Thomas Merton as a Messenger of Hope

Thomas Merton (photot by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

By Jim Forest

On pilgrimage in Asia in 1968, Thomas Merton was both far from home and at the same time very much at home. His at-homeness on the far side of the planet shines through the remarks he made while in Calcutta, ten time zones east of his monastic community in Kentucky: “My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one, but we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

Merton’s insight is not a poet’s wishful thinking. The human race is indeed one family — not only the Book of Genesis but our DNA confirms it. We are one and every one of us lives at the same address: the third planet out from a single star we call the sun. We are at home on this planet no matter where on the globe we happen to be. We are and always have been one. The only problem, as Merton points out, is that we imagine our differences are more important than what we have in common. Those differences become the fuel of wars. Our challenge is indeed to recover our original unity. Countless lives, and the health of our souls, depend on it. It’s quite a challenge.

From an early age, one of Merton’s major concerns was war, the cruelest expression of our failure to live in unity. World War I is the main reference point in the opening sentences of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain:

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.

In the population of Europe and North America, Merton was one of the rare men of his generation to refuse to take part in war. Instead, after a great deal of thought, conversation and prayer, he decided to seek recognition as a conscientious objector. In the end he became a monk instead — thus part of a fragment of the U.S. population automatically exempt from conscription.

What stood behind his conscientious objection? For Merton the question of overwhelming importance was not political or ideological but simply what would Christ do — what weapons would he carry, what flag would he march behind, who would he kill, who would he bless to kill? In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton expanded on his decision in a text that must have startled many readers, appearing as it did just after World War II and in the early days of the Cold War:

[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.”

Not many Christians, still fewer Catholic Christians, were struggling with such questions or making similar decisions.

Nor were many Christians making significant contact with people of other religions. In The Seven Storey Mountain, parts of which seem parochial by today’s standards, Merton makes a point of drawing attention to non-Catholics who played key roles in his spiritual and intellectual formation.

One of the influential people was a Hindu monk, Bramachari, who had been sent from his ashram in India to take part in a Congress of Religions in Chicago. In fact he had arrived too late for that event but stayed on in America anyway, living from the hospitality of friends. Merton had been part of a small welcoming committee when Bramachari arrived in Manhattan in 1938. In the weeks that followed the two of them spent a great deal of time together. Merton was deeply impressed by Bramachari’s deep kindness. “He was never sarcastic, never ironical or unkind in his criticisms: in fact he did not make many judgments at all, especially adverse ones. He would simply make statements of fact, and then burst out laughing — his laughter was quiet and ingenuous, and it expressed his complete amazement at the very possibility that people should live the way he saw them living all around him.”

Bramachari gave Merton life-changing guidance: “He did not generally put his words in the form of advice, but the one counsel he did give me is something that I will not easily forget. ‘There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read Saint Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ…. Yes, you must read those books.’” Reading The Imitation of Christ in his apartment on 114th Street, Merton started praying again “more or less regularly.”

It’s not altogether surprising that, thirty years after their encounter in New York, that Merton, now in Bramachari’s homeland for the first time in his life, should be speaking about the bonds that unite us even as wars are being fought.

The theme of peace and human unity is one of the golden threads running through Merton’s writing throughout his adult life.

Through letters and very occasional visits at the monastery, Merton built relationships with various people outside the monastery who were involved in efforts to end wars and to prevent a nuclear holocaust. I was among the beneficiaries of his affection and care. During the last seven years of his life we exchanged letters on a more or less monthly basis.

The greater part of his correspondence to me been published in The Hidden Ground of Love. Of these, the letter that has been most widely circulated and has had the most impact on others was without doubt one he sent me in February 1966. The text has often been published with the headline “Letter to a Young Activist.” I would like to quote from that letter and briefly comment on these extracts.

By way of background, let me explain that the letter to which Merton was responding expressed the exhaustion, bordering on despair, I was then experiencing in my work. I was at the time secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which several friends and I had founded the previous year. Merton was a member of our advisory board. Much of Fellowship’s work was focused on ending the Vietnam War and promoting conscientious objection. While in many ways our efforts were going well, the Vietnam War was getting worse by the day. It was to continue nearly another decade, not ending until 1975.

Merton’s letter began:

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.

I wasn’t until I received Merton’s letter that it had occurred to me that peace work is of its nature apostolic work — quite a dignity and also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. The apostles, few of whom died of old age, experienced a great deal of failure and ridicule.

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.

The shift from focusing not on the satisfaction of measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work we were doing required a major shift of perception. We had to think of counseling prospective conscientious objectors in terms not merely of assisting them in their refusal to participate in a manifestly unjust war but, far more significantly, of assisting in the shaping of vocations in which the works of mercy were the main event.

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.

That last sentence has been for me one of the most important insights that I ever received from Merton. It sums up incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and culture being targeted by our weapons. (Along these lines, in 1967 the Catholic Peace Fellowship began to develop “meals of reconciliation” during which Vietnamese food was eaten by participants and Vietnamese poetry read aloud.)

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.

Movements require words and use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place but it’s secondary. In a talk to his novices, Merton once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” One of Merton’s main contributions to many people who were involved in peace efforts was the witness given by his contemplative monastic life in which prayer and meditation were integral elements of every activity, with each day having a liturgical and sacramental foundation.

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.

For me the last few words — “after all [satisfaction] is not that important” — were especially helpful. It’s not that important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be. Here Merton suggests what I think of as a cathedral builder’s attitude, a metaphor that easily comes to mind as I live just a minute’s walk from a cathedral whose construction began in 1470 and which wasn’t completed until 50 years later. As cathedral construction goes, half-a-century was relatively fast. Those who laid a cathedral’s foundations knew they wouldn’t live to see their building roofed; perhaps their grandchildren would have that satisfaction.

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.

Building an identity in one’s work is so basic an element for all of us living in a career-driven, results-oriented society that it’s hard to imagine another way of identifying ourselves. Asked who we are, we tend to respond with information about what we do. It’s not easy to think in other terms and indeed any more basic answer (what would that be?) might be embarrassing. But if what you do is rooted in attempting to follow Christ, in trying to live a life in which hospitality and love of neighbor is a major element, a life nourished by the eucharist, that foundation may not only keep you going in dark times but actually, ironically, make your work more effective.

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.

In my own case the problem was less making myself the servant of a myth than the servant of an ideology, both pacifism and even Christianity. Our myths so often are packaged as ideologies — closed systems of ideas and concepts.

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….

It is after all Christ’s truth that matters, a truth we experience from time to time but which can never be adequately expressed in words or be obtained by movements and causes. Trying to live within Christ’s truth certainly doesn’t mean we will live an undented life, a life free of disappointments, but it may help prevent disappointment from becoming despair.

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…

The end of the letter circles back to its beginning: not to live a results-driven life but to have confidence that God will somehow make use of our efforts even though we ourselves will probably not live long enough to see them bear fruit.

Referring back to the book Bramachari successfully urged Merton to read years before he found his vocation as a Trappist monk, it all has to do with the imitation of Christ.

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text as of 3 January 2014
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