaceful. Peace groups attract all sorts of people. The peace activist is at least as subject to passions and vanities as anyone else. There are countless opportunities for self-righteousness, self-pity, arrogance, ambition, neglect of relationships, and despair. The religiously-motivated peace activist can come to decide that the Church is not worthy of his or her presence. Ideology can take the place of spiritual life and faith. Attending the liturgy, participating in eucharistic life, praying the rosary, prayer of any kind, going to confession, fasting — all such things can be seen as unimportant or even a waste of time. In such a context, more than most others, the peacemaker is desperately in need of a the kind of patient guidance I was fortunate enough to receive from Merton, who was motivated by a genuine vision of peace and not simply driven by anger at the makers of war.

One of Merton’s main stresses, in my case at least, was to acquire a deeper compassion. Without compassion, he pointed out, protesters tend to become more and more centered in anger and, far from contributing to anyone’s conversion, can actually become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one of his early letters to me,

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…. [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.

Another letter that came to mean a great deal to me went to a level deeper, from compassion to love. This one was sent 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.

Not least important to me was a letter I received at a time when I was feeling that the work we were doing was having no positive impact whatsoever. Here is a brief extract from his response, written in 1966:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially 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.

These letters are really about stages of conversion. Merton won his original renown for a book about conversion. It’s hardly surprising that he realized that, for all of us, conversion is ultimately our only hope. To become a peaceful person, to live in a way that contributes to peace, to live in a way that helps save life rather than in a way that contributes to the killing of others, to live in such a way that others may decide to live differently — that is an extraordinary achievement. Indeed it is never fully achieved. It’s an ongoing process, as all conversion is. Along the way we make mistakes, some of them serious. Repentance, confession, reconciliation, and many fresh starts are needed.

This was true in the early Church and remains true in our own time. All armies are built one-by-one. This is also true of the army that sheds no blood.

Though his own commitment was obvious, it’s striking that Merton never demanded that anyone, Christian or otherwise, was obliged to join the army that sheds no blood. You will never find him insisting that a Christian is duty-bound to be a conscientious objector. He had great sympathy for those who felt they had no viable nonviolent alternative to taking part in bloodshed. With his aversion to labels, it is hardly surprising that he avoided calling himself a pacifist. Yet again and again Merton made clear his conviction, echoing Clement of Alexandria, that the highest form of Christian discipleship presupposed the renunciation of violence.

This is how he put it in an important passage included in “The Christian in World Crisis”, an essay included in Seeds of Destruction:

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. [p 129]

Merton’s good friend, Clement of Alexandra, could have written the same words.

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Text as of March 2, 2009

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Jim & Nancy site: www.jimandnancyforest.com

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A Three-Letter Word

by Jim Forest

There is no need to preach constantly on sin, to judge and to condemn. It is when a man is challenged with the real contents of the Gospel, with its Divine depth and wisdom, beauty and all embracing meaning, that he becomes ‘capable of repentance,’ for true repentance is precisely the discovery by the man of the abyss that separates him from God and from His real offer to man. It is when the man sees the bridal chamber adorned that he realizes that he has no garment for entering it.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann

There have been thousands of essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the one-syllable, three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as “experiments in being.” Sin, we’ve also been told, is an invention of repressed, hypocritical clerics who want to keep the rest of us in bondage — “priests in black robes binding with briars our joys and desires,” in the chiming syllables of William Blake.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit — or blame — for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target” a rabbi friend once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — he was what you were aiming at. Then it’s not a matter of poor aim but of hitting his backside intentionally. Now that’s a sin!”

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things which God hates:

A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren. (6:17-19)

As in so many other lists of sins, pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a younger brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” With those few words, the brother was cured of pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what I did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life. (Rod Steiger in the film The Pawnbroker, in a desperate action to break free of numbness, slammed a nail-like spindle through his hand so he could finally feel something, even if it meant agonizing pain — a small crucifixion.)

