(This essay was originally a chapter in Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, published in 1978 by the Paulist Press. The full text of the letters quoted here can be found in The Hidden Ground of Love, edited by William Shannon.)
By Jim Forest
In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton wrote: “Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” (1)
Paradox was a word Thomas Merton appreciated and often used, perhaps because there were so many paradoxes within his vocation. He was, for example, a monk belonging to a religious order with a particular tradition of silence—and yet millions of people were to become familiar with his life and convictions. He had a noisy vocation in the silent life. It was a paradox he often wished would end, in favor of silence, but it wouldn’t.
He was also a pacifist—someone who has renounced violence as a means in peacemaking—yet he often said he was against war only in practice, not in theory. He accepted what Catholic doctrine knows as the “Just War Theory,” a post-Constantine Christian inheritance which holds that war, within certain defined circumstances, may be justified (if it is declared by lawful authority, after all non-military means have been fully exhausted, if the violence is focused on those criminally responsible for the war while the right to life of non-combatants is protected, if its destructive consequences are not worse than the injustice otherwise suffered, and if it seems probable the just side can win the war: and it must be all these things simultaneously).
Whether one’s basis of reasoning was the Sermon on the Mount or the Just War Theory, Merton pointed out, military technology and practice in this century brought one to the same location. In words Merton quoted on occasion, Pope John put it quite succinctly in Pacem in Terris: “It is irrational to argue that war can any longer be a fit instrument of justice.”(2)
In an existential and temperamental sense, Merton was one of the most committed pacifists I have ever met. He saw war as one of the clearest examples of human estrangement from sanity and God. He was appalled by war in an intense and personal way and saw response to war as a major element in the religious life. Some of the most lethal irony to be found in his writings is reserved for the subject: his anti-war novel, My Argument with the Gestapo (3), his “devout meditation” on the court-certified “sanity” of Adolf Eichmann (4), his “chant” to be used in procession around “a site with furnaces” (5) (Hitler’s death camps), and his Original Child Bomb (6) on Hiroshima’s atomic destruction complete with such military codes borrowed from Christian thought as “Papacy” and “Trinity.”
So deep was his revulsion regarding war and its premeditated terrors and cruelties that, when World War II was bursting its European seams and men like Merton’s brother were volunteering for the Royal Air Force, Merton was one of the rare Catholics to declare himself a conscientious objector. At the time Catholic bishops in America, England and Germany were as busy as other religious leaders in offering their unqualified support for lay compliance with “legitimate authority,” including military service and killing under orders. Merton, though a thoroughly devout Catholic, walked to a different drummer, away from battlefields and into a weaponless Trappist monastery.
Twenty years later, increasingly conscious of the monk’s responsibility for the world rather than against it, he established deep and continuing ties with several strongly pacifist groups, including the Catholic Worker, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.
It was while visiting the Catholic Worker’s New York house of hospitality, St. Joseph’s, that my own friendship with Merton began. I was still in the Navy, freshly a Catholic, still too fragile in my newly acquired pacifism to have begun finding a way out of the military and into a vocation that had something to do with the peace of God. But I was looking. Hence my inquiring presence at the Catholic Worker, a religious community whose commitment to nonviolent social change was an outgrowth of its hospitality to social rejects.
Merton’s letter (arriving just before Christmas 1960) began with a reference to the Catholic Worker’s main peace witness in those years—its annual refusal to take shelter in the subways as a compulsory dress rehearsal for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was, really, a bad joke, as the subways offered protection only from conventional weapons, but the ritual had the effect of making nuclear war seem survivable. Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker founder, had been imprisoned several times for her civil disobedience, until the crowds that gathered with her in City Hall Park became so large that the war game was abandoned. But that end was still not in sight when Merton wrote:
I am deeply touched by your witness for peace. You are very right in doing it along the lines of Satyagraha [literally “truth-force,” Gandhi’s word for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you on taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not a criminal—if any of us can say that anymore. So don’t worry about whether or not in every point you are perfectly all right according to everybody’s book; you are right before God as far as you can go and you are fighting for a truth that is clear enough and important enough. What more can anybody do? … It was never more true that the world cannot see true values.
I don’t suppose anyone can readily appreciate the value of this and similar letters that were arriving at the Catholic Worker from Merton in those days. (Personally, they helped form a determination in me that led to my discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector and becoming a member of the Catholic Worker staff.) Partly due to Merton, the Catholic pacifist was to become far more common in the years ahead and to receive open and unambiguous official support from the highest levels of the Church. But at that time the Catholic Worker, viewed with considerable suspicion for its talk of “the works of mercy, not the works of war,” was tolerated because of its orthodoxy in other respects and its direct, simple and unpretentious commitment to the humanity of impoverished people who were ignored by everyone else. New York’s Cardinal Spellman, certainly no pacifist and no religious innovator, was often under pressure to suppress the Catholic Worker, or at least its pacifist newspaper, but he never did. Perhaps he felt that, in Dorothy Day, he had a saint in his diocese and that he had better not play the prosecutor’s part in a modern-day trial of Joan of Arc. Maybe he just sensed, puzzling though it was, that the Church needed the Catholic Worker movement.
At this time, Merton was hardly a controversial figure. His books were all over the place, in churches, drugstores and bus terminals, and each bore the Imprimatur (“let it be printed,” a bishop’s certification that the book was orthodox). Thousands owed their faith, and millions its deepening, to the stimulus of Merton’s writings—his continuing pilgrimage from non-belief to the depths of faith. His books were read by the convinced and the unconvinced, from the Pope’s apartment in the Vatican to prostitutes’ apartments near New York’s 42nd Street. His writings had been published in more languages than we had staff members in our Catholic Worker house of hospitality.
Yet here he was, often writing to the Catholic Worker community, taking our lives and vocations with utmost seriousness, and even encouraging us in those aspects of our work which were the most controversial.
If it is hard now to appreciate what those letters meant, it may be harder still to understand our world view. To put it simply, few of us expected to die of old age.
