This is an extract from the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton written by Jim Forest and published by Orbis Books. Footnotes have been removed.
On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Merton made his last journal entry. He was off to say Mass at the Church of Saint Louis, whose name had become his in Trappist life, then to have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation before going to the Sawang Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center.
The meeting place was at Samutprakan, 29 miles south of Bangkok. Merton arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two. The conference began the next day with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Events of the day included an evening discussion on marriage and celibacy.
Few of the monks got much sleep that night. A chorus of cats had come out to sing the night office on nearby roofs. Following crescendos of cat howling, those in adjacent rooms heard Merton’s laughter.
Merton’s paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” was presented the next morning. Merton, under orders from his abbot to avoid the press, was made nervous by Dutch and Italian television crews which had turned up to film his lecture.
One of the crucial issues confronting the monk, Merton pointed out, is what his position is and how he identifies himself in a world of revolution. This wasn’t simply a matter of how to survive an enemy who is intent on either destroying religion or converting those of religious convictions to atheism. Rather, it was a matter of understanding, beyond present models of Marxism and monasticism, the fundamental points of similarity and difference.
He recognized significant similarities. The monk, after all, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures … [saying] that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” In addition, both monk and Marxist share the idea that each should give according to his capacity and receive according to his need. But while the Marxist gives primary emphasis to the material and economic structures of life, seeing religious approaches as empty mystification, the monk is committed to bringing about a human transformation that begins at the level of consciousness.
“Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin with the consciousness of the individual seeking to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.”
This is emphatically the vocation of the monk “who seeks full realization … [and] has come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.” At the deepest level, the monk is teaching others how to live by love. For Christians, this is the discovery of Christ dwelling in all others.
Only with such love, Merton went on, is it possible to realize the economic ideal of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need. But in actuality many Christians, including those in monastic communities, have not reached this level of love and realization. They have burdened their lives with too many false needs and these have blocked the way to full realization, the monk’s only reason for being.
Merton told a story he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche of a Buddhist abbot fleeing from his Tibetan monastery before the advance of Chinese Communist troops. He encountered another monk leading a train of twenty-five yaks loaded with the treasures of the monastery and “essential” provisions. The abbot chose not to stay with the treasure or the treasurer; traveling light, he managed to cross the border into India, destitute but alive. The yak-tending monk, chained to his treasure, was overtaken by the soldiers and was never heard of again.
“We can ask ourselves,” Merton said, “if we are planning for the next twenty years to be traveling with a train of yaks.” Monasticism, after all, is not architecture or clothing or even rules of life. It is “total inner transformation. Let the yaks take care of themselves.” The monastic life thrives whenever there is a person “giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to love God and reach union with him.”
Authentic monasticism cannot be extinguished. “It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. It does not depend on cultural factors, and it does not depend on sociological or psychological factors. It is something much deeper.”
Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until the evening session. He concluded with the words, “So I will disappear,” adding the suggestion that everyone have a Coke.
At about 3 p.m., Father François de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door but there was no response. Shortly before 4 o’clock Father de Grunne came down again to get the cottage key from Merton and to reassure himself that nothing was the matter. When there was no answer he looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. Father de Grunne tried to open the door but it was locked. With the help of others, the door was opened.
There was a smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. Dom Odo Haas, Abbot of Waekwan, tried to lift it and received an electric shock that jerked him sideways, holding him fast to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine Say pulled the plug.
A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of the head. The priests gave Merton absolution, then Dom Odo went to get the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Dom Rembert Weakland, who gave Merton extreme unction. A doctor arrived, Mother Edeltrud Weist, prioress of Taegu Convent in Korea. She checked for pulse and eye reaction to light. A police test of the fan showed that a “defective electric cord was installed inside its stand…. The flow of electricity was strong enough to cause the death of a person if he touched the metal part.”
After Merton’s body was released to Dom Weakland, it was washed, then taken to the chapel. There was a prayer vigil throughout the night at the side of the body.
The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam. From Oakland, California, it continued by civilian carrier, at last reaching the Abbey of Gethsemani the afternoon of December 17.
