first two chapters of “The Root of War is Fear”

 Jonas in the belly of a paradox

Merton - Griffin portrait medIn The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton wrote: “Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[1] Paradox was a word Thomas Merton appreciated, in part because there were so many paradoxes within himself. One of these was that he belonged to a religious order with a tradition of silent withdrawal and near disappearance from the world, yet through his prolific writings millions of people became familiar with his life and convictions, his temptations and inner struggles, his humor and his epiphanies. He had a talkative vocation within the silent life. From a place of intentional isolation, he was deeply — often controversially — engaged with the outside world during the last decade of his life. It was a paradox he often wished would end in favor of silence, but it never did. Like the reluctant Jonas, who sought to evade a prophet’s role in saving Nineveh, Merton was delivered to the sinful city as if by whale.

As with the fabled blind men, each investigating a portion of an elephant, many people have a conception of Merton that is correct but incomplete. There are those for whom Merton is best known for his early writings, his autobiography and his books on prayer and spirituality. Others especially appreciate his later work, for example his exploratory essays on non-Christian religious traditions, and can be dismissive of “the early Merton.” Seeing Merton whole is no small task. Certainly there was a significant evolution in Merton’s writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s as he took on the responsibility of addressing the pressing social issues of his time while carving doors of dialogue in walls that divided major religious communities. Even so, for all these developments it is striking to note that a concern for peace runs like a red thread connecting his very earliest writing and his later work.

The horrors of the First World War provided the main reference point in the opening sentences of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, when Merton, thirty-three, was seven years into monastic life:

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.[2]

Among the microcosmic consequences of that Great War was its impact on the Merton family. It tore their hopes and plans to shreds. Owen and Ruth Merton were expatriate artists who had met in Paris and, after their marriage, made their home in Prades, a town in the French Pyrenees. Though a New Zealander, Owen Merton would have been subject to French military conscription had he remained in France. Owen’s moral objections to war were of no consequence to the French authorities — no exceptions were made for foreigners or conscientious objectors. In the summer of 1916, Owen, Ruth and their year-old son, Tom, left France for the US, settling not far from Ruth’s parents in Douglaston, Long Island.

WWI poster wake up AmericaOwen arrived in an America that still regarded the battles on the far side of the Atlantic as a strictly European event, but in April 1917 the US declared war on Germany and the following month Congress authorized military conscription. Aliens were not exempt. As required by law, Owen Merton registered for the draft on the fifth of June 1917, declaring at the time that he was both a conscientious objector and the sole support of wife and child.[3] He was never called up. Once war was declared, the vast majority of Americans, very likely including Ruth’s family, came down with a severe case of war fever. The war was, after all, packaged as a holy crusade, nothing less than “the war to end all wars.” Able-bodied men like Owen who opposed the war and refused to take part in it were widely regarded as cowards and shirkers. [graphic: WWI recruitment poster]

Even a child knows that war produces dead bodies. While ordinarily death is a playground concept for children — bang, bang, you’re dead — that was not the case for Tom Merton. In 1921, when he was six, death became something all too real when his mother died of cancer. For young Tom, death meant a gaping absence, a collapse of the most basic structures of life. Death meant abandonment. His mother had been abducted by death. A decade later came a second blow. Just two weeks before his sixteenth birthday Tom became an orphan. After having moved to England with Tom, Owen died of a brain tumor in a London hospital in January 1931. Apart from grandparents, who were an ocean away, all that was left of Tom’s immediate family was a younger brother, John Paul, still living in America with Ruth’s parents. Tom’s guardian was a London physician.

At about the time of Owen’s death, Tom Merton became an admirer of Gandhi, then visiting England, and of his nonviolent campaign against British imperial rule in India. Rarely one to be part of any majority, Tom took Gandhi’s side in a formal debate at Oakham, his boarding school, arguing that India had every right to demand the end of British colonial rule. Merton’s side in the debate was easily defeated, but for the rest of Merton’s life he was to remain an advocate of Gandhi’s form of struggle, what Gandhi called satyagraha: the nonviolent, life-protecting power that comes from seeking the conversion of opponents rather than their humiliation and destruction.

Among the formative events that added another layer of meaning to the word “death” and also brought him close to the annihilating potential of toxic ideologies occurred in the spring of 1932. Now seventeen and still a student at Oakham, Merton went for a solo holiday walk along the Rhine River. It was an excursion that happened to coincide with Hitler’s campaign for the German chancellorship. One morning, while walking down a quiet country road lined with apple orchards, Merton was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, the car’s occupants showering him with Hitler election leaflets as they sped past. His jump injured a toe that soon became too painful for him to complete the hike as planned. Back at his school and in worsening pain, a doctor found Merton’s veins were full of poisoned blood. Immediate hospitalization was needed. His brief encounter with German Nazis had nearly cost Merton his life.[4]

After Oakham, Merton did a year at Clare College, Cambridge — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend Bob Lax — then moved to his grandparents’ home on Long Island, near Manhattan, where he matriculated at Columbia. Like any university student of his day, Merton found himself in a whirlpool of radical political movements. The Great Depression had drawn millions of people to the Left. For a brief time Merton was attracted to Communism, but quickly found Marxist political ideology a dead-end street.

