A Spiritual Reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton – Part Two
“I know the birds in fact very well, for there are exactly fifteen pairs of birds living in the immediate area of my cabin and I share this particular place with them: we form an ecological balance.”
Thomas Merton – Dancing in the Water of Life
Charles Brandt photo
In regards to my Catholic upbringing I previously wrote of being a faithful non-conformist. More humbly and accurately, I am a doubting Thomas.
I also wrote – my spirituality is interfaith to its core, grounded in the roots of all world religion. Upon reflection I realize this is overstated – I barely know any religion other than Christianity. And to some degree, Buddhism.
A local bishop once said that “a truly catholic vision embraces the whole of creation, our environment, our global structures, all humankind.” With this I agree.
Within this series I am using numerous quotes and references from the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. I do not mean to infer that these expressions of his spirituality are exact representations of my own. Nonetheless, his faith and witness has helped form who I am and continues to move me.
A spiritual reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton
by bruce thomas witzel
In the conclusion of Part One I refer to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the nuclear weapons tests of the early 60’s. Both gave rise to the environmental and peace movements.
During those times Thomas Merton was living his vows in quiet solitude at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he also acted as the resident forester.
Thomas Merton photo
Merton’s active Christian witness on contemporary world issues like ecology, war and peace was often evident in his correspondence and writings.
On December 11, 1962 while he waited to receive a copy of Silent Spring, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal:
“Someone will say: “You worry about birds. Why not worry about people?” I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.”
And on the next page:
“… The deep forest … the great birds Isaias and Jeremias sing. When I am most sickened by the things that are done by the country that surrounds this place I will take out the prophets and sing them in loud Latin across the hills and send their fiery words sailing south over the mountains to the place where they split atoms for the bombs in Tennessee.”
(from Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage)
In Merton’s 1962 book New Seeds of Contemplation is an essay entitled The Root of War is Fear :
“… Consider the fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care which goes into the production of weapons… Contrast all this with the pitiful little gesture “pray for peace” piously cancelling out our four–cent stamps. Think, too, of the disproportion between our piety and the enormous act of murderous destruction… It does not seem to even enter into our minds 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 planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination….”
1962 was the height of the cold war. Talk of peace was dirty talk – or worse, seeing red. In the spring of 1962 Merton finished writing Peace in the Post Christian Era. This book was banned by the Superior General of his order, Dom Gabriel Sortais. Merton was also prohibited from any further publishing about war and peace. However Merton’s own abbot, Dom James Fox, decided the ban was only for wide spread commercial production and hence six hundred mimeographed copies were in distribution by the end of 1962. The book was published officially in 2004.
Although the title Peace in the Post Christian Era seems startling Merton explains:
“Whether we like it or not, we have to admit we are already living in a post-Christian world, that is to say a world in which Christian ideals and attitudes are relegated more and more to the minority… It is frightening to realize that the facade of Christianity which still generally survives has perhaps little or nothing behind it, and that once what was called “Christian society” is more purely and simply a materialistic neo-paganism with a Christian veneer.”
And this, from the chapter entitled Can We Choose Peace?
“I wish to insist above all of one fundamental truth: that all nuclear war, and indeed massive destruction of cities, populations, nations and cultures by any means whatever is a most serious crime which is forbidden to us not only by Christian ethics but by every sane and serious moral code.”
The mimeographed copies of Peace in the Post Christian Era had an impact during those turbulent times. President Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, received a copy. So too did Cardinal Montini in Milan, later to become Pope Paul VI.
Later in 1963, Pope John XXIII published the encyclical Peace on Earth which widely condemned the arms race and also called for legal protection of conscientious objectors to military service. Much of what Thomas Merton had written about was echoed by John.
In another journal entry Merton wrote:
“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of and protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world with it. By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socioeconomic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace.”
Meanwhile through the 60’s and into the 70’s, the Vietnam war raged on.
“When you are led by God into the darkness where contemplation is found, you are not able to rest in the false sweetness of your own will. The fake interior satisfaction of self complacency and absolute confidence in you own judgement will never be able to deceive you entirely: it will make you slightly sick and you will be forced by a vague sense on interior nausea to gash yourself open and let the poison out.”
Thomas Merton (1915 –1968)
End of Part Two