The monks at the abbey had been informed of the death by Dom Flavian during their mid-day meal on December 10. In the days that followed, The Seven Storey Mountain was read aloud during meals in the refectory. “Some of us saw a considerable irony in fact that the refectory reader was Father Raymond Flanagan,” recalls Father Patrick Reardon, then a member of the community, “who had been carrying on a running feud with Father Louis for about as long as any of us could remember.”
One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton “now knows more theology than any of us.” The brother responded, “Well, Reverend Father, he always did.”
Dom Flavian and Father John Eudes Bamberger identified the body at the undertakers in New Haven, where the casket was briefly opened. “I readily identified the body though it was already bloated and swollen considerably,” Father John Eudes wrote. “There was no doubt it was Father Louis.”
The casket arrived at the monastery only a couple of hours before the afternoon funeral Mass and was placed in the abbey basilica. Father Timothy Kelly, later to succeed Dom Flavian as abbot, and Father Patrick Reardon prayed the psalms over the body for the hour or more prior to the funeral.
The funeral Mass was composed by Father Chrysogonus Waddell. On the cover of the Liturgy booklet was a text from The Sign of Jonas: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My Mercy…. Have you lost sight of me Jonas My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”
Part of the Book of Jonah was read aloud. At the end of the Mass, there was a reading from The Seven Storey Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence, “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church. Normally Trappists were buried without a casket. Merton was one of two exceptions. The other had been Dom Frederick Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton in 1941 and encouraged him to write. Dom Frederick had also died while traveling.
“A whole bunch of us grabbed shovels to fill in Father Louis’s grave at the end of the service,” Father Patrick recalled. “I remember Father Raymond going at it with the gusto he brought to every enterprise. Toward the end of the burial, it began to rain, so we were quite damp when we returned to the church.”
With the body came an official declaration of Merton’s effects, appraised in dollars. The items listed included these five:
1 Timex Watch $10.00
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames Nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary Nil
1 Rosary (broken) Nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child Nil
There was also the memory of Merton’s last words. Following the morning conference, Father de Grunne told Merton that a nun in the audience was annoyed that Merton had said nothing about converting people.
“What we are asked to do at present,” Merton responded, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”
The icon Merton had with him contains its own last words, silent on one side, and on the back a brief extract from the Philokalia, written in Greek in Merton’s hand:
“If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.”
a lecture given at Swansea University, Wales, 15 May 2013
by Jim Forest
Let’s start with a simple question: Who was Thomas Merton? I think it is accurate to say that he was the most widely read and best-known Christian monk of the 20th century. It was not a fate he intended. At age 26, when he began his monastic life, he thought he was choosing a path of radical invisibility, one aspect of which was his laying aside all his earlier aspirations as a writer. He had, after all, opted to belong to the most silent — many would say most medieval — of monastic brotherhoods, the Trappists, as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is best known. (Given that this lecture is being given in Wales, one other biographical fact to mention is that, via both his parents, he was partly Welsh. It was with his Welsh ancestors that Merton felt a special bond. In his book-length poem, The Geography of Lograire, he speaks of “Wales dark Wales … holy green Wales … father mother Wales.”)
I met Merton face-to-face only twice, first in 1962 and again in 1964, four years before his death. In fact the very first meeting was not face-to-face but face-to-page. I was an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy posting at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and discovered a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. The name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation on the cover from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer said this was the twentieth-century equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions.
It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me, opening doors that I had never known existed. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling under street lights.
Let me read to you the first sentences:
On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.
It’s a remarkable opening, poetry as prose, with war a major theme. The leitmotif became still more intense in the last decade if his life, making him a man of controversy. In the Spring of 1962, Merton would be forbidden to write about war and peace.
In 1948, the year The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it found its way to my hands. And, eleven years on, he himself was in fact quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in an ancient forest. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in pre-Renaissance obscurity in rural Kentucky.
I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact as engaged in the modern world as anyone alive and often longed to transplant himself to a poorer, simpler monastic environment. It wasn’t something he mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain, but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no tradition of solitary life in his order. Trappists lived an intensely communal existence.