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to (Rom 2:15). It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Guilt is not quite the same thing.

Guilt is one of the themes of Walker Percy’s novel, Love in the Ruins. The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. He isn’t likely to die a martyr for the faith. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More,

“We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”

“What hangup?”

“Your guilt feelings.”

“I never did see that.”

Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.

“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.

“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”

“See what?”

“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”

“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”

“But sinful and guilt-laden.”

“Not guilt-laden.”

“Then sinful?”

“Only between persons not married to each other.”

“I am trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”

“It is a great pleasure.”

“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”

“No, they don’t follow.”

“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”

“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”

“Why does that worry you?”

“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”

“How?”

“By the sacrament of penance.”

“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

Percy’s novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More — a modern man who can’t quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about — is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love.

When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

This is a condition of being that is suggested wordlessly by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God, not a closed communion restricted to them selves alone but an open communion of love in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible not to stand on what Thomas Merton called “the hidden ground of love” but easy not to be aware of the hidden ground of love or even to resent it.

Like Dr. Thomas More, we may find ourselves hardly able to experience the guilt we know intellectually that we ought to feel not only for what we did, or failed to do, but for having fallen out of communion with God.

“Guilt,” comments my Romanian friend Ioana Novac, “is a sense of fearful responsibility after realizing we have taken the wrong step and behold its painful consequences. In my experience, unfortunately not many people can tolerate this insight. My hunch is that many people these days experience less and less love, less and less strengthening support from their families and communities. As life gets more harried and we become more afflicted, the burden of guilt increases while our courage to embrace repentance — to look ourselves straight in the mirror and face the destructive consequences of our blindness and wrong choices — decreases.”

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ. (1)

This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend — Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg — writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn’t really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn’t stopped troubling him.

Sitting under a spruce tree, gazing up and down the street at all his neighbors’ houses, he is suddenly struck by how much the quality of life in each house depends on the integrity of life next door, even if everyone takes everyone else for granted. “This street has been good for my flesh and blood,” he says to himself. He is honest enough to realize that what he is doing could bring about the collapse of his marriage and wonders if in five or ten years his new partner might not tire of him and find someone else to take his place. It occurs to him that adultery is not much different from horse trading.

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families — my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell — I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday — it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

By the end of the letter it’s clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all — a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

“We depend on each other,” Keillor says again, “more than we can ever know.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact that ending isn’t essential, but our difficulty using it reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.” (2)

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: if today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately clean yourself with repentance.

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This is an extract from Jim Forest’s book, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis).

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footnotes:

1. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a talk “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing” at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France, in April 1999; the full text is posted at http://incommunion.org/articles/conferences-lectures/approaching-christ-the-physician on the web.

2. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1961): 38-44; also posted on the web — www.schmemann.org/byhim/reflectionsonconfession.html.

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Advent and Groundhog Day

by Nancy Forest-Flier

The odd thing about Advent (I realize after have gone through forty-some of them) is that it’s a combination of the thrillingly unknown and the utterly predictable. It’s as exciting as the little paper doors and windows that our children open each day in the new Advent calendar; it’s as known and familiar as the words to the Advent songs that we can easily sing from memory. And somewhere in between these two extremes lies the meaning of Advent, its significance for us.

Advent is a season on the church calendar. It’s a specific period of time through which we must pass before we reach Christmas. It’s there for a reason. In times past, Christians fasted through Advent the way they fasted through Lent (in the Orthodox church this is still the case) because the church recognized that we need long preparatory periods in order to fully understand the major feasts. Advent, with its fresh newness and its comfortable sameness, is something we need to pass through. Why?

In my mind, these two aspects of Advent are like the front and back doors of the same house. Say it’s your house, and it’s during the weeks before Christmas. The front door is the door you decorate for the holidays. You’ve hung out a wreath, maybe you’ve strung up some Christmas lights. When Christmas comes your guests will enter through this door. They’ll be smiling, bearing gifts, maybe food, and you’ll open the door to welcome them. Who’s coming this year? Some of the people who come to your door may be invited; some may show up unexpected and surprise you. There may even be old friends who you haven’t seen for years. Christmas is that kind of event; it’s the time for visiting, for surprises.