Nearly twenty years later, at the time this is written , many people have gotten used to living in a world heavily stocked with nuclear weapons. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a century crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima is a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and terrorists restraining themselves. So now there is certain complacency about the arms race and where it is headed. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and disbursed and mounted on delivery vehicles that will never be used. May it be so. Yet it didn’t seem to us that human nature has changed very much since Hiroshima or that those who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms, a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what their nationality or slogans, could be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods fail or someone gets an itch for “decisive action.”
In 1961, when even one monastery had set up a fallout shelter, we expected to be blasted to radioactive particles every time we heard the air raid sirens being tested. Somehow we never noticed the advance newspaper warnings beforehand. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts being punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing and wait at the Catholic Worker’s front window, gathering a final view of the battered neighborhood with its few scarred trees struggling for light and air: even here, a kind of beauty. Shortly it would all be consumed by fire. No need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted. We were Christians. We had done our best to take Jesus at his plain words, in our awkward Catholic Worker way. We hoped in God’s mercy and, young though many of us were, we were better prepared to die than many others. And we believed in the resurrection: that the fate of God’s creation would not finally be decided by the owners of nuclear weapons. It was a faith that seemed bizarre if not insane to many others who believed in human progress and technology and the wisdom of experts, but it was clear to us, and gave these moments before death a certain tranquility, despite the sadness for this immense funeral we humans had so laboriously brought upon ourselves.
But each time the “all clear” sounded. The sirens ended their apocalyptic shrieks. There was no sudden explosive radiance “brighter than a thousand suns.” Then we felt like airline passengers setting shaking foot upon the ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. We were a flock of Lazarus folk risen from our shrouds. Our lives had ended, and then been given back: another chance for this odd experiment on planet earth; another chance for our curious two-legged breed to find a saner way to live, to free ourselves from a “security” founded upon the preparation of slaughters. Another chance for figs to grow from thistles.
It was in these days of fallout shelters and air raid sirens that we received Merton’s first submission to the paper we published, an essay—”The Root of War Is Fear”—that was later to appear in New Seeds of Contemplation. (7) The piece as a whole had gone through the normal if often rigid channels of Trappist censorship, but Merton had tacked on a few prefatory paragraphs which briefly expressed a message that eventually led to his silencing on “political” issues:
The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. 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. (8)
In fact, just as we were going to press with Merton’s article, The New York Times gave front page attention to an essay that had been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, justifying just such a shelter “ethic.” No doubt, as Merton commented later on, “the case could be made for St. Peter to kill St. Paul if there was only enough food for one of them to survive winter in a mountain cave.” But Merton’s approach was drastically different, calling for a rejection of “mere natural ethics.” He wanted to know whether Christian responsibility involved more than getting to the front of the line into the fallout shelter:
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 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 studied, 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. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society. (9)
In January 1962 Merton proposed I come for a visit. The next month, after getting the paper to press, I began to hitchhike to Kentucky with a poet-friend, Bob Kaye, bringing along nothing except the latest issue and a few loaves of bread fresh from a Spring Street Italian bakery. It was an exhausting three-day pilgrimage—long waits in remote places in ferocious weather. When we arrived and were shown to our “cells” in the guest house, Bob collapsed on his bed while I found my way through fire-doors and connecting passageways to a loft in the back of the monastery’s barn-like church. Surviving the trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily. But it didn’t last long because the church’s silence was broken by distant laughter, laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t fail to be drawn to it, such an unlikely sound for a solemn Trappist abbey. It was coming from the guest house, in fact from Bob’s room: a kind of monsoon of joy. Well, that’s the difference between Bob and me, I thought: I pray, and he gives way to laughter; God probably likes the laughter better. I pushed open the door, and indeed Bob was laughing, but the sound was coming mainly from a monk on the floor in his black and white robes, feet in the air, a bright red face, hands clutching the belly. A shade more than Robin Hood’s well-fed Friar Tuck than I imagined any fast-chastened Trappist could be. Thomas Merton, author of so many books about such serious subjects, laughing half to death on the floor.
And laughing about what? The answer came with my first gasp of air. The smell! What would have offended so many others delighted him. The room was like a fish market in a heat wave. Bob, after three days of rough travel without a change of socks, had taken off his shoes. Had there ever been so rude a scent in this scrubbed monastery’s history? It was, in a way, the Catholic Worker’s social gospel incarnate—its unwashed, impolite vocation such as the Church in all its cathedral glory had seldom seen since the first Franciscans seven centuries before. The Catholic Worker, in stocking feet, had arrived indeed, announcing its sweaty message to the most non-attentive nose.
It made the monk roar with pleasure until the need to breathe took precedence and there could be a shaking of hands and a more traditional welcome.
Still smiling as he left, telling us when we could get together later, I realized why his face, never seen before even by his readers as none of his books carried the usual author picture, was nonetheless familiar: it was like Picasso’s, as I had seen it in David Duncan’s books—a face similarly unfettered in its expressiveness, the eyes bright and quick and sure suggesting some strange balance between mischief and wisdom. The face still haunts me in its many moods—such unremarkable features on their own, but so remarkable all together.
Those were wonderfully renewing days. There was much talk of the Catholic Worker and the difficult business of making headway as peacemakers of some kind, but there were also long walks in the woods, rambling conversations on the porch of his cinder-block hermitage looking out over rolling Kentucky hills. Shaggy guests that we were, we submitted to the abbot’s proposal that we have haircuts, but then going from one extreme to the other, masses of hair falling to the floor leaving only stubble behind while the novices watched and laughed. I marveled at the huge white wool cowl that the monks wore when in the abbey church. Merton lifted his off and dropped the surprising weight of it on my shoulders—more laughter at the sudden monastic sight of me. We noticed that the several Japanese calendars in this hermitage were all for the wrong years and months.
We talked of the Catholic Mass and its many levels, the Eucharist being a kind of dance at the crossroads, a place of encounter not only of every condition of people and every degree of faith, but an intersection between time and eternity—the most nourishing place in the world.
Merton spoke plainly but with contagious feeling. He reminded me of a particularly good-natured truck driver—the kind of people who had sometimes given us rides on the way down.
