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By the time of his death in Thailand on 10 December 1968, Thomas Merton had become the most important Catholic intellectual in the USA and a revered figure within the peace movement. Despite the fact that he was so active in corresponding with and supporting peace activists and those involved in interfaith dialogue, he was a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), and had lived as a contemplative monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for 27 years. It was from that life of work and contemplation, of which several years were spent as a hermit, that Merton influenced the politics of the USA at the turbulent time of the Vietnam War. He demonstrated the timeless possibilities of a Christian life lived out in contemplation and political action, and broadened by an experience of Asian world religions and politics.
Contemplative and writer
Thomas Merton was born in Prades in France on 31 January 1915, of a New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and an American mother, Ruth Jenkins. Both were artists. After meeting at art school in Paris, they married at St Anne's Church in the Soho area of London. Ruth died of stomach cancer when Merton was six years old, while the family was in New Zealand with Owen's parents. It is striking that once Ruth was hospitalized she never saw her children (Tom and John Paul) again – Tom learned of her fate through a letter she wrote telling him she was about to die. After some schooling in France, during the autumn of 1929 Tom was moved to Oakham, a small English public school of about 200 students, in Rutland in Leicestershire. While at Oakham his father came to visit him, but fell ill while returning to London and was discovered to have a brain tumour. He died at the Middlesex Hospital. During the visit, Merton had told his father that he liked the school, which had become a home for him. When the news of his father's death came, Merton felt alone in the world and wrote:
I sat there in the dark, unhappy room, unable to think, unable to move, with all the innumerable elements of my isolation crowding in upon me from every side: without a home, without a family, without a country, without a father, apparently without any friends, without any interior peace or confidence or light or understanding of my own – without God, too, without God, without heaven, without grace, without anything.
After completing school and a stint at Cambridge University, in 1935 he enrolled at Columbia University. During this time he converted to Catholicism, a process that he described in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, a book that has sold more than one million copies since its initial publication. His own conversion to Catholicism and to the practice of Christianity was nourished by a strong and close group of friends at Columbia, who remained close to Merton for the rest of his life. The atmosphere at Columbia was charged with the possibility of connecting academic institutions with ordinary lives, and before World War Two there were a number of active Communist students as well as a very strong anti-war movement connected to other European universities such as Oxford. Monica Furlong comments that:
like the students at Oxford who were, at the same time, vowing that in the event of war they would not fight for 'king and country', because they felt all war was wrong, the students at Columbia stoutly proclaimed in a massive demonstration in the gym that they would not fight under any circumstances.
In 1938, Merton, having completed his degree, enrolled in the graduate school of English and started work on a thesis entitled 'Nature and Art in William Blake', and began to feel that he wanted to become a university teacher. It was through reading for his thesis, particularly Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, that Merton realized that some of his naturalistic premises didn't make sense – up to then, he had given little thought to the possibility that human beings related to a natural as well as to a supernatural world in their lives. He attended a low Mass and was enchanted by the atmosphere in the congregation, and read Catholic theological books, through which he realized that unlike his childhood experience, the practice of Catholicism was deeply reflexive, to the extent that rationalism and academic discussions enriched the faith rather than impeded it. On 16 November 1938 he was baptized and received Holy Communion, accompanied by his friends from Columbia University.
By then Merton had become a very serious Catholic and his consideration of becoming a priest came through prayer, and while in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It was Dan Walsh, a lay lecturer in philosophy and one of Merton's teachers, who helped him sort out the options among religious congregations and religious orders. Walsh had been to Gethsemani for a retreat and alerted Merton to the possibilities of the spiritual life and the happiness of many who had joined a religious order. Merton's decision was to become a Franciscan, and he applied but was initially rejected. It was now the end of 1940, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor triggered a certain anxiety in Merton to try his religious vocation before being drafted into the US Army; he decided to do so at Gethsemani – the Franciscans, who had now decided to accept him into their novitiate, were kept waiting. During the previous Easter Merton had spent some days at Gethsemani and had loved the experience, particularly of simplicity, as described in his autobiography:
They were poor, they had nothing, and therefore they were free and possessed everything, and everything they touched struck off something of the fire of divinity. And they worked with their hands, silently ploughing and harrowing the earth, and sowing seed in obscurity, and reaping their small harvests to feed themselves and the other poor.