In 1959 he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a poorer, more primitive monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading The Seven Storey Mountain, he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an eremitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.
And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. One sees in his journal entry that he read the letter without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey ad walk out. He commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”
Yet even that day he felt the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for solitaries within the Trappist context.
It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading The Seven Storey Mountain. Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had encountered in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description in his autobiography of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family, of which he had practically none as his parents had died in his childhood and his only sibling, John Paul Merton, had been killed in combat in the Second World War. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures, a women who went to prison from time to time for acts of civil disobedience and who lived in community with people, truly the down-and-out, that most of us try to avoid.
Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.”
In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters” that Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.
It was in The Seven Storey Mountain, after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared to do noncombatant service as an medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [SSM, 311-12]
In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that preceded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a
divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown.… Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron of inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil … and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed. [SSM, 345]
It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.
Anguish and rage warm many pages in The Seven Storey Mountain. The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is quite evident in the younger Merton. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a straighter path to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will, living a Gospel-shaped life in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is not to become a monk but rather to become a saint.
Partly thanks to Merton but mainly thanks to the New Testament, I became a conscientious objector. After receiving an early discharge from the Navy in the early Summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City that Dorothy Day had founded in 1933. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.
Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s books and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer — an astonishing request. Merton had sent her a poem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces,” written in the voice of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, where after the war he was executed by hanging next to the camp’s one surviving gas chamber. Here are the poem’s final lines:
All the while I had obeyed perfectly
So I was hanged in a commanding position with a full view of the site plant and grounds
You smile at my career but you would do as I did if you knew yourself and dared.
In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described writing the poem as “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it in the upcoming issue. It would serve, I said, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial then going on in Jerusalem.
Not many days later I had a response from Merton. I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold. In that letter he noted that we live in a time of war and need “to 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.”
Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.
In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though first there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get out (I had become the paper’s managing editor). I was able to leave for Kentucky in late-January 1962.
I had no money for such a journey — in the Catholic Worker community one received room and board plus, on request, small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. In my own case I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community.
A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we traveled by thumb. Before sunrise one icy morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. This image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.
But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.
The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor. He was wearing black-and-white Trappist robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of photos of Pablo Picasso. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the dense smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.
After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a different book. Having discovered that Merton was capable of hurricanes of laughter, I realized his humor was often on display in his writing, if only one could allow one’s ears to hear it. I also learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though none exhibited the trait with such abandon as Merton.
The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The day after our arrival Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, we must have our hair trimmed. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Humpty Dumpty
Soon after the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — perhaps about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. His fingerprints may still be there. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been turned into a Darth Vader figure by Merton biographers. Doesn’t every good guy need a bad guy? There is no Robin Hood without the Sheriff of Nottingham.
I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond Flanagan, whose books were well known to devout Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a corridor that linked the guest-house kitchen to the basement of the cellar of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a left turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was Father Raymond holding a copy of the latest Catholic Worker. Father Raymond was not so much reading as glaring at the paper, which he held open at arm’s length as if it had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled into the garbage container, and strode away, leaving a trail of smoke.
Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.
During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more surprising, to non-Christians. The first evening I was there, there was a hurried knock on the door of my room. Merton was standing there en route to Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of Hasidic rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.
I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer within the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard Trappist attire, you would freeze to death.
The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend had sent a letter to Merton in my care. In it he urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place, that being a monk was not in fact — at least in the context of the times — a Christian vocation.) What is especially memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. Even in the newsroom of a city newspaper one rarely sees writing at a similar pace.
I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully-reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.
When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In 1960 plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile from the monastery. By December it was ready for use. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, four years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit of modern times.
By the time I came to visit the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. A Japanese calendar was on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse that Merton shared with a black snake.
The week at the abbey ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency then responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.” (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one of New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)
Merton had a part even in that event. A letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, was hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the chilly pavement awaiting arrest. “I am with you in spirit,” he commented, adding that ordinary people, “the ones who get it in the neck,” certainly don’t want war, yet ironically feel threatened by protests which oppose making weapons of mass destruction and preparations for war. “They do not feel threatened by the bomb,” he went on, “but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a [peace] placard.” He said he would be offering Mass for “all those who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace.”
