This week’s reflection from the Merton Institute
deals with Merton’s support for Christian Peace groups:
"It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary. But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small and feeble instruments. And now above all when everything is so utterly complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.
[T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive deadening of conscience.
[I] rely very much on your help and friendship. Send me anything you think will be of service to the cause of peace, and pray that in all things I may act wisely."
Thomas Merton. "Letter to Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayer." The Hidden Ground of Love. Letters, Volume 1. William H. Shannon. editor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985: 325-326
The only Catholic Peace group in the US that I know of is Pax Christi
. I have been a member of that organization for several years, and am often bemused that it is not better known amongst the Catholic mainstream.
Obviously, Merton was very much in support of organized Peace Movements to active and visibly resist war, the expansion of weaponry, and social injustices. But he had to weigh just how much, as a monk and hermit, he could be involved without sacrificing the contemplative insight that he could bring to the movement.
In times of confusion he felt that the monk, in isolating himself in prayer was a tempting but wrong proposition:
“Sometimes I wish it were possible to simply be the kind of hermit who is so cut off that he knows nothing that goes on, but that is not right either …” (November 11, 1965, Dancing in the Water of Life)
Other times he wondered if the monastery were not an escape from engaging and responding to the “mystery of our times”:
"I am continually coming face to face with the fact that I have lost perspective here, including religious perspective, and that to some extent we monks are out of touch with the real (religious) mystery of our times." (Witness to Freedom)
Merton continued to balance this tension by faithfully following his vocation to solitude ("My place is in these woods!"), while writing powerfully prophetic essays that have become the foundation of the American peace movement.
More than any of Merton’s friends, Dan Berrigan gave expression to the active side of contemplativeness. Merton trusted and admired and supported everything that Dan did – his spiritual commitment, his prison terms, his exiles. Dan Berrigan is now 86 years old. I recently came across something that his brother, Jerry, said more than 10 years ago about Dan. It seems to capture much of the sentiment of the American peace movement these days:
"Dan Berrigan. Who is this post-modern man, this priest-poet? As our mother would put it, “Dan’s not easy to describe, not easy to pin down!” It can be said though, that four decades or so ago, he glanced askance at the new superpower, the American empire. He was becoming skeptical of its official treatment of people elsewhere in the world. What he learned of the U.S. government and its policies led him to reject its PR, its blandishments. Eventually, he became and was to remain a resister of the White House, the Congress, and the Pentagon, places he considered world forces of lawlessness and disorder.
During these years Dan has, little by little, grown quietly subdued. In contrast to his earlier vocal and vociferous denouncings, he’s become gradually aware of the
deadly scope and tenacity of the forces he opposes. As one Catholic Worker put it, “Evil in the U.S. is riding high in the stirrups”! Dan’s recognition of this has come to him through prayer, prison, and exile and has led him to develop a posture of firm but gentle wariness mixed with detachment. Teaching and lecturing he’s come by a style of understatement. He’s learned. “I, we, concerned and caring though we are, can’t do it overnight. Even together we’ll not be able to reverse the duplicity and violence endemic to U.S. government and society today. If indeed the turnabout we work and pray for is ever to begin, it won’t happen quickly, it won’t happen even during our lifetime. All we can do is try to be faithful; all we can do is to keep on doing.”
(from Apostle of Peace, Essay in honor of Daniel Berrigan)