Monastic Resistance and Protest

Some of my favorite things to note about Thomas Merton come to mind from this list of signposts in Thomas Merton’s life of monastic resistance and protest, as pieced together by author Gordon Oyer:

1915 Jan 31 Birth of Merton

ca 1930 Defense of Gandhi in British prep school arguments

1939 May Conversion to Catholicism

1941 Mar Registration for WWII draft as non-combatant

1941 Dec 10 Entry into Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani

1948 Oct Publication of best-selling spiritual biography, The Seven Storey Mountain

1949 May Ordination as priest

1958 Jan 16 First journal entry indicating that Merton is reading the letters of Gandhi

1958 Mar 18 Epiphany at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville; Merton records in journal:

“Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream – the dream of my separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different.  … I am still a member of the human race – and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!”

1959 March Begins expansive legacy of interfaith correspondence with letter to Zen master D. T. Suzuki

1960 Correspondence with Louis Massignon, French mystic scholar of Islam, then protesting France’s treatment of Algerians in Algerian War for independence.

“[Massignon] has been writing about all the causes in which he is interested and I am going to try to do a little praying and fasting in union with him … when there is to be a demonstration outside Vincennes prison. This is one way in which I can legitimately unite myself to the [testimony] and work of my brothers outside the monastery.” [Merton to Jean Danielou, 1960 Apr 12]

“I have got quite close to [Massignon] and his mystery of suffering  Islam, its flint-faced rejection and mad sincerity. I want to understand all the people who suffer and their beliefs and sorrows.” [Merton to Jacques Maritain, 1960 Aug 17]

“I want to say how deeply moved I am at this idea of Louis Massignon’s that salvation is coming from the most afflicted and despised. This of course is the only idea that makes any sense in our time. … I am in complete solidarity with you and Louis Massignon on this point and I want to badly go ahead as god may permit, in somewhat the same direction, but over here [in the US]. [Merton to Herbert Mason, 1960 Sep 9]

1960 Fall Merton publishes “Theology of Creativity” in The American Benedictine Review.

1961 Jan Publication of “Original Child Bomb,” Merton’s first explicitly political poem, pertaining to the development and use of the first US atomic bomb

1961 Aug 29 Merton first records need to speak out against war:

“I have been considering the possibility of writing a kind of statement—‘Where I stand,’ as a declaration of my position as a Christian, a writer, and a Priest in the present war crisis. … This statement could be for the Catholic Worker.” [journal entry]

1961 Oct Publication in The Catholic Worker of “The Root of War is Fear.” Which includes critique of US nuclear policy and generates controversy in Catholic/monastic movement; friendship with Jim Forest begins

1961 Oct 30 Merton expresses opposition to war as a priority in his writing:

“Convinced again I must set everything aside to work for the abolition of war. Primarily of course by prayer. I remain a contemplative, but as for writing, contacts, letter, that kind of effort: here it seems to me everything should yield first place to the struggle against war. This means first of all getting in contact with the others most concerned. The Pax Movement in England especially, Deepening contact with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Catholic Worker.” [journal entry]

1962 Oct Writing/distribution of Cold War Letters—correspondence to diverse parties discussing the cold war and opposition to US stance on nuclear weapons

1961 Nov Correspondence/friendship with Daniel Berrigan begins

1962 Jan Censorship from Trappist Order preventing publication on matters of war/peace, including denial of publication of Peace in the Post-Christian Era

1963 Aug Publishes preface to Japanese edition of Seven Storey Mountain:

“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him. By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political rituals, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. But it is true, nevertheless, that the faith in which I believe is also invoked by many who believe in war, believe in racial injustices, believe in self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny. My life must then, be a protest against these also, and perhaps against these most of all.”

1963 Nov Publication of “Letters to a White Liberal” on racism and civil rights

1964 Oct Receives permission to sleep overnight at hermitage

1964 Fall Catholic Peace Fellowship formally established, with Merton listed as sponsor

1964 Nov Peacemaker retreat on “Spiritual Roots of Protest” attended by 13 peace and civil rights activists. From Merton preparation notes:

“The real root – a) identification with the underprivileged; b) dedication to their ‘universe’ as ‘epiphany’?; c) as intercessory for us? d) realitiy in this belief, in suffering, in refusal of privilege and protest against the arrogance and stupidity of the privileged—true hope in spiritual privilege of the poor.

“Inadequate roots – The ‘official policy’ of any church or party. The problem—we think that our protest will be meaningless unless we are clearly identified with this or that group – servility to orthodoxy – as in liberal ideas, etc.”