One of the things we talked about was a possibility that nibbled at my imagination of becoming a monk myself and even joining this community. “Man, right now the Church needs people working for peace in a way that’s impossible here—the kind of things you’re doing at the Catholic Worker. If you want to try the life, it’s possible. But wait a while. I think the Holy Spirit has other things in mind.”
Merton was very much a monk and committed to his community and his monastic vows, but he didn’t romanticize the problems. He had struggled for years to have a greater opportunity for solitude than was normal in the Trappist life, and had only lately gotten the hermitage; he was only a part-time hermit, as yet, still hoping for permission to live full-time in the hermitage.
Many of his fellow monks didn’t understand or appreciate his leading in this direction, and even less did they welcome his recent involvement with the Catholic Worker. I recall another author-monk of the community, Fr. Raymond, looking at a copy of The Catholic Worker as Merton and I were walking down a passageway in his direction; it was an issue full of peace-related material, including a letter of Merton’s prominently displayed. The monk heard our footsteps, looked up, scowled at us, crumbled the Worker into a ball of waste paper, threw it into a trash can and stormed away.
By this time I was getting used to Merton’s laugh at unlikely times. He laughed when many others in the same situation would have abruptly looked as pompous, offended and grave as a puritan judge forced to walk past nude statues in the Vatican Museum. Then he said, “You know, when I first came here, he used to denounce me for being too hung up with contemplation and not concerned enough with the world. And now he denounces me for being too hung up with the world and not busy enough with contemplation.”
One morning a telegram arrived from New York telling us that, the Soviet Union having earlier decided to renew atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, President Kennedy had now announced the U.S. would do the same. We Catholic Worker visitors were being asked to hurry back to New York to take part in a protest action at the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. Before leaving, we attended one last class with the novices, presented Merton with a peace button which he put on his monk’s robes with mischievous satisfaction, and then we were on our way—on a bus this time, the abbey having contributed the fare. A few days later, we were in jail—a very different sort of monastery.
During the next two years or more, censorship was often a subject in Merton’s letters. It became increasingly difficult for him to get his peace-related articles in print, since his Trappist superiors generally considered war an inappropriate subject. Even prior to the visit, one letter spoke of the need “to work out something sensible on this absurd censorship deal.” As usual, he discussed the subject with jarring candor:
The censorship is completely and deliberately obstructive, not aimed at combing out errors at all, but purely and simply preventing the publication of material that “doesn’t look good.” And this means anything that ruffles in any way the censors’ tastes or susceptibilities….
But such considerations were never the end of the line in Merton’s thinking. And it was in this area that his nonviolence was put to its hardest personal test. His nonviolence, like Gandhi’s, implied “enduring all things” that transformation might occur in which adversaries were convinced and won over rather than defeated but left unconvinced. Perhaps he recognized in the fears of his superiors the same fears that existed elsewhere in the world, the fears which give rise to war. What would be the sense of calling others to patience in the labors of fostering life when he could not be patient with those close at hand? Certainly many others have stormed away from committed relationships, muttering about betrayal, the abuse of authority, the Inquisition, the death of God, the hypocrisy of this institution or that—with the net result that the world was only a bit more fractured and embittered, more estranged by those who were so furious in their advocacy of truth. Merton’s letter went on:
That is the kind of thing one has to be patient with. It is wearying, of course. However, it is all I can offer to compare with what you people are doing to share the lot of the poor. A poor man is one who has to sit and wait and wait and wait, in clinics, in offices, in places where you sign papers, in police stations, etc. And he has nothing to say about it. At least there is an element of poverty for me too. The rest of what we have here isn’t that hard or that poor. (January 5, 1962)
A few months later came a harder test. It was no longer a matter of enduring the delays of censorship, or the watering down or qualifying that might involve. Now it was a matter of being silenced. The date included the notation that it was “Low Sunday”:
I have been trying to finish my book on peace [Peace in the Post-Christian Era, finally published long after Merton’s death by Orbis], and have succeeded in time for the axe to fall….
Now here is the axe. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of its … [In] substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace. This I know is not a very encouraging thing. It implies all sorts of very disheartening consequences as regards the whole cause of peace. It reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastic 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, [this] 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.
The problem, from the point of view of the Church and its mission, is of course this. The validity of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized. But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials. The function of the monk, as far as renewal in the historical context goes, then becomes simply to affirm his total support of officialdom. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The monastery as dynamo concept goes back to this. The monk is there to generate spiritual power that will justify over and over again the already pre-decided rightness of the officials above him. He must under no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.
Now you will ask me: how do I reconcile obedience, true obedience (which is synonymous with love) with a situation like this? Shouldn’t I just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this was not completely excluded. Why would I do this? For the sake of the witness for peace? For the sake of witnessing to the truth of the Church, in its reality, as against this figment of the imagination? Simply for the sake of blasting off and getting rid of the tensions and frustrations in my own spirit, and feeling honest about it?
In my own particular case, every one of these 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.
I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. 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. I know He can and will in His own time take good care of the ones who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely. That is His affair and not mine. In this dimension I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands. (April 29, 1962)
Very strong stuff. Very few in the peace movement then or now could understand or appreciate that kind of stubborn continuity. Marriages often end over much less. But it is the kind of decision that would be respected and valued by Francis of Assisi or Gandhi or Dorothy Day.
He appealed the order to the Abbot General in Rome, but it was affirmed. He wrote to me:
I was denounced to him by an American abbot who was told by a friend in the intelligence service that I was writing for a “communist controlled publication” (The Catholic Worker). You didn’t know you were Communist controlled, did you? Maybe George [a hospital visitor on the Worker staff] is really Khrushchev’s nephew. Meanwhile, though I look through all my pockets, I cannot find that old [Communist Party] card. Must have dropped out when I was mopping my brow in the confessional. (June 14, 1962)
The “silenced” Merton wasn’t altogether silent. The suppressed book was circulated in substantial numbers in a mimeographed form, not unlike the samizdat literary underground in the USSR. He collected his war-peace letters (under the title Cold War Letters) and self-published two editions; his recognition of the larger dimensions of the Cold War and its pervasive and destructive effects in every quarter, including even the monastery, led him to include the “Low Sunday” epistle.