I was to meet with Merton face-to-face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat of about ten peace activists at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. On Merton’s part, there was still laughter, but less of it. I remember him best in those days not in his hermitage, though he was actively engaged with the group at every session, but rather walking alone outside the hermitage, pacing back and forth in a state of contemplative absorption so compelling that it brought home to me the gravity of what we were about more than any spoken word.
“By what right do we protest? Against whom or what? For what? How? Why?” These are questions Merton raised and which still haunt me. The whole retreat was more a questioning than an answering experience. Merton impressed on us that protest, however necessary, is a dangerous calling. If it lacks sufficient spiritual maturity, protest can make things even worse.
Part of our discussion was to consider the trajectory 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, far from being a little less than the angels, is merely a “bio-chemical link” serving as a shaky bridge between the solid-circuit perfection of cybernetic systems and conscience-free computers.
By way of counter-point to man as “bio-chemical link,” we repeatedly turned our attention to a man who was executed in Berlin on August 9, 1943 — Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic peasant farmer with modest education and a wife and three young daughters to worry about who, despite strong opposition from his pastor and bishop, refused military service in Hitler’s armies. In 2007 he was beatified, but in those days had not yet been assigned a halo. Uncanonized though he was, he impressed us as a saint for our time. We were struck by this isolated peasant’s ability to see clearly what bishops and theologians in the Nazi era didn’t dare see, still less proclaim. We had every reason to expect the same lack of moral leadership from our own Church leadership as the Vietnam War began to unfold. In the years that followed, those of us participating in the retreat all played a significant role in opposing the war in southeast Asia and helped encourage widespread conscientious objection. We dared to envision a Church that would put its weight behind those who refused to wage war and who refused to reduce human being to “bio-chemical links.” “If the Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jägerstätters would no longer be in solitude but would be the Church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.”
My main contact with Merton was through correspondence. From the end of 1961 until his death seven years later, on average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. His side of the exchange takes up about fifty pages of a book of Merton’s letters with the title The Hidden Ground of Love. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and book-length works such as the manuscripts of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, the latter two published only in recent years.
Looking back, I realize Merton became for me what in the Orthodox Church we call a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was an extraordinarily fruitful relationship.
To give you an example of his guidance, let me share with you a letter he sent me in 1966. The Vietnam War was getting worse by the day and I felt overwhelmed by the failure of all our efforts to end it. Here is what Merton had to say:
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.
What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives?
In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment in which sign language was used far more than words, he nonetheless had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties and no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when there was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to seek God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, from Boris Pasternak in Soviet Russia, to T.D. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen master.
We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs “fit for angels to sit on.”
We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a thinly-populated corner of Kentucky. During his 27 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community from the day he arrived until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that rarely required hiking boots.
Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication, such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, these two were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.
Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? Merton, who wrote unflinchingly about his sins and failures, would of course say no. No saint sees a halo in the mirror. If you define “saint” as a perfect person, Merton doesn’t qualify, but then by that standard no saint but Mary would be on the church calendar. One must emulate even the holiest life with caution — one can go to hell imitating the sins of the saints. Yet I think the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.
* * *
text copyright Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
(lecture to Dutch Catholic military chaplains / 25 April 2013 / Zin Conference Center, Vught, The Netherlands)
By Jim Forest
The publication of papal encyclicals is normally of interest only to Roman Catholics. Secular journalists as well as those in other churches pay little attention. But Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, signed fifty years ago this month, was a dramatic exception. Its release was front-page news, stirring up discussion and debate around the world. Many newspapers published extensive excerpts and some published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided, as more than one commentator put it, “a bill of rights and obligations for the human race.”
Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible.
The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings. More than ever we can appreciate Christ saying “Blessed are the peacemakers … they shall be called children of God.”
In the context of peacemaking, it is not surprising that one of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “[T]he world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it.” Quoting from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.’” (Rom 2:15)
The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”
“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]
In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws which violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit our obedience: “Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. … Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]
The time is urgent, John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear …. afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” 
Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. [T]his conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”
Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.