Advent literally means the arrival of someone who is awaited. It’s a happy linguistic accident that advent and adventure are sister words in English, because it’s easy to see the adventure in waiting for the unknown. We are standing at the front door of our house and waiting for the arrival of Christ, and this always makes us happy because we know that Christ came to save us. We know how the story will end. We know that the church will be established and that the saints will be victorious. In fact, we know this so well that it tends to take the adventure out of Advent.

But during the first Advent, of course, the adventure was there in all its terrifying, harsh, bewildering reality. Mary was visited by an angel and waited for her baby to be born, not knowing what kind of life her son would lead or what kind of an impact it would have on her. The pregnancy burst in upon her and imposed a new direction on her life. All she knew was that she was bearing the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One. The rest was pure adventure.

I thought about this aspect of Advent a great deal in the early spring of 1993, when I went through a short pregnancy of my own. It lasted ten weeks and ended abruptly in miscarriage. It was not a planned pregnancy and our children (most of them teenagers) were both excited and embarrassed. (Gee, this is great. But really, Mom, don’t you think you’re a little — old?). As soon as the presence of a new baby became an established fact we began to talk about how we could fit another person into the family. We have little room in our small house for another child. Where would he sleep? I am running a translating and editing business from our home which accounts for a large share of the family income. How would I continue working? As the weeks passed we all realized that life as we knew it would never be the same. But in what way? Who could know?

As we continued on with the pregnancy some interesting things happened. We found that we were touching lives in a way we may never have done before. A dear friend, whose partner had recently died of AIDS, called me up just to put his heart at rest; with tears in his voice, he said he just wanted to be sure that we knew what the risks were, that we knew that children born to middle-aged parents have a higher likelihood of having medical problems. We assured him that we were aware of the risks, and he told us he was going to keep praying for us, and that he admired our courage. (But truly, it did not feel like courage to me. It felt frightening and confusing. What was going to happen to us?) A young woman friend, a doctor, sat on our couch in awe as we explained that we had refused amniocentesis because it seemed pointless; we would go ahead with the pregnancy no matter what the outcome. “I have never heard anyone like you before,” she said to us gratefully. (And I never had either. It seemed like everything I was doing was new. There were no precedents, no assurances.)

I recall only one day, early in the pregnancy, when I was unable to sleep because of fears about the future. And at breakfast, when I told my husband, he said to me, “You know, I figure all the plans we had made for our life before this are nothing but smoke. They’re all dreams. But this – this is reality. This is what our life looks like.” And that helped me embrace the adventure. I remember the weeks that passed after that as a time of deep peace, not because I had been assured of the future but because I was willing to live with enormous, unsettled questions. And when the miscarriage occurred we didn’t really know how to feel. Relieved? Sad? A little of both.

Passing through Advent gives us a chance to recognize that life often consists of cataclysmic interruptions, and that we have to stand at our front door and let in whoever’s coming. Indeed, it is this attitude of expectation and welcome that should characterize the Christian life. Jesus tells us that we will be judged according to our response to those who knock at our door, and he even goes so far as to identify himself with all those unknown visitors. “Into this world,” wrote Thomas Merton, “this demented inn, Christ comes uninvited.” With each knock on the door of our house we await the approach of the Messiah, knowing that truly every visitor is the Messiah and that our salvation depends on how welcoming we are.

Balancing this front door aspect of Advent, this excited expectation, is what happens at the back door. I don’t know about your back door, but in our house the back door is where we take out the garbage. It’s where we go to shake out dirty carpets and messy table cloths. It’s where we clean the dog mess off our shoes. The back door is where the most ordinary, tedious events of life take place. Christmas visitors rarely enter this way. It’s never decorated with wreaths and colored lights.