Merton’s search for deeper waters took a religious turn. Memories of his father’s churchless Christianity must have haunted him, as well as his own encounters with ancient churches and their remarkable mosaics when he visited Rome two years after Owen’s death. Before returning to England he had been moved to pray with tears in one of Rome’s oldest churches, Santa Sabina. Later, as a university student in New York, he was on his way to Catholic Christianity. In November 1938, Merton was baptized at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. It was the most important border crossing of his adult life. From then on, every question was to be viewed in the light of Christ.

One of the saints who most inspired Merton was Francis of Assisi, whose radical witness to Christ’s Gospel in the thirteenth century included opposition to all killing. In a declaration that resonated for Merton, Francis once explained to his bishop why the members of his community renounced ownership of property:

If we held property, armed force for protection would become necessary. For property gives rise to lawsuits and to wars which in various ways destroy all love of God and of our fellowmen. Our membership, therefore, will not hold property.[5]

Francis founded a movement not only of celibate brothers (and, with Saint Clare, of sisters) who lived in poverty, but he also created a “third order” of lay people, married and single, whose original rule forbade members to possess or use any weapons of war, in effect a vow that obliged them to be conscientious objectors. During the Fifth Crusade and at the risk of his own life, Francis himself gave an example of unarmed peacemaking, traveling to Egypt to meet with one of Christendom’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil.

While teaching at a Franciscan college, Saint Bonaventure’s, in Olean, New York, Merton took vows as a lay Franciscan. Like other third order members, Merton wore a simple scapular under his clothes as a reminder of his commitment — two chords over the shoulders attached to two small squares of brown material similar to the coarse fabric used in Franciscan robes.

Despite his strong Franciscan bent, at times even Merton felt the powerful tides that were drawing so many others to become soldiers in the war going on in Europe, including his own brother, John Paul. After seeing a film about the impact of the Blitz on London, Merton wrote in his journal:

For the first time in my life, I think, I momentarily wanted to be in the war…. Bombs are beginning to fall into my own life…. [The film] was propaganda, but good propaganda…. For the first time I imagined that maybe I belonged there, not here.[6]

What especially brought the horror of city bombing home to him was a picture of a bombed-out London clothing shop in which, when he was sixteen, he had purchased a gray herringbone tweed suit.

The industrial impersonality of modern war horrified Merton:

There is not even much hatred. If there were more hatred the thing would be healthier. But it was just filthy, this destruction…. This is just a vile combat of bombs against bricks, attempts to wipe out machines and to bury men lying in tunnels under tons of stone and rubble. It is not like a fight, it is like a disease…[7]

Even in the placid countryside surrounding Olean, Merton saw strands of connection with war:

The valley is full of oil storage tanks, and oil is for feeding bombers, and once they are fed they have to bomb something, and they generally pick on oil tanks. Wherever you have oil tanks, or factories, or railroads or any of the comforts of home and manifestations of progress, in this century, you are sure to get bombers, sooner or later. Therefore, if I don’t pretend … to understand the war, I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant.[8]

Merton’s inner wrestling with war found expression in a novel he wrote while teaching at Saint Bonaventure’s, The Journal of My Escape from the Nazis to “(published posthumously in 1969 as My Argument with the Gestapo). The story followed Merton’s imagined return from America to war-ravaged London. Though coming from America, Merton sees himself as a stateless person. “I have lived in too many countries,” he explains, “to have a nationality.” Why do you come back, he is asked. “Not to fight,” he says. He admits he has come to write. “What will you write?” “I will say that … the things I remember are destroyed, but that does not mean as much as it seems, because the destruction was already going on before, and destruction is all I remember.”

Later the question is posed: But isn’t the war Germany’s fault? “In the sense that they began fighting it, yes.” Doesn’t that mean Germany is guilty? “I don’t know the meaning of the word guilty, except in the sense that I am also guilty for the war, partly.” But is it not nations rather than persons that are guilty of war? “Nations don’t exist. They can’t be held responsible for anything. Nations are made up of people, and people are responsible for the things they do.” In that case, he is told, Hitler is the guilty one. “He might be. Only I don’t know enough about it. He might be more guilty than any other one person, but he isn’t the only person guilty of the war…. All I know is, if anything happens to the world, it is partly because of me.”