In 1963, the Trappist freeze on his peace writing slowly began to thaw, at least in part, no doubt, because Pope John was saying in encyclical letters to the entire Church and world the kinds of things Merton was formerly saying in The Catholic Worker and, more recently, in samizdat (or, on occasion, in writings published under pseudonyms—Benedict Monk was almost a giveaway, but my favorite was Marco J. Frisbee). (10) The Pope having declared flatly in Pacem in Terris that war could no longer be considered “a fit instrument of justice,” Merton wryly mentioned that he had just written to the Order’s Abbot General once again:
I said it was a good thing that Pope John didn’t have to get his encyclical through our censors: and could I now start up again. (April 26, 1963)
While the silencing order was not removed, some of Merton’s reflections on peace began to reach at least fractions of the reading public again, and under his own name. One of these was a short statement in response to the award in 1963 of the Pax Medal, given by the American Pax Society, a mainly Catholic peace group of which he was a sponsor that later grew into the American branch of Pax Christi. His message was read aloud at the Pax annual meeting at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, N.Y., and then published in the Pax magazine. In his message, after apologizing for his inability to be present and noting that his inability might suggest he ought not to receive such an award, he went on:
A monastery is not a snail’s shell, nor is religious faith a kind of spiritual fallout shelter into which one can plunge to escape the criminal realities of an apocalyptic age.
Never has the total solidarity of all men, either in good or in evil, been so obvious and so unavoidable. I believe we live in a time in which one cannot help making decisions for or against man, for or against life, for or against justice, for or against truth.
And according to my way of thinking, all these decisions rolled into one (for they are inseparable) amount to a decision for or against God.
I have attempted to say this in the past as opportunity has permitted, and opportunity has not permitted as much as I would have liked. But one thing I must admit: to say these things seems to me to be only the plain duty of any reasonable being. Such an attitude implies no heroism, no extraordinary insight, no special moral qualities, and no unusual intelligence. (11)
He proceeded to offer brief quotations, “perfectly obvious and beyond dispute,” from Pope John’s Pacem in Terris: that “the arms race ought to cease, that nuclear weapons should be banned, that an effective program of gradual disarmament should be agreed upon by all nations.” (12)
These propositions … are … obvious, and clear as daylight…. If I said it before Pacem in Terris, that still does not make me terribly original, because the same things were said long ago by Popes before Pope John, and by Theologians, and by the Fathers of the Church, and by the Gospels themselves….
I don’t deserve a medal for affirming such obvious and common sense truths. But if by receiving the medal I can publicly declare these to be my convictions, then I most gladly and gratefully accept. (13)
This same year he wrote a preface to the Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, in which he drew the reader’s attention to changes that had occurred in his attitudes and assumptions since writing the autobiography:
I have learned … to look back into [the] world with greater compassion, seeing those in it not as alien to myself, not as peculiar and deluded strangers, but as identified with myself. In freeing myself from their delusions and preoccupations I have identified myself, none the less, with their struggles and their blind, desperate hope of happiness.
But precisely because I am identified with them, I must refuse all the more definitively to make their delusions my own. I must refuse their ideology of matter, power, quantity, movement, activism and force. I reject this because I see it to be the source and expression of the spiritual hell which man has made of his world: the hell which has burst into flame in two total wars of incredible horror, the hell of spiritual emptiness and sub-human fury which has resulted in crimes like Auschwitz or Hiroshima. This I can and must reject with all the power of my being. This all sane men seek to reject. But the question is: how can one sincerely reject the effect if he continues to embrace the cause? (14)
Merton goes on to say that he has always regarded his conversion to Christ “as a radical liberation from the delusions and obsessions of modern man and his society” and that religious faith alone “can open the inner ground of man’s being to the liberty of the sons of God, and preserve him from surrender of his integrity to the seductions of a totalitarian lie.”
He speaks of his present understanding of the monastic life:
[T]he monastery is not an “escape from the world.” On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is in itself a statement of one’s position. But each one in such a life can, by the personal modality of his decision, give his whole life a special orientation. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him. By my monastic life and vows I am saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. (15)
He notes regretfully that others who believe in war also invoke the faith, as they support racial injustices and engage in “self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny.”
My life must, then, be a protest against these also, and perhaps against these most of all. (16)
The problem for contemporary Christians, he continues, is to end the identification of Christian faith with those forms of political society that dominate Europe and the West, much as did the early Christian monks of the fourth-century (post-Constantine) Church:
The time has come for judgment to be passed on this history. I can rejoice in this fact, believing that the judgment will be liberation of Christian faith from servitude to and involvement in the structures of the secular world. And that is why I think certain forms of Christian “optimism” are to be taken with reservation, in so far as they lack the genuine eschatological consciousness of the Christian vision, and concentrate upon the naive hope of merely temporal achievements— churches on the moon!
If I say NO to all these secular forces, I also say YES to all that is good in the world and in man. I say YES to all that is beautiful in nature, and in order that this may be the yes of a freedom and not of subjection, I must refuse to possess anything in the world purely as my own. I say yes to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world, but for the yes to be an assent of freedom and not of subjection, I must live so that no one of them may seem to belong to me, and that I may not belong to any of them. It is because I want to be more to them than a friend that I become, to all of them, a stranger. (17)
“God writes straight with crooked lines,” offers a Portuguese proverb. No doubt Merton’s silencing had been unjust and unwarranted and something his Trappist superiors came to regret, not simply because it came to be embarrassing but because it was wrong. Yet the crisis it occasioned in Merton’s life, if a friend dare make guesses about the “stranger” within his friend, more deeply purified his understanding and compassion, his vision of the Church and its mission, his sense of connection with all who suffer. It also made him more astute in the pastoral role he took on, mainly via mail but on occasion through visits at the monastery, with those active in work for peace, social justice, and renewal of the Church. Merton did not view the peace movement through rose-colored glasses. He knew how difficult it was for those in protest movements to grow in patience and compassion. Thus he offered us his support, but it was a critical support that sought to prod us to become more sympathetic toward those who were threatened or antagonized by our efforts. Thus he noted “the tragedy” that the majority of people so crave “undisturbed security” that they are threatened by agitation even when it protests something—nuclear weapons—which in reality is the real threat to their security. But it wouldn’t help to get in a rage over this irony:
We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate us 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…. (Jan. 29, 1962)
On this crucial matter of managing patience while being aware of the desperate urgency of responding to immediate crises, he spoke of the special attitude we were going to depend upon if we hoped to continue in such immensely difficult and frustrating work:
We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really, we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man….