I say there’s a back door aspect to Advent because, really, who are we trying to kid? Waiting for the Messiah? We can go through the pretense of waiting for something new and exciting, but the fact is that we know very well what’s going to happen. Jesus is going to be born in Bethlehem, he’ll grow up and begin preaching, he’ll be crucified and he’ll rise from the dead. The church will take root and begin it’s well-known history. So what else is new? How can an event that we know so well, that we pass through year after year, have any impact on our lives? The question I’m really asking is, what is the wisdom of the church calendar, of going through long periods of preparation, of fasting, of prayer, of greeting the newborn Christ like a brand new baby?

A film I recently saw helped me understand this a little better. It was “Groundhog Day,” the comedy in which Bill Murray, playing a jaded television weatherman, is assigned to travel with his two-person film crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual appearance of the groundhog on February 2. Murray is an obnoxious, sarcastic, contemptuous bore and is particularly offensive to the female member of the crew. All goes well, the cameras are set up, the ritual takes place, the groundhog sees his shadow, and six more weeks of winter are predicted. Murray is barely able to muster enough civility to do the spot with a bit of grace, swearing under his breath that he’ll never cover Groundhog Day again. It’s all just too hokey, too quaint, for his worldly tastes. And to top it all off, Mr. Groundhog is right — a blizzard forces all the roads to close and Murray and his crew have to stay in Punxsutawney until the weather lets up.

The fun starts the next morning when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off, announcing, oddly enough, that it’s Groundhog Day! He’s puzzled. But wasn’t that yesterday? Didn’t we already go through all that? Apparently not. He arrives at the spot where the ceremonies are to take place, and sure enough, there’s his film crew, waiting to get started. He begins to wonder how much he had had to drink the night before. He begins to question his sanity. But he obediently does the spot once again. And as the day passes he sees that everything is happening exactly as it had the day before: groundhog sees his shadow; blizzard shuts down all the roads; the old school friend who he’d greeted so contemptuously on the main street hails him in exactly the same way he had the day before. Every single thing about Groundhog Day is the same.

And this becomes the framework in which Murray has the chance to change his life. Because every single morning he wakes up to the same old Sonny and Cher song, and to the same announcement that “It’s Groundhog Day!” Every day he has to do the same wretched television spot with people who apparently are unaware that they’ve been repeating all this day after day after day. Every day he has to come up with a fresh reaction to an outcome that he already knows. The groundhog is going to see his shadow, but it’s news to everybody around him. Every day he has to cope with being stranded in a dinky town in Pennsylvania with people he doesn’t particularly like (although his female co-worker is starting to look better and better).

Eventually, the repetition begins to look very much like ritual. Sitting in the park, he predicts the barking of a dog, the approach of a Brink’s truck, the moment when a passing woman will adjust her bra strap. His affection for his co-worker grows with each passing February 2nd, and he keeps getting new chances to figure out how to win her approval and affection. It takes a long time, and he makes an enormous number of blunders. But in the end he gets the girl, not by trying hard but by giving up trying. It’s the thorough turn-around — conversion — that suddenly makes him appealing to her, and in the end he is a much nicer guy. In the end he is saved.

Advent, and all the other seasons of the church calendar, are something like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only stretched out over a year. We need the repetition because, like the jaded weatherman in the movie, we need plenty of opportunity to get it right. We need to go through all that back-door activity day after day, year after year, taking out the garbage and keeping our shoes clean, and when it comes time to say, “Oh, look, Jesus is born!” we have to learn how to say it — not with ho-hum sarcasm, not with sentimental pretense, but with some kind of apprehension about what it all means for us. And for most of us this takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s within this necessary repetition of Advent that we come to learn how to welcome in all the surprises. Some of them are pleasant (sometimes we get the girl). Some of them are not (six more weeks of winter). Some of them are staggering in the demands they place on us. But thank God the church has given us a ritual life within which we can act out the splendid surprise of Advent again and again — until we get it right.

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Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]

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