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


House Finch (female) - by Charles A.E. Brandt

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


Part 2


by bruce thomas witzel


merton & war and peace

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.31.40 PM-merton quote


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.


tree - photo by thomas merton

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.” 


Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 7.39.57 PM - from Charles Brandt

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)


Roots, snow and branches  - photo by thomas merton                                                                                  Thomas Merton photo


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….”  

Anti war artwork - University of Arizona @ Tucson

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.”

  Los Alamos National Museum of Nuclear Science and History Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory


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.”


A statue at Queen of the Missions, Santa Barabara - bruce witzel photo



Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 7.22.42 PM


Meanwhile through the 60’s and into the 70’s, the Vietnam war raged on.


Living Memorial Sculpture Garden near Weed california

“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

15 thoughts on “A Spiritual Reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton – Part Two

  1. My mother-in-law encouraged me to read Merton’s books years and years ago, and I kept her books after she passed away. You’ve added some context to his work that I didn’t previously know well at all, and I think it’s time to read them again, in honor of his centenary. I’m very comfortable with the local bishop’s quote, “a truly catholic vision embraces the whole of creation, our environment, our global structures, all humankind.” That’s a very beautiful perspective. This was an inspirational read, Bruce.

    • Thanks Deb. I’m glad it’s inspired you. As I’ve recently delved more deeply into Merton’s work, there are so many hidden gems. And so much of what he wrote about half a century ago is even more relevant today. We don’t think so much of the nuclear threat any more. But we have rampant terrorism – and it comes no matter what side a person is on. Really, it’s not so different than the cold war – although with all the drones and surgical strikes, the capital punishment and holy war/s (sic), I think in ways it is worse. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going in this Merton series. I’m not sure where humanity is going! Though I’m ok with that. Merton’s given me lots to ponder about, and how to live, act and question myself in this paradoxical world of ours.

  2. Bruce, I thank you from the heart for sharing this soul-enriching spiritual reflection on Thomas Merton. Humankind has learned little since the 1960s. We continue onwards on our march to self-destruction.

    How far we have strayed from the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene!

    • In the forward to Peace in the Post Christian Era, Jim Forest writes about how much of what Merton felt alarmed about really hasn’t changed, as you pointed out as well. Oh, we don’t talk about the communists anymore – now it’s the terrorists, etc. etc. I heard on the radio recently a retired American war journalist who spoke so powerfully about Empire and our own form/s of terrorism. He’s been booed off a few stages in his times, but that doesn’t stop him to speak about the horrors of war. Now as a recently ordained minister, he still doesn’t hesitate to speak the truth against the industrial war machine and the elite that benefits.from it. Yes indeed Rosaliene, we have strayed from the teachings of Jesus – I think he’d weep.

    • The humility, honesty and even the doubt it puts forth represents for me an ‘authenticity’ of our journey and life callings. It reminds me that no-one person (especially myself) or no one organization, government, etc. has all the answers. Yet still, faith is possible. And love is real. Thank you Priscilla for sharing with me your awareness and experience of this prayer from Merton.

    • Thank you SwiitersB. The photo of the female house finch was taken by by friend Fr. Charles Brandt of Oyster River on Vancouver Island. You may have read a few of my previous posts about him. You and him have quite a bit in common. He is an avid fly fisherman and conservationist like yourself and Charles has done much work in protection and recovery of our watersheds. Your comments is appreciated, I wish you well in Oregon.

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