By Jim Forest
Early in 1966 I was hard hit by all sorts of troubles. I was also discouraged about the work I was doing. Despite the fact that opposition to the Vietnamar was steadily growing, week by week the war was getting worse — troop numbers rising, more and more bombs falling, and ever more casualties, the great majority of which were civilian. “Napalm” — a bomb-delivered jelly-like substance that clung to bodies like glue while it burned — was a new word in many people’s vocabularies. Pictures were being shown on TV of American soldiers using cigarette lighters to burn peasant homes. An Air Force general, Curtis LeMay, had recommended “bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age.” There was even talk of taking “decisive action,” that is using nuclear weapons.
It was against this background that, on the 15th of February, I wrote an anguished letter to Merton:
Valentine’s Day has passed but no let up to the war in Vietnam. Love continues to find a different sort of expression there. Perhaps it is especially suitable that the Times this morning carries a story which has as it headline: “Vietnamese Peasants Are Victims of War.”
I confess to you that I am in a rather bleak mood…. For one thing, I am exhausted with ideological discussions. Earlier today I began to type out a few thoughts on your paper concerning protest. I was going to say that I think such words as “pacifist” ought to be forever thrown into the trash basket and that indeed we ought to try to find a new vocabulary for getting across our ideas to the public. But the question comes up, as I work on such a response, Who is listening? Yes, you, for one — you will read my comments, and perhaps in some way they will alter your thoughts on some subject, or strengthen them. Perhaps it will even inspire you to write something. Yet even if you do, who is listening? Your words will be dutifully noted by some … those Christians who care about baptism and membership in the Body of Christ may be influenced by your meditations. But meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down. Bomb after bomb after bomb slides away from the bomb bays. For every sentence in this letter, a dozen innocents will have died today in Vietnam. The end of the war is beyond imagination.
This morning I wrote a letter to the editor of [a popular Catholic monthly magazine] in which I explained why a recent editorial … attacking the CPF’s Vietnam declaration was poorly reasoned and didn’t come to terms with the reality of the situation in Vietnam…. I felt like a man in Germany in the 1930s trying to explain why Jews ought not to be sent to the concentration camps.
It all seems so utterly clear. You do not murder. You do not kill the innocent. You do not treat people like blemishes on the landscape, or communities as parcels of real estate, or nations as squares on a chessboard.
Yet no group seems more distant from these facts than Christian (and Catholic) Americans. I have all but given up talking to Catholic audiences about Christ; I simply talk about justice, raw basic justice. I think I’ve come to understand why natural law made its way into our Church. It was simply an attempt to ask us to be, if not holy, then just. At least that.
How is it that we have become so insensitive to human life, to the wonders of this world we live in, to the mystery within us and around us?
And what can we do? What can be done? Who can we become that we are not? What can we undertake that we haven’t?
I do not wish to sound despairing. I have by no means given up on this work of ours. But truly I feel like an ant climbing a cliff, and even worse, for in the distance there seems to be the roar of an avalanche. There is no exit, so I will not bother to look for one. I will continue to work, and there are the saving moments, the saving friendships, the artists, there is in fact the faith.
But I write this thinking perhaps you will have some thoughts which might help. But don’t feel you have to have any. I don’t wish to treat you as a spiritual irrigation system. But your insights have helped me gain perspective at past times.
Merton’s reply was the most helpful letter I’ve ever received:
Thanks for the letter and for the awful, and illuminating, enclosure [about the civilian casualties in Vietnam]. I can well understand your sense of desperation. And the “bleak mood.” And also I am glad that you wrote about it. As you say, there are no clear answers, and you can guess that I don’t have magic solutions for bleak moods: if I did I would use them on my own which are habitually pretty bleak too. But that is just part of this particular life and I don’t expect much else.