Merton wrote to the US Army requesting a postponement to his drafting, and was given a month to sort out his situation. After asking to join the monastery as soon as possible, he gave away his possessions, burnt the manuscripts of a couple of novels he had been working on and took the train to Kentucky. After a short spell at the Guest House, together with another arrival, Merton was admitted to the novitiate by the Abbot and in a moment left the outside world and became one of those aspiring to become Trappists. Merton wrote:
at the other end of the long dark hall we went into a room where three monks were sitting at typewriters, and we handed over our fountain pens and wristwatches and our loose cash to the Treasurer, and signed documents promising that if we left the monastery we would not sue the monks for back wages for hours of manual labour.
On 10 December 1941 he entered the community at the Abbey of Gethsemani, thus joining the strictest monastic order of the Catholic Church: 'the life in a Trappist monastery was self-consciously rigorous and penitential. The diet was vegetarian, with meat provided only for the elderly or the sick.' The daily prayer life was intense and was necessarily so, as already pointed to in an entry in Merton's 1941 diary written while visiting Gethsemani:
The life in this abbey is not understandable unless you begin the day with the monks, with Matins at 2 a.m.... The hours from 2 to 8 (6 hours) are all devoted to prayer, and all pretty much filled up with prayer, by the time Matins, Lauds, Prime and all the little hours (at least in Lent) are said.
Merton's choice was striking because intellectuals and writers tended to join the Benedictines, where prayer and study went together, while the Trappists stressed manual and communal farm work. However, Merton managed to feel at home outside the world that had captivated him before, and while he thought many times throughout his life about moving to another monastery, he never mentioned the possibility of not being a contemplative monk. As a result, his own search for a more meaningful monastic life evolved from that of a medieval recluse to one of a writer, always deluged with hundreds of letters and requests, and always happy to return to his hours of solitude, contemplation and study.
Contemplative writing as politics
Even as he entered the contemplative life at Gethsemani, Merton the writer and poet never quit his habit of keeping a personal diary, which had already begun while he was at school. His beginnings as an aspirant Trappist were recorded in The Sign of Jonas, a collection of his diaries from 1946 to 1952 that reflects his adjustment to community life, even to sleep in a dormitory, within the climate of the post-war USA, in which vocations increased dramatically after the personal nightmares suffered by US personnel in the campaigns of Europe and the South Pacific. During that period Merton wrote of conversations with his Lord, and his leitmotiv is eternity and his personal search for eternity. Thus, contemplation as a way of life remains a personal quest for holiness in a secluded atmosphere away from the worldly preoccupations of most Christians. Merton writes:
there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question. Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.
Later meditations and writings, starting in 1956, on more contemporary issues were summarized in the volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
Merton searched for further solitude after taking his final vows as a Cistercian monk in 1947, and his priestly ordination on Ascension Thursday in 1949. However, the Abbot asked him to become master of scholastics in 1951, in charge of those monks who were preparing for their final profession. It was a role that Merton fulfilled until 1955, when he became master of novices. By the late 1950s Merton was already unhappy about the fact that because of the service to the new monks he had little time to pray and contemplate; however, he fulfilled all the community prayer times, took part in the community manual work and prepared conferences and talks for the scholastics and the novices that clearly required lots of preparation and were mostly of publishable quality. Indeed, between 1952 and 1960 Merton wrote ten books as well as many pamphlets and essays. In his reading, study and writing on a wide variety of topics, he always asked the same intellectual question vis-à-vis his life as a contemplative monk: 'How can a contemplative monk in the twentieth century not be concerned with these issues?' These topics were numerous and his discussion of them, as the tapes of his conferences show, was inspiring; there were few monks at the time who would have dreamed of amassing such a volume of knowledge on so many subjects and achieving such clarity in their writing.
The quantity of his writing on religious, philosophical and journalistic issues was enormous, numbering thousands of items. His years as a novice master allowed him to come into contact with devout novices from many different countries. One of these was Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet and later member of the Sandinista government, who was at Gethsemani for two years but was advised to leave because of ill-health (see Chapter 2). It was the experience of being a novice master that allowed him to become more attuned to the concerns of the world, in that he listened to the experiences and aspirations of his own novices who had left the world not so long ago. However, it was his intellectual capacity for enquiry and for reading and studying that brought him into an ongoing dialogue with many religious practitioners over concerns about the practice of religion within the USA of the 1960s. This period coincided with two major events: the US involvement in Vietnam and the advent of a period of renewal by the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962–5).