The narrator explains to an officer who is interrogating him:

You think you can identify a man by giving his date of birth and his address, his height, his eyes’ color, even his fingerprints. Such information will help you put the right tag on his body if you should run across his body somewhere full of bullets, but it doesn’t say anything about the man himself. Men become objects and not persons. Now you complain because there is a war, but war is the proper state for a world in which men are a series of numbered bodies. War is the state that now perfectly fits your philosophy of life: you deserve the war for believing the things you believe. In so far as I tend to believe those same things and act according to such lies, I am part of the complex of responsibilities for the war too. But if you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.[9]

Merton, Thomas, Exemption, 1941, p.1The question of how to respond as individuals should the US join the war was the subject of long-running conversations Merton had with such close friends as Bob Lax and Ed Rice. For Merton it was a question that had to be answered not in terms of political or ideological theory or the accidents of national identity but in terms of being a follower of Christ, who killed no one, waved no flags and blessed no wars. This led him to formulate a response — conscientious objection — that, for a Roman Catholic at that time, was unusual, to say the least. As he explained to his draft board in March 1941:

As a Franciscan Tertiary I am bound to follow a rule which is intended to help me imitate in every detail the lives of Christ and Saint Francis, who did not kill men, but went among the sick and the poor doing good. Christ told us we must love our enemies, and Saint Francis wrote in the Rule of the Tertiaries that they must love peace and heal all discord. I cannot conceive how killing a man with a flame thrower, a machine gun or a bomb is compatible with a life of Christian perfection along these lines… [first page of Merton’s letter to his draft board]

Merton wrote of his willingness to undertake non-combatant duty under certain conditions:

[I am willing to serve so long as it involves] no part in the machinery that produces the death of men. Merely being a non-combatant member of a combatant unit is not enough…. I am willing and eager to serve in any post where the work is saving lives and helping those in suffering: ambulance work, hospital work, air raid protection work, etc. I do not ask for any position that would necessarily be remote from the line of fire, or “out of danger.”[10]

The same day Merton made an exultant entry in his journal recording the relief he felt after posting his declaration to his draft board:

This has been a very remarkable day to have looked in the face. I don’t think of the contents of a day as “a day,” ordinarily; but this one has to be seen that way. To begin with, it is a day I have feared — it is the day I got all of my notions together about war, and said them briefly all at once, on a few sheets of paper, on a prepared blank and put them in the mail for the Draft Board.

… I made out my reasons for being a partial conscientious objector, for asking for noncombatant service, so not having to kill men made in the image of God when it is possible to obey the law (as I must) by serving the wounded and saving lives — or that may be a purely artificial situation: by serving the humiliation of digging latrines, which is a far greater honor to God than killing men.

The thing was that I wrote these things out without trepidation, and was amazed.[11]

Here is how Merton described his conscientious objector stand in The Seven Storey Mountain, published three years after the war ended:

[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.”[12]

Conscientious objectors have always been a rare breed. In the course of World War II, 34.5 million American men between the ages of 18 and 44 registered for the draft. Out of these millions, only 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of these, 27,000 failed to pass the physical exam and were exempted, as seems to have been the case for Bob Lax. Of those who were found physically fit, 25,000 served in non-combatant roles in the military, the form of conscientious objection for which Merton applied, thus agreeing to work for the Army Medical Corps or in anything that did not involve actual combat. Opposed to any military role, approximately 12,000 men performed alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. More than 6,000 men either chose not to cooperate with the draft outright or failed to gain recognition as conscientious objectors and went to prison.[13]

To appreciate how exceptional Merton’s choice of conscientious objection was, one must bear in mind that, right up to the period of John F. Kennedy’s election as president twenty years later, the patriotism of American Catholics was regarded as suspect by the Protestant majority. Catholics bent over backwards to make clear their gratitude for having found a home in America. One would find the slogan Pro Deo et Patria — For God and Country — over the doors of many Catholic schools. Catholics were outshining their neighbors in doing whatever was required to be recognized as “good Americans.” Merton, however, wasn’t thinking of social acclimation and acceptance or even of being seen as “a good Catholic.” Rather, he was trying to make choices that resembled those he believed Christ would make.

In 1941 Merton found himself at a vocational crossroads. One possibility was to become a fulltime staff member of Friendship House, a Catholic Worker-like house of hospitality in Harlem at which he had been volunteering. This would mean a life centered in the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and the imprisoned. The other was to become part of the monastic community of a Trappist abbey, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, which he had visited that Spring and which impressed him so profoundly that in a journal entry he described Gethsemani as the true “center of America.”[14]

A secondary attraction of a monastic vocation was that, as a monk, he would automatically be exempted from military service. His draft status had just been changed — despite too many extracted teeth, he was no longer classified as physically unfit. Nor could he reasonably expect that any draft board would be willing to recognize a Catholic as a conscientious objector, a stand that was at the time mainly associated with several small Protestant “peace churches” such as the Quakers and Mennonites.