The whole problem is this inner change … [the need for] 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, the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This has to take precedence over everything else. If He lives and works in us, then our activity will be true and our witness will generate love of truth, even though we may be persecuted and beaten down in apparent incomprehension.
A week later he was at once pleased with, yet worried about, a demonstration in New York in which pacifists, from several groups including the Catholic Worker, had blocked the main doorways of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was pleased that the action had been, in planning and execution, thoroughly Gandhian—so determined to realize “openness and truthfulness” that police observers received (and accepted) invitations to be present at the planning meetings for that demonstration so there could be no doubt regarding exactly what was to happen and in what spirit. Nor was he surprised that, despite the physically unthreatening nature of a quiet sit-in before doors when other entrances were unimpeded, some of the AEC staff had kicked through our carpet of bodies in order to pass through the front doors. But he was worried that we weren’t seeing deeply enough into the subtle dangers that exist even in nonviolent action:
One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are a fair proportion of non-religious elements, or religious elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden the opposition and to confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists….
Even so, he went on, driving people in the opposite direction can never be seen as a goal of such actions:
[We must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them. Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence.
In words that should be carefully read and pondered by anyone hoping to defuse a bit of the world’s explosive potential, Merton continued:
The violent man is, by our standards, weak and sick, though at times he is powerful and menacing in an extreme degree. In our acceptance of vulnerability, however, we play on his guilt. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of the time, and the place. It is the overwhelming problem of America: all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds—race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation. (Of course we are not righteous; we are conscious of our guilt; above all, we are sinners: but nevertheless we are bound to take courses of action that are professionally righteous and we have committed ourselves to that course.)….
We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of the truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way round. (Feb. 6, 1962)
As the weeks and months went by, Merton often had reason to notice that very few peace activists were deeply attuned to some of these insights, and he expressed his anguish with the peace movement’s “terrible superficiality,” as he summed it up in a letter of August 27 that same year. Yet he was as committed to his relationship with us, for all our immaturity and immense limitations, perhaps in a way analogous to his commitments to others in the monastic life and the wider Church who found some of his concerns so discordant and out of step. Thus he kept articulating a vision of what we might become—something more helpful in the world than a new brigade of two-legged loudspeakers joining the political shouting matches:
[T]he basic problem is not political, it is a-political and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretend to arrogate entirely to themselves. This is the necessary first step along the long way toward the perhaps impossible task of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves.
Was such a thing possible, he wondered, noting that some had accused him of being “too ready to doubt the possibility”:
At least we must try to hope in it, otherwise all is over…. Hence the desirability of a manifestly non-political witness, non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs in the nuclear world in some measure against all the alignments.
He warned against the importance of all movements with such aims taking care not to be exploited, manipulated or taken over by Communists whose peace, it turns out, isn’t so peaceful:
The prime duty of all honest movements is to protect themselves from being swallowed by any sea monster that happens along. And plenty will happen along. Once the swallowing has taken place, rigidity replaces truth and there is no more possibility of dialogue: the old lines are hardened and the weapons slide into position for the kill once more. (Dec. 8, 1962)
The years 1963 and 1964 saw America’s quiet war in Vietnam suddenly begin to bulge in size and devastation; these events helped prod the Catholic Peace Fellowship into existence, first as a part-time officeless project initially involving Daniel Berrigan and myself with support from John Heidbrink of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (which Merton had joined formally, not hesitating over its explicitly pacifist statement of purpose, in September 1962: “a rather obvious thing to do,” he mentioned in a letter of Sept. 22). Merton, while mentioning his increasing discomfort at being “a name,” agreed to be one of the sponsors. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, with roots both in the Catholic Worker and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, took an unequivocally pacifist stand, emphasizing in its membership brochure the sweeping rejections of war by Popes John and Paul.
In November 1964, several weeks before the CPF was to have an office and, in myself, a full-time staff person, a small group of CPF- and FOR-related individuals came together for a three-day retreat with Merton to consider, in Merton’s phrase, “the spiritual roots of protest.” (18) Those taking part included Daniel and Philip Berrigan, W. H. Ferry (a friend of Merton’s as ell as vice-president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), John Howard Yoder (FOR member, prominent Mennonite theologian), Tony Walsh (of the Catholic Worker house in Montreal), A. J. Muste (long-time executive secretary of FOR, founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, pacifism’s “elder statesman” in the U.S.), Tom Cornell (of the Catholic Worker, later CPF co-secretary), myself and several others: a small crowd that had been brought together largely by John Heidbrink, the FOR’s Church Work Secretary—though, due to illness, not at the retreat himself.
This was my second meeting with Merton in person. There was still laughter, but less of it. The times were deadly serious and so was much of the conversation. Merton spoke in earnest, listened with a quick and critical ear, and at times launched us into silence. I remember him best in those days not with us in his hermitage, though he was present with the group as much as anyone, but rather walking alone outside, pacing back and forth in a state of absorption in thought so complete and compelling that it brought home to me the gravity of what he was going to say in the conference that followed more than the words themselves.
Merton’s contribution was to impress on us, often more with questions than answers, that protest wasn’t simply an almost casual human right, but rather a terribly dangerous calling that, if it lacked sufficient spiritual maturity, could contribute to making things worse. Thus his Zen koan of a question that hit us like an arrow in the back was: “By what right do we protest? Against whom or what? For what? How? Why?”