It was also Pope John who had, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, launched the Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”
The fourth and last session of the Council in 1965, which John did not live to see, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Modern World begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. In fact, commented Fr. Francis X. Murphy (writing as Xavier Rynne), “no other conciliar document had gone through so many stages before reaching its final form.” Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, p 116,117]
One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (section 16)
It follows that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way. (section 79.2)
The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers and assured them that, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, that blame would lie with the rulers rather than with their subjects.
Gaudium et Spes also contains a solemn condemnation, one of the few expressed in texts issued by the Second Vatican Council:
“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.”
Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised:
“We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”
Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”
I am not aware of any book about what went on behind the scenes as Schema 13 was being drafted and debated — it would be a valuable history — but I know some aspects of the story. Given the limits of times, let me draw your attention to just one of these.
The first draft of Schema 13 was in circulation well over a year before, after intensive discussion and many revisions, the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only bishops and theologians present in Rome were engaged in the debate but others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky in the United States and one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.
Beginning with his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, Merton’s books had found a vast number of readers around the world, including both John XXIII and Paul VI. It was during John XXIII’s years as pope that Merton’s concern with war, peacemaking and conscience became major themes for him. His first essay on these topics, entitled “The Root of War is Fear,” was published in The Catholic Worker in October 1961, a year before the first session of the Council.
In his essay Merton wrote about the problem of “war-madness” in which the USA and the Soviet Union were in a state of constant readiness to fight a nuclear war in which many millions of people would die and much of civilization and human culture be destroyed.
“What,” Merton asked, “is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a ‘first strike’ the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic Communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.
“What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”
Merton went on to advocate that nonviolent methods of conflict resolution, so often ignored or ridiculed, needed “to be explained as a practical method.” Also needed were the use of traditional spiritual weapons; prayer and ascetic sacrifice “must be used … in the war against war, and like all weapons … must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war.” Also needed was the witness of personal nonviolence — a willingness “to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people.” Not at all an optimist, Merton added that “we may never succeed in [our campaign against war] but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”
More essays quickly followed. At the same time Merton was at work on a book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. During that period Merton found himself under severe criticism from various members of the Church, including several fellow monks. His anti-war writings, it was said, were totally inappropriate for a monk. In April 1962, the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, siding with the critics, ordered Merton to stop writing on war and peace and banned publication of the book he had just finished drafting, though later the order was modified in such a way that copies of the book were privately printed in a mimeographed edition by Merton’s monastery. In December 1962 Merton sent copies of the book pus a selection of his other war-peace writings to Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, co-secretaries of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The couple had received permission from the Trappist Abbot General to circulate Merton’s peace essays among the bishops and theologians at work on Schema 13.
One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)
One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the Pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the Pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by the letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]
After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began.
In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”
“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”
Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as the was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves unknowingly cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”
Had we time we could take a much closer look at Merton’s appeal and its contribution to the final content of Schema 13. It is enough, on this occasion, simply to note that what he hoped the Council participants would declare about war and conscience was in fact said and said clearly. Of the nearly 2,400 bishops present for the Council’s last session, there was overwhelming support for Gaudium et Spes — only 75 votes were cast against it.
It is fair to say that, between publication of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes, the Roman Catholic Church crossed a border. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also that fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Roman Catholics.
The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us.
preface to A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011)
It is a pity Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams never met. What a friendship it would have been. Their age difference was the obstacle — Rowan was only eighteen when Merton died. Yet there is another sense in which meetings occur and friendships spring to life despite the impossibility of correspondence or face-to-face encounter. Good writing always remains in the present tense; the attentive reader meets the author in the intimate space of the printed page. When that occurs, a relationship can take root that flourishes despite the problem of death.
One sees the reality of such a friendship in this slim volume that brings together Rowan’s explorations of Merton’s writings. Merton would have been delighted to have found himself so carefully and perceptively read. The correspondence between them would have made this a much larger book.
In fact Merton’s own life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries).
Rowan looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life — first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.
Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.
We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.
Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.”