On the 10th of December 1941, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as it happened, Merton rang the bell of the monastery’s gatehouse door over which was written the Latin words Pax Intrantibus — peace to all who enter. He was embracing a life that, in its totality, was an act of conscientious objection not just to war but to a war-driven world.Gethsemani 3

Once he was within the relatively unworldly enclosure of monastic life and out of harm’s way, one might have thought Merton’s interest in the issue of war would fade, even vanish. Not so. The hellishness of war was a topic in a number of the poems he wrote as a young monk, beginning with those collected in his first book, Thirty Poems, published by New Directions in 1944, and it remained a major topic in A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), Figures for an Apocalypse (1947) and Tears of the Blind Lions (1949).[15]

Writing his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, a project begun in 1944 at the request of his first abbot, Dom Frederick Dunne, what Merton had to say about conscientious objection was not at all what readers, especially Catholics, were used to hearing.

Just before the epilogue, the book included a poem, “To My Brother, Missing in Action,” written after John Paul Merton — his plane shot down — became a casualty of war in April 1943. One of Merton’s finest works, it is not only an expression of grief for his slain brother but a cry of anguish for all who inhabit the cruel world of battlefields:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep

My eyes are flowers for your tomb;

And if I cannot eat my bread,

My fasts shall live like willows where you died.

If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,

My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,

Lies your poor body, lost and dead?

And in what landscape of disaster

Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place

And in my sorrows lay your head,

Or rather take my life and blood

And buy yourself a better bed —

Or take my breath and take my death

And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come: they call you home.[16]

Mother dead, father dead, now his only brother killed in war… Merton was like the Ishmael of Moby Dick, a sole survivor.

Perhaps it was John Paul’s death in war that amplified the issue of war in Merton’s thoughts, even during the years when he regarded monks as people who had divorced themselves from the world and its self-inflicted wounds.

Reminders of war frequently entered the monastic enclosure. The noise and vibrations of artillery practice at nearby Fort Knox literally shook the hills of Gethsemani. In his poem “The Guns of Fort Knox” Merton meditated on

Explosions in my feet, through boards

Wars work under the floor. Wars

Dance in the foundations.

The poem concludes:

Guns, I say, this is not

The right resurrection. All day long

You punch the doors of death to wake

A slain generation. Let them lie

Still. Let them sleep on,

O Guns. Shake no more

(But leave the locks secure)

Hell’s door.[17]

Hell’s door was being made all the wider by the development of weapons of mass destruction, especially the hydrogen bomb, yet many people failed to see hell’s door for what it was. As Merton wrote to the philosopher Erich Fromm in 1955:

I feel that the blindness of men to the terrifying issue [of nuclear war] we have to face is one of the most discouraging possible signs for the future…. Fear has driven people so far into the confusion of mass-thinking that they no longer see anything except in a kind of dim dream. What a population of zombies we are! What can be expected of us?

It seems to me that the human race as a whole is on the verge of a crime that will be second to no other except the crucifixion of Christ and it will, if it happens, be very much the same crime all over again. And then, as now, religious people are involved on the guilty side. What we are about to do is “destroy” God over again in His image, the human race…. Any person who pretends to love God in this day, and has lost his sense of the value of humanity, has also lost his sense of God without knowing it. I believe that we are facing the consequences of several centuries of more and more abstract thinking, more and more unreality in our grasp of values. We have reached such a condition that now we are unable to appreciate the meaning of being alive, of being able to think, to make decisions, to love.[18]

Little by little the world, its beauty and its troubles reshaped Merton’s spiritual life. In his journals Merton records several intense experiences of God opening his eyes in a life-changing way. One of the most significant happened on 18 March 1958. On an errand that brought him to Louisville, Merton was standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers…. If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other…. [T]he gate of heaven is everywhere.[19]

This awakening marked the opening of a greater compassion within Merton. The consequences became obvious in the years that followed.

One aspect of the deeper sense of connection with the world and its people was a heightened consciousness of threats to life. He became increasingly aware that many American Christians, Catholics not least among them, were resigned to military catastrophe and were even advocates of a preemptive nuclear attack on Soviet Russia. “Better dead than Red” proclaimed a popular slogan of the period. Another was “The only good Red is a dead Red.”

In late August 1961, Merton wrote in his journal:

I have been considering the possibility of writing a kind of statement —”where I stand,” as a declaration of my position as a Christian, a writer and a priest in the present war crisis. There seems to be little I can do other than this. There is no other activity available to me…. If I can say something clear and positive it may be of some use to others as well as to myself. This statement would be for the Catholic Worker. As a moral decision, I think this might possibly be a valid step toward fulfilling my obligations as a human being...[20]


A book in a bus terminal

Merton entered my life in December 1959 just after I had graduated from the Navy Weather School and was on a two-week leave before reporting for work with a Navy unit at the headquarters of the US Weather Service near Washington, DC. Waiting at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, I noticed a carousel full of paperbacks at a newsstand and came upon a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain. The author’s name, Thomas Merton, 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 from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I bought a copy.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down book for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I 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 streetlights.

