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.
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text as of February 25, 2009
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