Questions. The whole retreat was more a questioning and an answering experience. We considered the momentum of technology in the modern world: technology’s implied credo being summed up in a few apocalyptic words—”If it can be done, it must be done.” In the context of technology, whether on its battlefields or in its almost monastically-sheltered laboratories, the human being was coming to be seen as (quoting from a scientific paper) a “bio-chemical link”: a shaky bridge between the solid-circuit perfection of cybernetic systems and moodless computers, and not a being little less than the angels.
By way of counter-point to man as “bio-chemical link,” we repeatedly turned back to a man whose head was chopped off by the Nazis on August 9, 1943—Franz Jaegerstatter, an Austrian Catholic peasant with modest education and a wife and three young daughters to worry over who, despite strong opposition from his pastor and bishop, refused military service in Hitler’s armies, even in a non-combatant capacity. Uncanonized though he was, he struck us as a saint for our moment when many would refuse to join in a war with no more justice than Hitler’s. We were struck by an isolated peasant’s ability to see clearly—expressed in letters written from prison (later collected and published by Gordon Zahn) (19)—what bishops and theologians couldn’t see or didn’t dare see. We had every reason to expect the same from our own Church leadership as the Vietnam War worsened. But we had to hope for something better than that in our situation, and not waste a minute in working toward that end— toward a Church that would put its weight behind those who refused to wage war and who refused to see other humans simply as “bio-chemical links.”
“If the Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jaegerstatters would no longer be in solitude but would be the Church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.”
With such a sense of purpose, the Catholic Peace Fellowship began its work, focusing on the right—and, in the present situation, possible duty—not to take part in this killing of Vietnamese. A booklet of mine, written with advice from Merton, even received the Imprimatur of the Archdiocese of New York—with the censorship process, to my astonishment, only weeding out a few errors of fact that weakened the text; thus “Catholics and Conscientious Objection” (20) was readily accepted for use in Catholic schools where previously anything along these lines would have landed in the wastebasket next to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. In time, we were counseling Catholic conscientious objectors in droves—as many as fifty a week wrote for help or came to see us. Chapters were springing up across the country, as Tom Cornell and I went forth on speaking trips. A number of theologians and many clergy gave support, signed statements, and joined in demonstrations.
All the time, however, the war was getting worse and thus the pressures were on us to do more than “just” educate. David Miller, one of the Catholic Worker staff, unable to find words to adequately express his dismay with the war, its casualties and the conscription of young Americans to fight in it without their consent or understanding, lifted up his draft card at a rally in front of Manhattan’s military induction center and burned the card to an ash—an event on the front page of American newspapers the next morning.
A few months later, Tom Cornell of the CPF staff felt obliged to do the same, responding to a newly passed law that provided heavy fines and long jail terms for anyone mutilating or destroying these tiny forms that noted one’s draft status. Tom reasoned it was an idolatrous law, making sacred a scrap of paper, and decided to burn his publicly as well. He did so at the beginning of November. The event attracted substantial national attention. A week later Roger LaPorte, a young volunteer and former Cistercian novice, burned not his draft card but himself. Sitting before the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, he poured gasoline on his body and struck a match.
The two events hit Merton like a bolt of lightning. On November 11, 1965, we received a telegram:
JUST HEARD ABOUT SUICIDE OF ROGER LAPORTE WHILE I DO NOT HOLD CATHOLIC PEACE FELLOWSHIP RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS TRAGEDY CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS IN PEACE MOVEMENT MAKE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO CONTINUE AS SPONSOR OF FELLOWSHIP PLEASE REMOVE MY NAME FROM LIST OF SPONSORS LETTER FOLLOWS THOMAS MERTON
We were already in a state of shock, still trying to absorb the event of Roger’s action. He was still alive, dying in Bellevue Hospital. Tom Cornell had been indicted and was awaiting a trial date. Merton’s telegram, and the letter which arrived a few days later, added to a sense of exhaustion and despair.
In his letter he recognized that we were as shocked as he by Roger’s action. Such actions would harm rather than help the peace movement. So would draft card burnings, he went on. Such things were so disturbing, Merton said, that he was led to the “regretful decision that I cannot accept the present spirit of the movement as it presents itself to me.” Not questioning anyone’s sincerity, still he couldn’t see in such actions the qualities of a genuinely nonviolent movement, and he even sensed “there is something demonic at work in it.” In fact such actions seemed to echo rather than oppose the direction of violent America:
The spirit of this country at the present moment is to me terribly disturbing…. It is not quite like Nazi Germany, certainly not like Soviet Russia, it is like nothing on earth I ever heard of before. This whole atmosphere is crazy, not just the peace movement, everybody. There is in it such an air of absurdity and moral void, even where conscience and morality are invoked (as they are by everyone). The joint is going into a slow frenzy. The country is nuts.
Merton’s vulnerability to such events had been heightened by a major event in his own life that began only ten weeks before: on August 21, after nearly two decades of prayers and petitions, he was finally allowed to be a hermit. By this was meant not life in a hollow tree out of human reach but a life based in his cinderblock hermitage, involving considerably more solitude than had been possible before. Finally, as he put it in a Christmas letter to friends, “I am… trying to do the things I came here for.” A less cluttered life, fewer chores and responsibilities, less correspondence. This more hidden and seemingly sheltered life was in reality, as surely Merton knew it would be, much less defended against the world as a whole, for better, for worse. He felt the events involving Catholic pacifists in New York like an earthquake under his feet.