The latter coincided with Merton's search for a place of his own, a hermitage in which he could live and pray, only occasionally taking meals with the rest of the Trappist community. The idea had come about by the late 1950s and coincided with the visit of a monk from Cuernavaca in Mexico, who suggested to Merton that he might leave Gethsemani and join a monastery outside the USA. Merton requested permission from his Abbot, who had to write to Rome because of the vow of stability taken by every contemplative monk, but his request was finally denied. However, the hermitage and retreat centre within the premises of Gethsemani allowed Merton independence and solitude in order to continue writing in a place where he could receive some of his visitors and where some ecumenical meetings were held. By this time he had been living temporarily outside the sleeping quarters of Gethsemani for a couple of years, and finally in August 1965 he moved to the newly furnished hermitage, with the official permission of the abbey's private council. After his first five days of complete solitude Merton wrote: Over and over again I see that this life is what I have always hoped it would be and always sought. A life of peace, silence, purpose, meaning.'
Merton enjoyed his solitude at the hermitage and was able to structure his reading and writing around the praying of the hours and other hours of contemplation during the day. A keen photographer and lover of nature, he describes in his diaries his awe for the changes of the seasons, birds, storms, snow and so on. Somehow, Merton enjoyed the possibility of going out for a meal with some of his visitors, and was able to cope with successive minor ailments and back problems that involved hospital treatment. It is surprising that despite the changes in his monastic routine, Merton remained ever the contemplative, assessing every event in terms of God's involvement with his own person and with the world around. His acquired freedom brought a short emotional involvement with a young woman, but even through that crisis Merton continued to view his contemplative way of life as the one where he was happiest, even when he longed for the possibility of living it in another monastery, a quieter one with new surroundings. A year after he had moved to the hermitage Merton made a written promise, witnessed by the Abbot, in which he stated that after a year's probation he promised to spend the rest of his life in solitude 'in so far as my health may permit'.
However, Merton's influence on his contemporary political situation was enormous. He was well known through his writings, and as a Catholic best-selling author had an influence on many other Catholics within the USA. By the 1960s, and with the conflict in Vietnam at heart, Merton exchanged correspondence with the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and others who objected to war and who were exercising peaceful protest against the drafting of young Americans into the US military (see Chapter 3). Daniel Berrigan visited Merton at Gethsemani in 1962, and years later Merton wrote to friends about his middle way between the shock techniques of the Berrigan brothers (Daniel and Philip) and the views of those who supported war as a Christian duty to the state, and some Catholic bishops who spoke of the Vietnam War as an act of Christian love. His position regarding war and violence was very clear, as expressed in midsummer 1968 in a circular letter to friends:
I am against war, against violence, against violent revolution, for peaceful settlement of differences, for non-violent but nevertheless radical change. Change is needed, and violence will not really change anything: at most it will only transfer power from one set of bull-headed authorities to another ...
However, he objected to the refusal to grant permission for the Berrigan brothers' book against the war to be published. Over the years Merton became quite fond of Daniel Berrigan and his stand for gospel values, while Berrigan in turn considered him a teacher and a friend. Merton's civil position vis-à-vis the draft was that of someone who had escaped conscription because of his monastic life; he was not prepared to confront the military authorities in the manner that the Berrigan brothers had, by burning draft cards and spilling blood on files after breaking into federal administrative centres for conscription. But no other contemplative in the history of the USA has had more influence on political activity than Merton, even though some American Catholics distrusted his ideas on the Vietnam War and, further, started to distrust his growing engagement with the religious traditions of Asia, particularly Buddhism.
Excerpted from CONTEMPLATING GOD, CHANGING THE WORLD by Mario I. Aguilar. Copyright © 2008 by Mario I. Aguilar. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Introduction: issues in contemplation and politics today................... ix
1 Thomas Merton.................... 1
2 Ernesto Cardenal.................... 14
3 Daniel Berrigan SJ.................... 28
4 Sheila Cassidy.................... 41
5 Archbishop Desmond Tutu.................... 58
6 Mother Teresa of Calcutta.................... 74
7 The body and contemplation.................... 88
8 The Eucharist and politics.................... 105
9 Lay contemplatives and voters: a daily pilgrimage.................... 118