Lecture to be given 10 March 2017 at Koningshoeven Abbey (Berkel-Enschot, North Brabant)
By Jim Forest
To provide an overview of the spiritual development of Thomas Merton in the course of a single lecture is, of course, an impossible task, like offering a sixty-minute tour of Rome, but it is possible in the time available to look at a few aspects of Merton’s spiritual development in areas in which my life and his intersected.
Let me very briefly recall how Merton and I came into contact with each other.
I had left the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector in the spring of 1961 and, at the invitation of Dorothy Day, joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. Dorothy already knew of the special interest I had in the writings of Thomas Merton and shared with me several of his letters to her. Initially I had been quite surprised that they were in correspondence with each other as the idea I had of Merton, as the 1960s began, was that he personified a radical monastic withdrawal from “the world” (in quotation marks) while Dorothy Day was the personification of engagement with the world. And yet I sensed, if only thanks to my attraction of both their writings, that there is no such thing as Christianity apart from the world. I came to appreciate that, albeit living in quite different circumstances, Merton and Dorothy Day had a great deal in common.
One sees in Merton’s journals and letters in the late fifties a growing awareness of the danger of a new world war, one far more destructive then all other wars ever fought combined, given the factor of nuclear weapons. Let me read to you an extract from a letter Merton sent to Erich Fromm in 1955:
I feel that the blindness of men to the terrifying issue [of nuclear war] we have to face is one of the most discouraging possible signs for the future…. Fear has driven people so far into the confusion of mass-thinking that they no longer see anything except in a kind of dim dream. What a population of zombies we are! What can be expected of us? …. It seems to me that the human race as a whole is on the verge of a crime that will be second to no other except the crucifixion of Christ and it will, if it happens, be very much the same crime all over again. And then, as now, religious people are involved on the guilty side. What we are about to do is “destroy” God over again in His image, the human race…. Any person who pretends to love God in this day, and has lost his sense of the value of humanity, has also lost his sense of God without knowing it. I believe that we are facing the consequences of several centuries of more and more abstract thinking, more and more unreality in our grasp of values. We have reached such a condition that now we are unable to appreciate the meaning of being alive, of being able to think, to make decisions, to love.
Little by little Merton’s life was reshaped by his awareness that it was neither Christian nor monastic to turn a blind eye toward the endangered world and its troubles.
In his journals and lettersof this same period Merton records several intense experiences — we can call them mystical experiences — of God opening his eyes in a life-changing way. Perhaps the most significant of these happened on the 18th of March, 1958. On an errand that brought him to Louisville, Merton was standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which mad writermakes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers…. If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other…. [T]he gate of heaven is everywhere.
This awakening marked the opening of a greater compassion within Merton, and at the same time it heightened his sense of responsibility to do what he could as a monk and writer to awake others, first of all fellow Christians, to do whatever could be done to prevent war. The consequences in his own life became obvious in the decade that followed.
In late August 1961, Merton wrote in his journal:
I have been considering the possibility of writing a kind of statement —”where I stand,” as a declaration of my position as a Christian, a writer and a priest in the present war crisis. There seems to be little I can do other than this. There is no other activity available to me…. If I can say something clear and positive it may be of some use to others as well as to myself. This statement would be for the Catholic Worker. As a moral decision, I think this might possibly be a valid step toward fulfilling my obligations as a human being…
Two or three weeks later Dorothy received Merton’s first-ever prose submission to The Catholic Worker, “The Root of War Is Fear.” It turned out to be a chapter 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. This particular chapter had been just a few pages in the earlier edition, its meditative paragraphs only loosely connected. Merton had now transformed it into a ten-page chapter that contained only 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.
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 two-page preface to the chapter written especially for 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, half a century later, Merton’s words remain 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 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.
We placed “The Root of War” essay on page one of the October issue alongside a drawing of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Catholic Worker version of this chapter, comments William Shannon in his anthology of Merton’s social essays, Passion for Peace, “marked the initial and definitive entry of Thomas Merton into the struggle against war.”
Shortly afterward Merton wrote in his journal:
I am perhaps at a turning point in my spiritual life: perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts — and the forgetting of fears. Walking in to a known and definite battle. May God protect me in it. The Catholic Worker sent out a press release about my article, which may have many reactions — or may have none. At any rate it appears that I am one of the few Catholic priests in the country who has come out unequivocally for a completely intransigent fight for the abolition of war, for the use of nonviolent means to settle international conflicts. Hence by implication not only against the bomb, against nuclear testing, against Polaris [nuclear-armed] submarines but against all violence. This I will inevitably have to explain in due course. Nonviolent action, not mere passivity. How I am going to explain myself and defend a definite position in a timely manner when it takes at least two months to get even a short article through the censors of the Order is a question I cannot attempt to answer….
At least I feel clean for having stated what is certainly the true Christian position. Not that self-defense is not legitimate, but there are wider perspectives than that and we have to see them. It is not possible to solve our problems on the basis of “every man for himself” and saving your own skin by killing the first person who threatens it….
I am happy that I have turned a corner, perhaps the last corner in my life.
At Dorothy Day’s encouragement, I wrote to Merton. To my astonishment he responded. In his first letter, 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 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.
At Merton’s invitation, in January 1962 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 U.S. resumption of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
As I discovered during that first week-long visit to the monastery, 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 Flanagan, was the community’s other noted author, the very monk who had thrown The Catholic Worker into the trash. I paraphrase from memory, but the text began 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 dead;y 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 genitals 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? Or to write Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era? Or to play, as he did during the last four 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 U.S. because in France even foreigners like were subject to the draft. 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 directly influenced by her pacifist 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.”
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 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 living reality of God and of Jesus risen from the dead. 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 — that he is “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 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, a black section of upper Manhattan. 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. What would have happened if tens of thousands of German Christians had refused military service? 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 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 that 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 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 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 in another letter, 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. 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. Merton also wrote and published new pieces on war and peace 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 one and 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.”
Beyond compassion, there is love. Without love of opponents and enemies, neither personal nor social transformation can occur. Neither can we call ourselves Christians. 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 10th, 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 53 — 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 7 March 2017
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Jim Forest’s books include Living With Wisdom: a life of Thomas Merton and The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice for Peacemakers.