Actually, I would say one thing that probably accounts for your feelings, besides all the objective and obvious reasons, you are doubtless tired. I don’t know whether you are physically tired or not but you have certainly been pouring your emotional and psychic energy into the CPF and all that it stands for, and you have been sustained by hopes that are now giving out. Hence the reaction. Well, the first thing is that you have to go through this kind of reaction periodically, learn to expect it and cope with it when it comes, don’t do things that precipitate it, without necessity (you will always have to).
And then this: 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, as you yourself mention in passing, 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 with 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.
This country is SICK, man. It is one of the sickest things that has happened. People are fed on myths, they are stuffed up to the eyes with illusions. They CAN’T think straight. They have a modicum of good will, and some of them have a whole lot of it, but with the mental bombardment everybody lives under, it is just not possible to see straight, no matter where you are looking. The average everyday “Catlick” is probably in worse shape than a lot of others. He has in his head a few principles of faith which lend no coherence whatever to his life. No one has ever sought any coherence from him or given him the idea that he needed any. All he has been asked to do has been to measure up to a few simple notions about sexual morality (which he may or may not quite make, but anyway he knows where he stands — or falls on his face) and he has been taught that the cross and sacrifice in his life mean in practice going off to war every twenty years or so. He has done this with exemplary, unquestioning generosity, and has reaped the results: a corresponding brutalization, which is not his fault and which he thinks has something to do with being a real human being. In this whole area of war and peace, no matter what the Council may have said about it, the average layman and the average priest are all alike conditioned by this mentality. Furthermore, when it is a question of a kind of remote box score of casualties which gives meaning to life each day, they no longer think of the casualties as people — it is just a score. Also they don’t want to think of them as people, they want casualties, they want somebody to get it, because they have been brutalized and this is a fully legitimate way of indulging the brutality that has been engendered in them. It is not only for country, it is even for God.
You can be as indignant as you like about this: and it is sickening, but being indignant has its disadvantages. It gets you into the same damn-fool game. Take the myth of “getting results.” What is the driving power behind the massive stupidity in Vietnam, with its huge expense and its absurd effects? It is the obsession of the American mind with the myth of know-how, and with the capacity to be omnipotent. Once this is questioned, we will go to any lengths, ANY lengths to resolve the doubt that has thus been raised in our minds. The whole cockeyed American myth is at stake in Vietnam and what is happening to it is obvious, it is tearing itself into little shreds and the nation is half nuts in consequence. The national identity is going slowly down the drain in Vietnam and a lot of terrible things are happening in the process. We are learning how bestial and how incredible are the real components of that myth. Vietnam is the psychoanalysis of the US. I wonder if the nation can come out of it and survive. I have a hunch we might be able to. But your stresses and strains, mine, Dan Berrigan’s, all of them, are all part of this same syndrome, and it is extremely irritating and disturbing to find oneself, like it or not, involved in the national madness. The fact that you and I and our type have a special answer which runs counter to that of the majority seems at first to make us sane, but does it really? Does it save us from being part of the same damn mess? Obviously not. Theoretically we understand that, but in fact our hearts will not admit it, and we are trying to prove to ourselves that (a) we at least are sane decent people, (b) sanity and decency are such that our sanity and decency ought to influence everybody else. And there is something to this, I am not preaching a complete anomie. Yet the others think the same way about themselves.
In a word, you have said a lot of good things, you have got a lot of ideas across, it has perhaps caused some good reactions among the bad and what has it achieved in terms of the whole national picture: precious little. The CPF is not going to stop the war in Vietnam, and it is not even going to cause very many Catholics to think differently about war and peace. It is simply going to become another image among images in the minds of most Catholics, something around which are centered some vague emotional reactions, for or against. Nevertheless, you will probably, if you continue as you do, begin the laborious job of changing the national mind and opening up the national conscience. How far will you get? God alone knows. All that you and I can ever hope for in terms of visible results is that we will have perhaps contributed something to a clarification of Christian truth in this society, and as a result a few people may have got straight about some things and opened up to the grace of God and made some sense out of their lives, helping a few more to do the same. As for the big results, these are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
So 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 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. I hope we can avoid a world war: but do we deserve to? I am not thinking so much of ourselves and this country but of all the people who would be killed who never heard of New York and of the USA even, perhaps. It is a pity that they should have to pay for our stupidity and our sins.
