‘Lord, That I Might See’

Thomas Merton outside his hermitage during the November 1964 retreat on peacemaking (photo: Jim Forest)
Thomas Merton outside his hermitage during the November 1964 retreat on peacemaking (photo: Jim Forest)

presented at a conference held at Bellarmine University, 24-26 October 2014, marking the 50th anniversary of a retreat on the spiritual roots of protest and peacemaking hosted by Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in November 1964

by Jim Forest

Domine ut videam. This Latin prayer was used in Merton’s remarks at the opening session of the peacemaking retreat held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in November 1964. Lord, that I might see. The Latin words come from St Jerome’s Vulgate translation of St Mark’s Gospel. It’s Bartimaeus’s appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes: Domine ut videam — Lord, that I might see.

Looking back on that small gathering fifty years later, it strikes me that these few words were at the heart of our retreat. Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies.

Blindness is a major topic in the New Testament, not only concerning those, like Bartimaeus, whose blind eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight. I am thinking of those with eagle-like eyes who can read the small print on an insurance contract but fail to notice that we live in a maze of miracles in which God is, as declared in an Orthodox prayer, “everywhere present, filling all things.” What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys.

At the retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste. A.J., then 79, was one of the true sages of the American peace movement. For many years he had been secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and was now chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action. He had devoted years of his life to working for nuclear disarmament and, before his death in 1967, would play a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War, then in the early stages of U.S. involvement.

Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)
Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)

It is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat, important though it was, that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that A.J. could see. Just days before the flight to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone successful surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, A.J. was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he were Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone look at the world around him so attentively, so full of awe. He made me think of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. was in state of ultra-astonishment. It was a contagious condition. I think he helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

One of the elements of the retreat was taking a fresh look at technology, technology that, on the one hand, has the potential to solve many problems (Merton was grateful for the clever Coleman lantern that illumined his electricity-free hermitage) and, on the other, technology that can destroy cities in a blinding flash while incinerating millions of people. Again the problem of sight. We as a species have great difficulty seeing ahead — seeing the difference between the constructive and the destructive.

One of the sentences that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society is developing a capacity to envision consequences — for example that a weapon, once made, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will mainly kill innocent people.

For me the most haunting question Merton raised with us was initially expressed in another Latin phrase: Quo warranto? — By what right? In the context of the retreat on the spiritual roots of protest this became, “By what right do we protest?” It wasn’t a question I had ever before considered. I was born into a radical family in which protest was a normal activity — protest of economic injustice, protest against segregation and racism, protest against war, etc. While not by nature a person drawn to protest, as a young adult I found myself seeing protest as an unfortunate necessity. I could not watch preparations for nuclear war and fail to raise a dissenting voice or refuse to participate in actions of resistance. To protest was a duty, period. But by raising the “by what right” question, Merton forced me to consider that protest, if it is to have any hope of constructive impact on others, has to be undertaken not only with great care but with a genuine sympathy and compassion for those who object to one’s protest, who feel threatened and angered by it, who regard you as a traitor. After all, what we are seeking is not just to make some noise but to help others think freshly about our social order and the direction we’re going.

As Merton put it to me in a letter several years after the retreat, peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work that seeks to contribute to conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of the other. We need to remember that no one is converted by anger or self-righteousness. One has to use the hammer of protest very carefully. Protest can backfire, harden people in their opposition, bring out the worst in the other. In fact to really be effective protest needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians. Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. It’s a question of seeing.

One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man few had heard of at the time. Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him, he was aware of the demonic character of Nazism, he spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hell Hitler’s movement was rushing into, and quite freely paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. He has come to be widely recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Liinz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies. We can say the bishops closed both their eyes and their mouths — just as the vast majority of church leaders in the U.S. did during the greater part of the Vietnam War and the many wars that have followed.

A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no”: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. I would rather die than take part in a parade to hell.”

Merton never spoke autobiographically during the retreat, but if one were to search the root structures of the retreat, one would have to recall Merton’s decision, made in the months prior to entering monastic life in December 1941, not to bear arms in World War II on the grounds that he could not envision Jesus killing anyone. As he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

Clearly, for Merton, the foundations of the retreat went back more than 23 years.

One of the results of the retreat was the role it played in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which was then in the process of formation. In November 1964 I was a journalist working for a New York daily newspaper. Just weeks later, in January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, very soon afterward joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan in effect our chaplain. Our main work was assisting Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life responsive to Christ’s declaration, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

It all has to do with how we see each other. Domine ut videam. Lord that I might see.

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For more about the 1964 retreat with Merton, see Gordon Oyer’s book, Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest (Cascade Books, 2014, ISBN 978-1-62032-3770-9).

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