I went to a public lecture last night by Paul Dekar, about Thomas Merton as a public theologian. It was great to get a sense of the many facets of this man I’ve come to know through his writings on nonviolence. Despite being a reclusive Trappist monk for most of his life, Merton had a rather colourful existence.
His parents were both artists, which led him to draw, paint and write poetry throughout his life. This despite the fact that his mother died when he was six, and his father when he was sixteen. Merton was involved in a debate about Gandhi in 1931, during the famous Roundtable Conference in London, in which he defended Gandhi’s methods and aims. This debate (despite his argument being so clearly anti-British – or seemingly so) was partly the factor that won him a scholarship to Cambridge. He left there suddenly after getting a girl pregnant.
After an attempt to enter the Franciscan order failed (he told them honestly of his past at Cambridge), he became a Trappist and, according to his friends, disappeared off the face of the earth for 14 years.
After having written many books during this time (of which he was rather proud, having become a bestselling author), he was suddenly confronted by someone who accused him of “verbology” – essentially, saying he was very articulate at saying precisely nothing. That stung him, and he never forgot it. In 1958, he subsequently experienced an “epiphany” at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, and subsequently turned from a world-denying, elitist mysticism to one that connected deeply with the needs of the world.
His life was filled with many battles with his superiors over censorship of his prolific and controversial writings, a constant source of frustration for him, yet he remained absolutely faithful to his callings as a monk.
He died in 1968 (age 53), but the circumstances of his death would be comical if it weren’t so serious. This incredibly articulate man of peace and prayer, who stirred up enormous controversy yet who led a reclusive life of contemplation, died when he turned on an electric fan. There he was, giving a talk to some Buddhists, then said, “I’ll take some questions after a short break”, went back to his room, and was electrocuted accidentally by the fan. It just seems like someone of his stature should have died on the front lines of peace march, or been assassinated like Gandhi or MLK Jr., or even died of old age, but no; he was killed by faulty wiring. Incredible.
Here are a few pearls and remarks of interest from his letters to Jim Forest:
“Technically I am not a pure pacifist in theory, though today in practice I don’t see how one can be anything since limited wars (however “just”) present an almost certain danger of nuclear war on an all-out scale. It is absolutely clear to me that we are faced with the obligation, both as human beings and as Christians, of striving in every way possible to abolish war. The magnitude of the task cannot be allowed to deter us. Even if it seems impossible, we must still attempt it. This demands of course a spirit of faith. Without the religious dimension, even pacifism and nonviolence are relatively meaningless. One cannot have nonviolence that makes sense if one does not also have faith in God. This of course complicates matters tremendously, because of the scandal that so many who claim to believe in God enlist him in their wars. God is always the first one to be drafted, and this is a universal stumbling block.” (November 29, 1961)
(in reaction to the suicide of Roger LaPorte) “I cannot accept the present spirit of the movement as it presents itself to me. It seems that there is something radically wrong somewhere, something that is unChristian, though I am not questioning anybody’s sincerity and good will, or even the objective rights and wrongs of the clearest cases. But the whole thing gives off a very different smell from the Gandhian movement, the non-violent movement in France and the nonviolence of Martin Luther King. Jim, there is something wrong here. I think there is something demonic at work in it. The suicide of a Catholic ex-seminarian (I was told) does not make sense in terms of a Christian peace movement.” (November 11, 1965)
(In response to Jim’s sense of desperation at the perceived failure of the peace movement, and frankly, it’s frighteningly relevant for today) “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…
The country is SICK, man. It is one of the sickest thing that has happened. People are fed on myths. They CAN’T think straight. They have a modicum of good will, and some of them have a whole lot of it, but with the mental bombardment everybody lives under, it is just not possible to see straight, no matter where you are looking. The average ‘Catlick’ is probably in worse shape than a lot of others. He has in his head a few principles of faith which lend no coherence whatsoever to his life. No one has ever sought any coherence from him or given him the idea that he needed any. All he has been asked to do has been to measure up to a few simple notions about sexual morality (which he may or may not quite make, but anyway he knows where he stands – or falls on his face) and he has been taught that the cross and sacrifice in his life mean in practice going off to war every twenty years or so. He has done this with exemplary, unquestioning generosity, and has reaped the results: a corresponding brutalization, which is not his fault and which he thinks has something to do with being a real human being. In this whole area of war and peace, no matter what the Council may have said about the average layman and the average priest are all alike conditioned by this mentality. Furthermore, when it is a question of a kind of remote box score of casualties which gives meaning to life each day, they no longer think of these casualties as people, it is just a score. Also they don’t want to think of them as people, they want casualties, they want someone to get it, because they have been brutalized and this is a fully legitimate way of indulging the brutality that has been engendered at them. It is not only for country, it is even for God…
So the next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness. You are using it so to speak to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” (Feb 21, 1966)