Cosmas & Damien mosaicIn The Seven Storey Mountain I discovered that Merton, when he was precisely my age, had also been on the road, in his case in Italy. He too was on a search, while having no clear idea what it was he was seeking. It was while in Rome that a mosaic icon in the apse behind the altar of one of the city’s most ancient churches, Saints Cosmas and Damian, triggered in Merton an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and the reality of Christ. He wrote:

For the first time in my whole life, I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers, and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.[21]

While Merton’s religious journey was only beginning, he had been given a first glimpse of the path he was to follow.

The Seven Storey Mountain awakened in me an interest in monastic life — I saw it as a possible vocation — and incidentally also made me think more critically about war and the implications of my being in the military.

In the months that followed, I read another autobiography, Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. Here was a young writer and journalist in the thick of New York’s bohemian subculture who, to the bewilderment if not horror of many leftist friends, found her way into the Catholic Church. Several years later she founded a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which soon gave birth to a house of hospitality for the homeless and rapidly evolved into a widespread movement that linked the works of mercy with efforts to promote a more compassionate social order. Like Merton, Day saw war as profoundly unchristian, a rejection of Christ’s example and teaching. For Dorothy, hospitality in all its forms was at the heart of Christian life. As she wrote:

The early Christians started with the works of mercy and it was this technique which converted the world. The corporal works are to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to harbor the harborless; to ransom the captive; to visit the sick; to bury the dead. The spiritual works are to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offense willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to pray for the living and the dead. Not all of these works are within the reach of all — that is understood. But that we should take part in some of them is a matter of obligation, a strict precept imposed both by the natural and Divine law.[22]

Dorothy Day Civil defense protest,Washington Square Park, 7-20-56 (Robert Lax photo)In the early fall of 1960, while still in the Navy, I began visiting the Catholic Worker at its center in lower Manhattan. It was during one of those visits that I first met and talked with Dorothy Day, who turned out to be as curious about me as I was about her. Among my surprises was the discovery that she and Merton were correspondents. I had imagined Merton was far more cut off from the outside world than was actually the case.

One letter from Merton that Dorothy shared with me soon after we met, but written by him the previous year, began with a reference to the Catholic Worker’s main peace witness in those years — its annual refusal to take shelter as required by New York State Law as an exercise in civil defense. Dorothy saw such drills (conducted between 1955 and 1961) as a dress rehearsal for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. For her, civil defense was, really, a cruel joke, as subways and basements offered protection only from conventional weapons, but the ritual had the effect of making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. Dorothy had chosen instead to sit on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall. She had been jailed several times for her act of quiet civil disobedience, until the crowds that gathered with her became so large that the war game was abandoned. But that end was still not in sight when Merton wrote:

I am deeply touched by your witness for peace. You are very right in doing it along the lines of Satyagraha [literally “truth-force,” Gandhi’s word for what Western people often call nonviolence]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you on 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 a criminal — if any of us can say that anymore. So don’t worry about whether or not in every point you are perfectly all right according to everybody’s book; you are right before God as far as you can go and you are fighting for a truth that is clear enough and important enough. What more can anybody do? … It was never more true that the world cannot see true values.[23]

I don’t suppose many people today can readily appreciate the significance of this and similar letters Merton was sending to Dorothy and others in the outside world whose work he admired. Partly thanks to Merton and Day, the Catholic peacemaker, then a rarity, was to become far more common in the years ahead and to receive support from the highest levels of the Church, as we saw with Pope Francis choosing them to spotlight in his historic address to Congress. But at that time, when the Cold War might at any moment become a nuclear war, the Catholic Worker movement was viewed with considerable suspicion for its talk of “the works of mercy versus the works of war.” It was tolerated because of its orthodoxy in all other respects and its direct, simple and unpretentious commitment to the humanity of impoverished people. New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, a reliable supporter of whatever war America was engaged in, had at times been under pressure to suppress the Catholic Worker, or at least to forbid use of the word “Catholic” in the title of its newspaper, but remarkably never did so. Perhaps he sensed that, in Dorothy Day, he had a saint in his diocese and that he had better not play the match-lighter’s part in the trial of a modern-day Joan of Arc. Maybe he just sensed, puzzling though it must have been, that the Church needed the Catholic Worker movement.

As the Sixties began, Merton was not a controversial figure. His books were available in bookshops, libraries, drugstores, newsstands, train and bus terminals as well as churches, and each bore the Imprimatur (Latin for “let it be printed,” a bishop’s certification that the book was free of theological error). Many thousands owed their faith, and millions its deepening, to the stimulus of Merton’s writings. His writings had been published in more languages than we had staff members and volunteers in our Catholic Worker house of hospitality. His books were read by the convinced and the unconvinced. His readers ranged from popes to prostitutes.

The letters from Merton that Dorothy shared with me were factors in the decision I made in April 1961 to take part, though not in uniform, in a protest of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. A week later, having found myself in very hot water with my commanding officer and the Naval Intelligence Service, I filed an application for early discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector. The request was quickly granted. In late May, at Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the Catholic Worker community in New York.

