Friday, July 6, 2007

"if I am a disturbing element, that is all right."

Partial front page of the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker, which featured "The Root of War," Merton's first contribution to the pacifist magazine.

Thomas Merton’s monastic vocation hinged upon his ability to speak out against war. In confronting his “silencers”, he argued for his integrity as a monk.

He was one of the few Catholic priests to publicly call for the abolishment of war and the use of nonviolent means to settle international conflicts. His essay, “The Root of War is Fear”, appeared on the front page of the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker. He was aware that many who treasured The Seven Story Mountain would be troubled, even irate, at a line of thinking that was critical to what America was doing. On October 23, shortly after the essay was published, he wrote in his journal:

“I am perhaps at the turning point in my spiritual life, perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts – and forgetting of fears. Walking into a known and definite battle. May God protect me in it…” ("Turning Toward the World", p. 172)

Merton wrote more essays on the same theme, struggling with his order’s censors and the Trappist Abbot General, who did not think that such controversial writing was appropriate for a monk.

Catholic newspapers were also critical of Merton’s writings. An editorial in The Washington Catholic Standard in March 1962 described Merton as “an absolute pacifist” and accused him of disregarding “authoritative Catholic utterances and [making] unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament."

Even while being “silenced” by his superiors, Merton held firmly to the “rightness” of his writing, identifying the source of the disagreement as a different conception of the identity and mission of the church:

“The vitality of the church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. … The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.”

Merton felt that those silencing him regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but ...

“to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials … He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy … He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. …”

“I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right.” (Letter to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962, "Hidden Ground of Love", pp 266-268)


  1. I recall a Benedictine monk, Father Elias, who was our retreatmastter during our senior year in college. He confronted us on racial issues and our tendency to take our theology from the Pentagon. I was shaken, not only by what he said, but how some of my classmates responded. Father Elias worked in the peace movement, I heard, but eventually left the monastic life.
    As Flannery O'Connor wrote, sometimes you have to suffer more FROM the Church than because of it.

  2. Flannery O'Connor has it right. Perhaps it is like ones "family" - you have to grow THROUGH it.



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