Both Merton and Rowan are people who have drawn deeply from Eastern Christian sources, both ancient and modern. Rowan’s doctoral dissertation concentrated on the work of Vladimir Lossky, whose writings also had great impact on Merton. Lossky was one of the Paris-based Orthodox theologians who distinguished the “individual” from the “person,” the latter understood as the self existing in communion with others rather than attempting to live in a state of one-person apartheid. To the extent one is becoming a person, Rowan notes, the process of sanctity is underway, for one “cannot be simply an individual pursuing an impossible ideal of individual sanctification in a sort of spiritual solipsism; this is, rather, the condition characteristic of hell.”
For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are “at least” seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest — a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.
December 8, 2010
note: The water color of Canterbury Cathedral on the book’s cover is by Owen Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton refers to his father painting in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury during his Easter vacation from Oakham in 1929.
(lecture by Jim Forest given at Bellarmine University in Louisville on 13 October 2010)
The recent donation to the Thomas Merton Center here at Bellarmine University of the papers of Joe Zarrella, a longtime collaborator of Dorothy Day, has provided us with an occasion to reflect on the special friendship that enriched the lives of two remarkable people: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
Because we are at Bellarmine, surely everyone present recognizes the name of Thomas Merton even if you are a little in the dark about exactly who he was or why there is a statue of him here on campus. Also here at Bellarmine is the Thomas Merton Center, in which all sorts of Merton-related items are located: the many books he wrote plus all the books that have been written about him, file-cabinets full of letters he wrote and received, handwritten manuscripts and working notebooks, photographs he took with borrowed cameras that reveal his contemplative way of looking at things, a personal gift that was sent to him by Pope John XXIII, examples of Merton’s art work, paintings of him, and a substantial part of Merton’s library.
There is also the special recognition of Merton in the heart of Louisville. Thousands of people each day cross Thomas Merton Square. Some of them pause to read the historical marker installed there in 1998 by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This may be the only memorial plaque anywhere in the world placed at a busy urban intersection to mark the location of a mystical experience.
What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. The Merton Center has lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 62 years, but we’re talking about millions.
What might not be so immediately obvious is that, despite Merton’s renown and his many best-selling books, he was — and remains — a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken about racism, war and other hot topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity and life is divided between religious and ordinary existence.
Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. The idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. There is even an icon-like painting of Merton in which he is shown sitting Buddha-like on a meditation cushion. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.
Now on to Dorothy Day. Who is Dorothy Day? I have heard people ask if she was the sister of the movie star, Doris Day. Dorothy Day sometimes got letters addressed to Doris Day. In fact there is a small patch of Hollywood in Dorothy’s life story. In 1929, just before the Great Depression started, she worked as a writer at a Hollywood film studio, but she had no screen credits. What made Dorothy Day famous was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith after becoming a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome. If books by Merton sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.
If you think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike you as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.
I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Workers’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.
A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.
On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Both were black sheep. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.
Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.
The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.
In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time. It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.
This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or the Baroness, as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”
In a letter to Dorothy sent two decades later, Merton remarked that the reason he went to Friendship House rather than the Catholic Worker in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]
In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some sweet-smelling toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term 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 in 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 criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”
In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.
There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.
One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”
Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane. In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life — long-time co-workers such as Joe Zarrella — were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.
In his response, Merton noted that his awareness that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”
This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]
Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.
In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960] Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]
I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on that large gray office typewriter that is now on display at the Merton Center.
In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared their high regard for Boris Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly figure in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.
The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]
This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]
If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, a paperback anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]
They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers.” They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had read some of his poetry at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.
But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground even with Merton, Dorothy could be testy. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]
The danger of nuclear war, and the vast destruction of cities and life, was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but, for a great many well-informed people, a probability. Open-air nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day. For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic whom they both revered, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]
Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:
“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”
Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgement on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.
During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just ten months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]
Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”
In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published only a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic mission of the monastic vocation.
If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to roast a turkey, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract: “[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It 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.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962]
Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “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.”
Yet in fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. His remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters and many shorter papers. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.
Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]
Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:
“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 another 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, it 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.” [TM to DD, December 20, 1961]
Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a change of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we are inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”