If it is hard now to fully appreciate what Merton’s letters meant to their recipients, it may be harder still to understand the apocalyptic worldview many people — Merton among them — had at the time. No one following the headlines could reasonably expect to die of old age. Many people today seem to have gotten used to living in a world heavily stocked with nuclear weapons. The fact that none have been used in warfare since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is seen as proof that deterrence works. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a time crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima is a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and their subordinates restraining themselves from pressing the nuclear button. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and made ready for use — are in fact poised for use — yet will never be used. May it be so. Yet it didn’t seem to Merton or those engaged with the Catholic Worker that human nature had changed since Hiroshima or that those who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms, a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what the nationality, could be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods failed to achieve the desired goal — or someone with a launch code gets a Doctor Strangelove itch to take “decisive action.”

Patchen Get Ready to DieA small poster tacked to my apartment wall bore a four-word message: “Get ready to die.” In 1961, when even monasteries were building fallout shelters, each time I heard New York’s sirens being tested I expected to be shredded into radioactive particles. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing in the Catholic Worker’s third-floor office and wait at the front window, gathering a final view of our battered neighborhood with its few scarred trees struggling for light and air — even here, a kind of beauty. Shortly it would all be consumed by fire. There was no need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted. We were Christians who had done our best to take Jesus at his plain words in our awkward Catholic Worker way. We believed in the resurrection and hoped in God’s mercy. Ours was a faith that seemed bizarre if not insane to many, but it gave these moments a certain tranquility, despite the sadness for this immense funeral we humans had so laboriously brought upon ourselves.

But each time the sirens ceased their doomsday howls. There was no sudden radiance brighter than a thousand suns. At such times I felt like an airline passenger setting shaking feet upon solid ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. Our lives had ended and been given back. We had in our hands another chance to free ourselves from a “security” founded upon the preparation of nuclear holocaust. Another chance for figs to grow from thistles.

In July 1961 Dorothy received a letter from Merton that accompanied a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust — “Chant to Be Used in Procession Around a Site With Furnaces.” Merton had written it during the trial of Adolf Eichmann then going on in Jerusalem. In his letter Merton described the poem as a “gruesome” work. It was written in the staccato voice of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who catalogued the many efficiencies he had introduced to the concentration camp so that its assembly line might produce its quota of dead bodies:

How we made them sleep and purified them

How we perfectly cleaned up the people and worked a big heater…

All the while I had obeyed perfectly.

In its final razor-edged sentence, the mass-murderer’s gaze turned from himself to the reader:

Don’t think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.[24]

It was thanks to the Auschwitz poem that my own correspondence with Merton had its genesis. Dorothy astonished me by handing me his letter and asking me to answer it. “Tell Father Louis [Merton’s name as a monk] we will use the poem in the upcoming [August] issue — it will serve as our response to the Eichmann trial.”

To my even greater amazement, Merton responded to my brief letter. The several paragraphs included news of how he had begun the day, August 9, anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Nagasaki:

This morning I said the Mass in Time of War. Might as well face it. [The text of the war-time mass] is a very good formulary. Nowhere in it are there promises of blessings upon the strong and the unscrupulous or the violent. Only suggestions that we shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls. It is certainly not a very belligerent Mass, and it asks no one to be struck down. But it does say that we don’t have to worry too much about the King of Babylon. Are we very sure he has his headquarters in Moscow only?[25]

Looking back, little in my experience of Dorothy Day impresses me so much as her willingness to open the door to a relationship between a young volunteer and so significant a friend. It may have been her way of encouraging my interest in a monastic vocation plus her awareness of my appreciation of Merton’s books. Also she was increasingly involving me in the production of the paper.

In late September 1961 Dorothy received Merton’s first-ever prose submission to The Catholic Worker, “The Root of War Is Fear.” The phrase was familiar. One of the Merton books I had read while still in the Navy was Seeds of Contemplation, published in 1949, which included a chapter with the same title but in content quite different. Now twelve years later, the book had been expanded and substantially revised (an additional hundred pages were added) and rechristened New Seeds of Contemplation.[26]

“The Root of War is Fear,” just four pages in the 1949 version, was now ten pages long. While retaining a fragment of the original material, the text was deeper and more developed. In it Merton stressed recognition of the human tendency to accuse the other rather than to accuse oneself, so that, failing to recognize our own co-responsibility for evils that lead toward war, we come to see war — even nuclear war — as necessary and justified. Merton wrote of the irony of the American government promoting “Pray for Peace” as a slogan (for years it was used for canceling postage stamps) while spending a “fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care” on the production of weapons of mass annihilation. “It does not even seem to enter our minds,” Merton wrote, “that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children without discrimination.” Only love, he wrote, “can exorcise the fear which is at the root of war.”

Merton asked Dorothy if this might be something suitable for use in The Catholic Worker. Dorothy handed Merton’s typescript to me, telling me to put in subheads and send it to the printer for typesetting. “Also write to Father Louis and tell him his article will be in the next issue.”