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….
Returning to the idea of pacifism: I think the word is useless for our purposes. It does not in the least describe what CPF is trying to do, it seems to me, and only gives a false impression. To speak of pacifism today gives people an excuse for bellicism [war as a way of life]: it implies that there is an alternative. One can be a pacifist or a bellicist. But there is no alternative, and it is not a question of some ethical ideal or some cause, but as you say of the plain, basic human justice, the old natural law…
Enough of this. I wanted to answer your letter and I probably overdid the job. But it is at least a gesture, and if it is of no use it shows I would like to be of some use if I could. I will certainly keep you and Tom in my prayers.
All the best … in Christ,
I shared Merton’s letter with Tom Cornell and a few other close friends. From time to time, when the sky was turning starless black, I reread it. Twelve years later, a decade after Merton’s death, I included much of it in an essay I wrote on Merton’s struggles with peacemaking for a chapter in Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, a book edited by Gerald Twomey.  There it caught the eye of Robert Ellsberg, then managing editor of The Catholic Worker, who skillfully trimmed it in such a way that it became “Letter to a Young Activist,” the title the abbreviated version has ever since retained. In the years following, “Letter to a Young Activist” has often been reprinted and translated, even made into posters, bookmarks and greeting cards.
“Letter to a Young Activist” captures the heart of Merton’s advice to anyone in a similar burned-out state while eliminating portions that were more directed at me personally and the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship as it entered its second year. Here in italics is “Letter to a Young Activist” as published in The Catholic Worker interspersed with my own commentary:
Do not depend on the hope of results.
What a challenge that is. Any action one embarks on is undertaken with the hope of positive, tangible results. One must have hope that what you do will have an impact. But to the extent you depend on success, your capacity to persevere is undermined.
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.
Before receiving Merton’s letter it had never occurred to me that peace work is of its nature an apostolic work — quite a dignity but also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. Few if any of Christ’s Apostles died of old age. All of them 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.
It’s not easy getting used to the idea that what you are doing is probably going to crash against a stone wall. The shift from focusing not on quickly measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work one is doing requires a major shift of perception.
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 became for me one of the most important insights that I ever received from Merton: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” I know it by heart and recite it often. It sums up incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other — the relationships we build — and not only with friends but with adversaries. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and cultures being targeted by our weapons.
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.
Social movements require words and often use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place but it’s secondary. In a talk to his novices, Merton — best known for his words —once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. 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, each day having a liturgical and sacramental foundation. What he had to say helped reveal what couldn’t be said.
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.
I found these few words — “after all [personal satisfaction] is not that important” — especially helpful. It’s not important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be. Here Merton suggests what I have come to think of as a cathedral builder’s mentality, 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. By cathedral building standards, half-a-century was fast work — Notre Dame in Paris took nearly two centuries. But even in cases in which construction took less than a century, those who helped lay the foundations of a great cathedral knew they had slight chance of living to see their building roofed. Perhaps they imagined their grandchildren or great-grandchildren having 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, fear-wired 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.
Merton meant myth in the sense of a purely fictitious narrative. In my own case the problem was not so much making myself the servant of a myth (truth often comes wrapped in myth) but the servant of an ideology. Even Christianity can be flattened into an ideology — a loveless closed system of ideas, theories and concepts, every spark of paschal fire smothered in ashes.
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 — there is a reason that Christianity’s main symbol is the cross — but it may help prevent frustration and 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.
Thank you, Thomas Merton.
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 My letter is in the Thomas Merton Center archives in Louisville.
 Letter dated 21 February 1966; full text in HGL, 294-7.
 Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, edited by Gerald Twomey (NY: Paulist Press, 1978).
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This is a chapter from The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers.