‘Lord, That I Might See’

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

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As Franz Jägerstätter figured so significantly in the retreat, I attach an essay on Jägerstätter by Merton that was written about the same time. It was published in England, first in Peace News 5 (January 1965) and then in Pax Bulletin, issue 97, dated May 1965. In a journal entry dated 12 November 1964, Merton notes that he was reading page proofs of Zahn’s book on  Jägerstätter.

An Enemy of the State

By Thomas Merton

On August 9, 1943, the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded by the German military authorities as an “enemy of the state” because he had repeatedly refused to take the military oath and serve in what he declared to be an “unjust war.” His story has a very special importance at a time when the Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council, is confronting the moral problem of nuclear weaponry. This Austrian peasant was not only simultaneously a Catholic and a conscientious objector, but he was a fervent Catholic, so fervent that some who knew him believe him to have been a saint. His lucid and uncompromising refusal to fight for Germany in the Second World War was the direct outcome of his religious conversion. It was the political implementation of his desire to be a perfect Christian.

Franz Jägerstätter surrendered his life rather than take the lives of others in what he believed to be an “unjust war.” He clung to this belief in the face of every possible objection not only on the part of the army and the state, but also from his fellow Catholics, the Catholic clergy and of course his own family. He had to meet practically every “Christian” argument that is advanced in favor of war. He was treated as a rebel, disobedient to lawful authority, a traitor to his country. He was accused of being selfish, self-willed, not considering his family, neglecting his duty to his children.

His Austrian Catholic friends understood that he was unwilling to fight for Hitler’s Germany, but yet they argued that the war was justified because they hoped it would lead to the destruction of Bolshevism and therefore to the preservation of “European Christianity.” He was therefore refusing to defend his faith. He was also told that he was not sufficiently informed to judge whether or not the war was just. That he had an obligation to submit to the “higher wisdom” of the state. The government and the Fuehrer know best. Thousands of Catholics, including many priests, were serving in the armies, and therefore he should not try to be “more Catholic than the Church.”

He was even reminded that the bishops had not protested against this war, and in fact not only his pastor but even his bishop tried to persuade him to give up his resistance because it was “futile.” One priest represented to him that he would have innumerable opportunities to practice Christian virtue and exercise an “apostolate of good example” in the armed forces. All these are very familiar arguments frequently met with in our present situation, and they are still assumed to be so conclusive that few Catholics dare to risk the disapproval they would incur by conscientious objection and dissent.

Jägerstätter’s fellow villagers thought his refusal was evidence of fanaticism due to his religious conversion at the time of his marriage in 1936, followed by an “excess of Bible reading.” His conscientious objection is still not fully understood in his native village, though on the local war memorial his name has been added to those of the villagers who were killed in action.

The peasant refused to give in to any of these arguments, and replied to them with all simplicity:

I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war. . . . I cannot turn the responsibility for my actions over to the Führer. . . . Does anyone really think that this massive blood-letting can save European Christianity or bring it to a new flowering? . . . Is it not more Christian to offer oneself as a victim right away rather than first have to murder others who certainly have a right to live and want to live—just to prolong one’s own life a little while?

When reminded that most Catholics had gone to war for Hitler without any such qualms of conscience, he replied that they obviously “had not received the grace” to see things as they were. When told that the bishops themselves expressed no such objections he repeated that “they had not received the grace” either.

Jägerstätter’s refusal to fight for Hitler was not based on a personal repugnance to fighting in any form. As a matter of fact Jägerstätter was, by temperament, something of a fighter. In his wilder youthful days he had participated rather prominently in the inter-village gang wars. He had also undergone preliminary military training without protest, though his experience at that time had convinced him that army life presented a danger to morals.

Shortly after Hitler took over Austria in 1938, Jägerstätter had a dream in which he saw a splendid and shining express train coming round a mountain, and thousands of people running to get aboard. “No one could prevent them from getting on the train.” While he was looking at this he heard a voice saying: “This train is going to hell.” When he woke up he spontaneously associated the “train” with Nazism. His objection to military service was, then, the fruit of a particular religious interpretation of contemporary political events. His refusal to fight was not only a private matter of conscience: it also expressed a deep intuition concerning the historical predicament of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. This intuition was articulated in several long and very impressive meditations or “commentaries” in which he says:

The situation in which we Christians of Germany find ourselves today is much more bewildering than that faced by the Christians of the early centuries at the time of their bloodiest persecution. . . . We are not dealing with a small matter, but the great (apocalyptic) life and death struggle has already begun. Yet in the midst of it there are many who still go on living their lives as though nothing had changed. . . . That we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something that I cannot and never will believe. . . . Many actually believe quite simply that things have to be the way they are. If this should happen to mean that they are obliged to commit injustice, then they believe that others are responsible. . . . I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth even though it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded him by his secular ruler. We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead spiritual weapons—and the foremost of these is prayer.

The witness of this Austrian peasant is in striking contrast to the career of another man who lived and worked for a time in the nearby city of Linz: Adolf Eichmann.

The American sociologist Gordon Zahn, who is also a Catholic and a pacifist, has written an absorbing, objective, fully documented life of Jägerstätter, in which he studies with great care not only the motives and actions of the man himself, but the reactions and recollections of scores of people who knew him, from his family and neighbors to fellow prisoners and prison chaplains. One of the most striking things about the story is that repeated attempts were made to save the peasant-objector’s life not only by his friends, by priests, by his attorney but even by his military judges (he was not in the hands of the SS).

Jägerstätter could have escaped execution if he had accepted noncombatant service in the medical corps, but he felt that even this would be a compromise, because his objection was not only to killing other men but to the act of saving his own life by an implicit admission that the Nazis were a legitimate regime carrying on a just war. A few minutes before his execution Jäggerstätter still calmly refused to sign a document that would have saved him. The chaplain who was present, and who had tried like everyone else to persuade the prisoner to save himself, declared that Jägerstätter “lived as a saint and died as a hero.”

It is important to observe that though the Catholic villagers of his native St. Radegund still tend to regard Jäggerstätter as an extremist and a fanatic, or even as slightly touched in the head, the priests who knew him and others who have studied him have begun to admit the seriousness and supernatural impact of his heroic self-sacrifice. There are some who do not hesitate to compare his decision with that of Thomas More.

One of the prison chaplains who knew him said: “Not for an instant did I ever entertain the notion that Jägerstätter was ‘fanatic’ or even possibly mentally deranged. He did not give the slightest impression of being so.” And a French cellmate said of him that he was “one of the heroes of our time, a fighter to the death for faith, peace and justice.”

Finally, it is interesting to read the very reserved judgment of the bishop who, when consulted by Jägerstätter about this moral problem, urged him to renounce his “scruples” and let himself be inducted into the army.

“I am aware of the “consistency” of his conclusions and respect them—especially in their intention. At that time I could see that the man thirsted after martyrdom and for the expiation of sin, and I told him that he was permitted to choose that path only if he knew he had been called to it through some special revelation originating from above and not in himself. He agreed with this. For this reason Jäggerstätter represents a completely exceptional case, one more to be marveled at than copied.”

The story of the Austrian peasant as told by Gordon Zahn is plainly that of a martyr, and of a Christian who followed a path of virtue with a dedication that cannot be fully accounted for by human motivation alone. In other words, it would seem that already in this biography one might find plausible evidence of what the Catholic Church regards as sanctity. But the Bishop of Linz, in hinting at the possibility of a special calling that might have made Jägerstätter an “exceptional case,” does not mean even implicitly to approve the thesis that the man was a saint, still less a model to be imitated. In other words the bishop, while admitting the remote possibility of Catholic heroism in a conscientious objector, is not admitting that such heroism should be regarded as either normal or imitable.

The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 79) recognized, at least implicitly, the right of a Catholic to refuse on grounds of conscience to bear arms. It did not propose conscientious objection as a sweeping obligation. Nevertheless it clearly declared that no one could escape the obligation to refuse obedience to criminal orders issued by the state or the military command. The example of genocide was given. In view of the fact that total war tends more and more in fact to be genocidal, the Council’s declaration obviously bears above all on war.

The Bishop of Linz, however, did not propose conscientious objection as a rational and Christian option. For him, the true heroes remain “those exemplary young Catholic men, seminarians, priests and heads of families who fought and died in heroic fulfillment of duty and in the firm conviction that they were fulfilling the will of God at their post. . . .”

It is still quite possible that even today after the Council and in an era of new war technology and new threats of global destruction, when the most urgent single problem facing modern man is the proliferation of atomic and nuclear weaponry, many Catholic bishops will continue to agree with this one. It is true, they admit that there is such a thing as an erroneous conscience which is to be followed provided it is “invincible.” “All respect is due to the innocently erroneous conscience,” says the Bishop of Linz, “it will have its reward from God.”

Of whom is he speaking? Of the Catholic young men, the priests and the seminarians who died in Hitler’s armies “in the firm conviction that they were fulfilling the will of God”? No. These, he says, were men (and the word is underlined) acting in the light of “a clear and correct conscience.” Jägerstätter was “in error” but also “in good faith.”

Certainly the bishop is entitled to his opinion: but the question of whose conscience was erroneous and whose was correct remains one that will ultimately be settled by God, not man. Meanwhile there is another question: the responsibility of those who help men to form their conscience—or fail to do so. And here, too, the possibility of firm convictions that are “innocently erroneous” gives food for some rather apocalyptic thought.

The real question raised by the Jägerstätter story is not merely that of the individual Catholic’s right to conscientious objection (admitted in practice even by those who completely disagreed with Jägerstätter) but the question of the Church’s own mission of protest and prophecy in the gravest spiritual crisis man has ever known.

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