In fact the text Merton sent Dorothy included several additional paragraphs especially written for the Catholic Worker version “to situate these thoughts in the present crisis.” He wrote:

The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering.[27]

As it happened, just as we were going to press with Merton’s article, The New York Times gave front page attention to an essay, “Ethics at the Shelter Doorway” that had been published in the Jesuit magazine, America,[28] in which the theologian Father L.C. McHugh, SJ, justified just such a deadly response to improvident neighbors. McHugh argued: “If a man builds a shelter for his family, then it is the family that has the first right to use it. The right becomes empty if a misguided charity prompts a pitying householder to crowd his haven in the hour of peril, for this conduct makes sure that no one will survive.” (“No doubt,” Merton commented soon after, “the case could be made for St. Peter to kill St. Paul if there was only enough food for one of them to survive winter in a mountain cave.”)

Merton’s supplementary Catholic Worker text continued:

This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

Then came a challenge to become more than passive bystanders:

What 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? [29] 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.

Merton then addressed the question of making an appropriate response:

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. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society.

The expanded Catholic Worker version of this chapter, comments William Shannon in his anthology of Merton’s social essays, Passion for Peace, “marked the initial and definitive entry of Thomas Merton into the struggle against war.”[30] Notably, the additional text had not been vetted by Trappist censors.

DD October 1961We placed “The Root of War” essay on page one of the October issue alongside a line-drawing of Saint Francis of Assisi. The same day the issue was delivered from the printer, I sent out a press release that contrasted Merton’s essay with Father McHugh’s article in America — probably the first Catholic Worker press release issued in many a year.

In a letter to me sent soon after receiving copies of the October issue, Merton said he had now read the McHugh article, which seemed to him scandalous:

Not that men renounce the right to defend themselves, but it is a question of emphasis and viewpoint. Are we going to … fix our eyes on the lowest level of natural ethics, or are we going to be Christians and take the Gospel seriously…. Now is the chance for us to be Christians, and it may be the last chance. If we let this go, the world may be destroyed…. The big question is indeed to save the Christian faith, but if we strive to save it with bombs and nuclear submarines we are going to lose it. If we are going to save Christendom, there must be some Christendom to save, not just nominal Christianity.

While not denying that violent methods of national defense may be necessary when nonviolent methods are impractical, Merton stressed the need to carefully explore the nonviolent alternative:

[We] have a serious obligation … to investigate the meaning and feasibility of nonviolent defense not only on the individual but on the national level…. We have got to see things the way the Gospel sees them, the way the saints see them, the way the Church sees them, not just from the viewpoint of natural ethics….[31]

Merton ended his letter with a request for another twenty copies of the October Catholic Worker.

Two days later Merton made a lengthy entry in his journal describing his sense of having crossed a border:

I am perhaps at a turning point in my spiritual life: perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts — and the forgetting of fears. Walking in to a known and definite battle. May God protect me in it. The Catholic Worker sent out a press release about my article, which may have many reactions — or may have none. At any rate it appears that I am one of the few Catholic priests in the country who has come out unequivocally for a completely intransigent fight for the abolition of war, for the use of nonviolent means to settle international conflicts. Hence by implication not only against the bomb, against nuclear testing, against Polaris [nuclear-armed] submarines but against all violence. This I will inevitably have to explain in due course. Nonviolent action, not mere passivity. How I am going to explain myself and defend a definite position in a timely manner when it takes at least two months to get even a short article through the censors of the Order is a question I cannot attempt to answer.

In a way I think the position of the Order is in fact unrealistic and absurd. That at a time like this no one in the Order should seem to be concerned with the realities of the world situation in a practical way — that monks in general, even those [Benedictines] who can speak out fully — are immersed in little scholarly questions about medieval writers and texts of minor importance even to scholars, and this is in the greatest moral crisis in the history of man: this seems to me incomprehensible. Especially when it is the definite policy of the Cistercian Order to impede and obstruct every expression of concern, every opinion, in published written form, that has reference to the crisis. This seems to me extremely grave. The futility of taking the issue up and solving it is evident; I talked to Fr. Clement, the [Abbot] General’s secretary about it, and it was like talking to a wall. Total incomprehension and lack of sympathy. The General himself is more understanding and Dom James[32] too sees the point somewhat (they surprisingly released Original Child Bomb [Merton’s poem about the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] after the censors had definitively blocked it).

And the Jesuit who condoned — even apparently encouraged — the business of sitting in your fallout shelter with a machine gun to keep others out! This is the best Catholic theology has had to offer in this country, so it appears.

At least I feel clean for having stated what is certainly the true Christian position. Not that self-defense is not legitimate, but there are wider perspectives than that and we have to see them. It is not possible to solve our problems on the basis of “every man for himself” and saving your own skin by killing the first person who threatens it….