In the exchange of letters that was to follow, as he heard details about what had happened and began to learn not only of the legal and political basis of Tom’s action but more of the human dimensions of Roger LaPorte, he decided not to withdraw his CPF sponsorship after all. He expressed apologies, asking us to understand that, in a way, he had just begun a new life, and it presented problems:
I am, so to speak, making my novitiate as a “hermit” of sorts and I have my hands full with this. It is a full time job just coping with one’s own damn mind in solitude without getting wrought up about what appear to be the vagaries of others. (Nov. 19, 1965)
He added that some of his fellow monks held him responsible for anything that happened with Catholic pacifists anywhere: “It is … mere gossip, but they are associating the card burning with my ideas about peace. This certainly does not make life simple for me since I am not quite sure that I agree with card burning (though I accept Tom’s arguments for his own position).” [A year later, in fact, while not seeing draft card burning as an appropriate tactic for big campaigns, he said, in a joint letter to Tom and me, “The more I think about the card burning, the more I think that you, Tom, are utterly right before God.” (Nov. 16, 1966)]
John Heidbrink’s letters to Merton at this time prompted a long reflection on the intersection of his redefined vocation with the recent events in New York:
Roger’s immolation started off a deep process of examination and it will lead far. Wrong as I did think his act was objectively, I believe it did not prejudice the purity of his heart and I never condemned him. What I condemned and … still … question is a pervasive “spirit” or something, a spirit of irrationality, of power seeking, of temptation to the wrong kind of refusal and impatience and to pseudo charismatic witness which can be terribly, fatally destructive of all good…. [There is] a spirit of madness and fanaticism [in the air] … and it summons me to a deep distrust of all my own acts and involvements in this public realm….
[T]he real road [for me] lies … with a new development in thought and work that will, if it is what it should be, be much more true and more valid for peace than any series of ephemeral gestures I might attempt to make. But anyway, now is a time for me of searching, digging, and if I mention angst it will not be to dramatize myself in any way but to assure you that I conceive my real and valid union with you all to make this form of silently getting ground up inside by the weights among which you are moving outside.
It is to be understood that if I get any word, I hope reasonable word, to utter, I will not hesitate to utter it as I have always done before. But this word has to come from here, not from there. That is why I worked it out with Jim that I will remain a sponsor of CPF provided it is understood that in political matters and other questions of immediate practical decision I remain independent and autonomous…. (Dec. 4, 1965)
Merton changed his mind. This isn’t a trait one takes for granted. Not only did he change it, but he decided to make a public statement about the new shape of his vocation and at the same time to mention the reasons he would remain a CPF sponsor even while pruning his life severely. The CPF released his statement a few days before Christmas and it was widely reported in the press. Beginning with a denial of the ever-current rumors that he had left the monastery and abandoned the contemplative life, he said,
In actual fact, far from abandoning the contemplative life, I have received permission to go into it more deeply. I have been granted an opportunity for greater solitude and more intense prayer, meditation and study. As a result of this, I am even less involved in various activities than I was before…. I am not keeping track of current controversies…. I am not taking an active part in [the peace movement] ….
However, I certainly believe it is my duty to give at least general and moral support to all forms of Catholic Action…. In particular, I continue to give … moral support to those who are working to implement the teachings of the Council and of the modern Popes on war and peace. If my name remains among the sponsors of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, it is because I believe that this dedicated group is sincerely striving to spread the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church on war, peace, and the brotherhood of man. However, my sponsorship does not imply automatic approval of any and every move made by this group, still less of individual actions on the part of its members acting on their own responsibility…. I personally believe that what we need most of all today is patient, constructive and pastoral work rather than acts of defiance which antagonize the average person without enlightening him. (Dec. 3, 1965; released Dec. 22)
Paradoxically, the final effect of Merton’s short-lived resignation was that he decided to become more directly involved. He helped the CPF carefully define its “pastoral” work which, by December 29, he saw as being of immense importance. While the Council and Popes had spoken “clearly and authoritatively,” few if any Catholic prelates were going to get the message out in a way that could be dearly understood by the average churchgoer; the Vietnam War would continue on its murderous course, with Catholics as busy in the killing as any other group. The Popes’ encyclicals and the Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World would be dead letters, unless the CPF effectively got out to the colleges, the seminaries and the clergy. “This is a big job … it is what you are called to do now.” While in some ways the task was “colorless” and undramatic—”simply reaching a lot of people and helping them to change their minds”—it could have a “transforming effect on the American Catholic Church.”
For his own part he offered to write a leaflet spelling out the Church’s teaching on war—and in time this emerged as a CPF booklet, “Blessed Are the Meek,” not only presenting the Church’s teaching but spelling out what nonviolence is all about—a meekness that has nothing to do with passivity, that involves selflessness and considerable risk, and that is liberating rather than murderous. “The chief difference between violence and nonviolence,” he remarked, “is that violence depends entirely on its own calculations. Nonviolence depends entirely on God and His Word.” (21)
One of the helpful events for Merton in the last few years of his life was the arrival at his hermitage of a brown-robed monk from Asia: Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, a leader of the nonviolent movement in Vietnam, one of the monks most responsible for the “engaged Buddhism” which had led Vietnamese Buddhists—at immense personal risk—to resist the war and to work toward a neutral “third way” solution, getting rid of American soldiers and ending the civil war that had so worsened with their involvement. Like Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh was a poet. Because of the horrors of the war, he had temporarily given up many of the externals of the monastic life, though the reality of his monk’s identity remained unimpaired. “A perfectly formed monk,” Merton marveled to his novices the next day, saying Nhat Hanh’s arrival was really the answer to a prayer.
Merton’s interest in Eastern spirituality, especially Buddhism and Zen, had long since been established. The Way of Chuang Tzu (22) had already been published and he was at work on Zen and the Birds of Appetite. (23) But he had known almost nothing of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism until Thich Nhat Hanh’s arrival. The two stayed up into the night, sharing the chant of their respective traditions, discussing methods of prayer and meditation, sharing experiences in approaches to monastic formation—and talking of the war.
“What is it like?” Merton asked.
“Everything is destroyed.”
This, Merton later commented, was a monk’s answer. Not long-winded, carefully qualified and balanced explanations—just the essence of the event, its soul. “Everything is destroyed.”
Afterward Merton wrote short declaration about his newly found “brother” that John Heidbrink had brought to the abbey. (Thich Nhat Hanh, a member of FOR, was on an FOR-sponsored speaking trip in the U.S.) Merton’s major statement in the text was as simple and direct as Thich Nhat Hanh’s comment about the war:
Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother.
This is not a political statement. It has no “interested” motive, it seeks to provoke no immediate reaction “for” or “against” this or that side in the Vietnam war. It is on the contrary a human and personal statement and an anguished plea for the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who is my brother. 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. (24)
Merton went on to speak of their shared rejection of the war for “human reasons, reasons of sanity, justice and love.” He underscored the fact that neither of them was political in the word’s ordinary sense, not supporting any ideology of conquest and war.