I am happy that I have turned a corner, perhaps the last corner in my life. The sense of abandon and home-going joy, love for the novices, whom I see as though dwelling in light and in God’s blessing — as we go home together. And the thought is not negative or destructive — for it is a fulfillment, and whatever happens to the world, its infinitely varied dance of epiphanies continues: or is perhaps finally transfigured and perfected forever.[33]

In its 25 November issue, America published eleven pro and con letters responding to the McHugh article. The same month a follow-up essay by Merton, “The Shelter Ethic,” was featured in The Catholic Worker. In it Merton argued that Christian responsibility involved more than building a shotgun-equipped fallout shelter:

It seems to me that at this time … instead of wasting our time in problematic ways of saving our own skin, we ought to be seeking with all our strength to act as better Christians, as men of peace, dedicated wholeheartedly to the law of love which is the law of Christ…. We are in the midst of what is perhaps the most crucial moral and spiritual crisis the human race has ever faced during its history. We are all deeply involved in this crisis, and consequently the way each individual faces the crisis has a definite bearing on the survival of the whole race…. [W]hile each individual certainly retains the right to defend his life and protect his family, we run the risk of creating a very dangerous mentality and opening the way to moral chaos if we give the impression that from here on out it is just every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost….

[L]et us get rid of this poisonous viewpoint that … one is being noble and dutiful if one is ready to shoot his neighbor. There are higher ideals we can keep in mind. Let us not forget that the supreme example of nonviolent resistance to evil is the crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which the Incarnate Son of God destroyed sin by taking the sins of the world upon Himself and dying on the Cross, while forgiving the men who were putting Him to death. Far from being an act of mere helpless passivity, as Nietzsche and other moderns claim, this was a free and willing acceptation of suffering in the most positive and active manner. The activity in this case was hidden and spiritual. It was an exercise of the supremely dynamic spiritual force of divine love.

A Christian is committed to the belief that Love and Mercy are the most powerful forces on earth. Hence every Christian is bound by his baptismal vocation to seek, as far as he can, with God’s grace, to make those forces effective in his life, to the point where they dominate all his actions. Naturally no one is bound to attain to the full perfection of charity. But a Christian who forgets that this is his goal, ceases by that fact to live and act as a genuine Christian. We must strive, then, to imitate Christ and His sacrifice, in so far as we are able. We must keep in mind His teaching that supreme love consists in laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

This means that a Christian will never simply allow himself to develop a state of mind in which, forgetting his Christian ideal, he thinks in purely selfish and pragmatic terms. Our rights certainly remain, but they do not entitle us to develop a hard-boiled, callous, selfish outlook, a “me first” attitude. This is that rugged individualism which is so unchristian and which modern movements in Catholic spirituality have so justly deplored.[34]
Root of War cover

[1] SJ, 2.

[2] The Seven Storey Mountain (SSM), 3. Pope Francis quoted from this passage in his address to both houses of the US Congress.

[3] My thanks to Anne Klejment for discovering this information.

[4] Thomas Merton, My Argument with the Gestapo (MAG), 5.

[5] Francis of Assisi – The Founder: Early Texts (vol. 2), edited by Regis J. Armstrong et al (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 41. The quotation is from The Anonymous of Perugia, Chapter 3, and The Legend of the Three Companions, Chapter 9. After the founder’s death the no-property rule was modified but the vow of voluntary poverty was never abandoned.

[6] Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton 1939-1941 (RM), entry dated 27 October 1940, 244-5.

[7] Ibid., entry dated 28 November 1940, 264.

[8] Ibid., entry dated 16 June 1940, 231-2.

[9] MAG, 160-61.

[10] The typescript is in the collection of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Room, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.

[11] RM, 316-7; entry dated 4 March 1941.

[12] SSM, 311-12.


[14] RM, journal entry dated 7 April 1941, 333.

[15] See Patrick O’Connell’s essay “Landscape of Disaster: The War Poems of Thomas Merton” in the 2006 edition of The Merton Annual.

[16] SSM, 404.

[17] The Strange Islands (SI), 21.

[18] HGL, letter dated 13 March 955, 311.

[19] Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (CGB), 140-42.

[20] Turning Toward the World (TTW), entry dated 29 August 1961, 257. A few days later, responding to a letter from Ethel Kennedy, the president’s sister-in-law, Merton expressed his “very strong objection to the resumption of testing nuclear weapons.” HGL, letter dated 4 September 1961, 443.

[21] SSM, 109.

[22] Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, February 1935;

[23] HGL, 136.

[24] Emblems of a Season of Fury (ESF), 43-47.

[25] HGL, 255.

[26] New Seeds of Contemplation (NSC).

[27] PFP, 11-13.

[28] Issue dated 30 September 1961.

[30] PFP, 11.

[31] HGL, letter dated 21 October 1961, 256-7.

[33] TTW, journal entry dated 23 October 1961, 172-3.

[34] PFP, 21-26.