He emphasized that Nhat Hanh had risked his life in order to present the war’s reality to Americans. Neither armed side would readily tolerate a spokesman for toleration—with one message, he betrays both sides. He does so simply because he speaks for compassion:
Nhat Hanh is a free man … moved by the spiritual dynamic of a tradition of religious compassion. He has come among us as many others have, from time to time, bearing witness to the spirit of Zen. More than any other he has shown us that Zen is not an esoteric and world- denying cult of inner illumination, but that it has its rare and unique sense of responsibility for the modern world. Wherever he goes he will walk in the strength of his spirit and in the solitude of the Zen monk who sees beyond life and death. . . .
I have said that Nhat Hanh is my brother, and it is true. We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. The unity of the young is the only hope for the world. In its name I appeal for Nhat Hanh. Do what you can for him. If I mean something to you, then let me put it this way: do for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were.25
Their conversations strengthened Merton in the conviction that the peacemaker is one who rejects victories by “sides” but is one, instead, committed to the formation of community that protects the economic, cultural, political and spiritual rights of every person and group within the disciplines of nonviolence.
This was the goal of the “third way” Buddhists in Vietnam. It meant an alternative to the absolutist claims and the military “solutions” of the competing sides. This had immense implications not only for the Vietnamese but for the entire world and its fragile future.
But the encounter with Nhat Hanh was also an illumination, an encounter with a hermit who carried his hermitage invisibly around him, a contemplative wandering the face of the earth bearing his own silence within the surrounding noise.
This was one of the preparatory steps for Merton’s own journey to Asia. His last letter (August 5, 1968) ended with a request for Nhat Hanh’s current address.
During these last years of correspondence, while there continued to be much that was of a practical nature relating to the work of CPF and FOR, there continued to be much that reminded me again that my first encounter with Merton was with a man of outrageous laughter.
I suspect his sense of humor had a great deal to do with his ability to persevere, not only with his monastic community, but also with his peace community. If he sometimes spoke critically, not to say grumpily, about his fellow monks, it tended to be in a way that occasioned at least a smile. When a friend, Linda Henry, designed a letterhead that featured the words “the monks are moving,” he asked if I could send him some blank sheets for some of his own correspondence, then added:
Only thing is I wonder if the monks are moving. Everything I do gives me scruples about being identified with this stupid rhinocerotic outfit that charges backward into the jungle with portentious snuffling and then bursts out of the canebrake with a roar in the most unlikely places. (June 26, 1967)
When his old friend and mentor Dan Walsh was ordained in Louisville, Merton wrote of the celebration that followed afterward at the home of Tommie O’Callaghan:
[T]here was a lot of celebrating. In fact I celebrated on too much champagne, which is a thing a Trappist rarely gets to do, but I did a very thorough job. At one point in the afternoon I remember looking up and focusing rather uncertainly upon four faces of nuns sitting in a row looking at me in a state of complete scandal and shock. Another pillar of the Church had fallen. (June 17, 1967)
The following spring a letter arrived that began with a mysterious Yiddish proverb, all in capitals: SLEEP FASTER WE NEED THE PILLOWS.
Another letter arrived with a color snapshot of, Merton announced, “the only known photograph of God.” In most respects it was just a view of the Kentucky hills, fold upon fold of green under a brilliant blue sky. But hanging down from the top, dominating the whole scene, was an immense sky hook, the kind used in construction for lifting substantial objects. It looked like an overgrown fishing hook.
If Leon Bloy was right—”Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”—God was very present in Merton, for all his hard times in a hard century. That joy and that laughter were a major element in what he had to say about peacemaking and many other things as well. He was at times a scandal to his brothers in the monastic life, and to pacifists too—the kind that can’t admit a smile in These Difficult Times.
It was in that laughter that I best understood his seriousness. One discovered the connection that necessarily exists between a profound and attentive silence and words that have truth in them. A monk who could see God in a giant hook dangling above the Kentucky woods and who could roll on the floor with joy over the stench of unwashed feet was the same one who could consider war in its human dimension, with all its agony and sense that God was obliging us not to make a peace with such peacelessness.
With prayer and with word, he was able to help others to do the same, to keep going when continuity seemed impossible. His letters did that for me on a number of occasions. But perhaps one letter was to you no less than me. Let me end by giving it to you. It was written February 21, 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.
You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right….
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they 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 next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important.
You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion….
The real hope, then, 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….
Enough of this … it is at least a gesture…. I will keep you in my prayers.
All the best, in Christ,
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1. Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), p. 21.
2. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (N.Y.: America Press, 1963), p. 39.
3. Merton, My Argument With the Gestapo (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969).
4. Merton, Thomas Merton on Peace, edited by Gordon Zahn (N.Y.: McCall’s, 1971), pp. 160-165 [later reissued as The Nonviolent Alternative (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980].
5. Merton, Emblems of a Season of Fury (N.Y.: New Directions, 1963), pp. 47ff.
6. Cf. Zahn, TMOP, pp 3-11.
7. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (N.Y.: New Directions, 1966).
8. Ibid., pp. 112ff.
9. The Catholic Worker, October, 1961, p. 1.
10. Cf. Edward Rice, The Man in the Sycamore Tree (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), p. 79, where this and a litany of other Merton pseudonyms appear, signatures of his correspondence with Rice (editor’s note).
11. Merton, cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 257.
13. Ibid., p. 258.
14. Merton, “Author’s Preface to the Japanese Edition,” Nanae No Yama (The Seven Storey Mountain), trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppansha, 1966).
18. Cf. Zahn, TMOP, pp. 259-260.
19. Gordon C. Zahn, In Solitary Witness (N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1964).
20. James H. Forest, Catholics and Conscientious Objection (N.Y.: Catholic Peace Fellowship, 1966).
21. Cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 216
22. Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (N.Y.: New Directions, 1965).
23. Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (N.Y.: New Directions, 1968).
24. Cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 262.
25. Ibid., p. 263.
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