1965 Aug Ends role as novice master and permanently moves to hermitage

1965 Nov 6 Tom Cornell, CPF staff, publically burns draft card

1965 Nov 9 Self-identified Catholic Worker Roger LaPorte self-immolates in front of United Nations building; Merton withdraws as CPF sponsor, then changes mind after correspondence with Forest, Berrigan, and Dorothy Day. Merton processes his position in journal the following month:

“Yet there is the problem of the climate of pseudo-charismatic action in politics now. Reason is irrelevant, what one must do is follow this or that movement which incarnates “the Spirit.” Not to listen to the consensus, not to reverberate properly, is to be relegated to outer darkness. This kind of irrationality ends in wild symbolic action and immolations. That is why I want none of it, and will be very circumspect about listening to prophets or wanting to be one.” [1965 Dec 2]

“I must be resolutely non-political, provided I am ready to speak out when needed.  … [Sociologist Jacques Ellul] is basically right in attacking the modern superstition that “what has no political value has no value at all” … that the deepest communion of man with man is in political dedication.” [1965 Dec 5]

“Creative Protest. … Spirit of response and dialogue. Reaction is not response. (reaction to objects – response to persons.) Response awakens dormant truth in the other, perhaps a truth of which he has despaired. Response awakens hope in the other, not mistrust. Hope in the validity of the alternatives we offer. … where it is clear that the ‘witness’ is creating only hatred and mistrust, then it is failing. … Need for distance, for the development of a new unexplored consciousness, which has nothing to do with the strategies of active movements and the proving of an activist conscience. Direct and militant participation is supremely ambiguous. Maybe if I am involved in agony of my choice the ambiguity will be fruitful. … My need for interior freedom is now urgent. … I must try to … renounce myself by renouncing “my” answers and by restraining the urge to answer, to reply – in order that I may silently respond, or obey. In this kind of obedience there is never a full understanding of what one has to do – this does not become clear until the work has been done.” [undated, ca 1965 Dec 10]

1965 “end” Merton journals aspects of internal tension of “listening” to both inner voice and friends:

“If everything centers on my obligation to respond to God’s call to solitude, this does not mean simply putting everything out of my mind and living as if only God and I existed. This is impossible anyway. It means rather learning from what contacts and conflicts I have, how deep a solitude is required of me. This means now the difficult realization that I have relied too much on the support and approval of others – and yet I do need others. I must now painfully rectify this. That is to say – there is a sense in which some of god’s answers must come from others, even from those with whom I disagree, even from those who do not understand my life. Yet it would be disastrous to merely placate these people – the mere willingness to do so would make me deaf to whatever real message they might have. To do this job rightly is beyond my power. Prayer is all I have left – and patient, humble (if possible) obedience to God’s will. One thing is certain – I do not possess my answers ready at hand in myself. (It almost seems an axiom that a solitary should be one who has his own answers…) But I cannot simply seek them from others, either.  The problem is in learning to go for some time, perhaps for long periods – with no answer!!” [journal, undated “end of year” entries]

1966 winter Merton publishes statement on “Peace and Protest” [he references writing it in his “end of year” 1965 journal]:

“The important thing about protest is not so much the short-range possibility of changing the direction of policies, but the longer range aim of helping everyone gain an entirely new attitude…. There is considerable danger in the ambiguity of protests that seek mainly to capture the attention of the press, to gain publicity for a cause, and that are more concerned with their impact upon the pubic than with the meaning of that impact. Such dissent tends to be at once dramatic and superficial. It may cause a slight commotion, but in a week everything is forgotten—some new shock has occurred in some other area. What is needed is a constructive, consistent, and clear dissent that recalls people to their senses, makes them think deeply, plants in them a seed of change, and awakens in them the profound seed for truth, reason and peace which is implanted in man’s nature.”

1966-1967 Correspondence with Catholic feminist/activist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, who challenges his role as monk and encourages him to leave monastery for active/activist life; Merton articulates rationale for remaining

“I honestly believe that this (woods) is the right place for me in so far as it is the right battleground. It is a sort of guerilla-outpost type of thing if you like. But from my experience I would be leading a less honest more faked life if I were back in the cities. … I am not by any means turning my back on other people; I am as open as the situation … permits and want to make this more open as time goes on. Lots of people would like me to get out and join them in this or that, but I just don’t see that I could do it without getting into some absurd role and having to act a part or justify some nonsense or other that I don’t really believe in. … This is the kind of place where I am reduced to my nothingness and have to rely on God. Outside I would be much more able to depend on talk.” [1967 Feb 14]

“One of the things that I love about my life, and therefore, one of the reasons why I would not change it for anything, is the fact that I live in the woods and according to a tempo of sun and moon and season in which it is natural and easy and possible to walk in God’s light, so to speak, and through his creation… Monks are, and I am, in my own mind, the remnant of desperate conservationists. You ought to know what hundreds of pine saplings I have planted…only to have them bulldozed by some ass a year later. In a word, to my mind, the monk is one of those who not only saves the world in the theological sense, but saves it literally, protecting it against the destructiveness of the rampaging city of greed, war, etc. … I refuse in practice to accept any theory or method of contemplation that simply divides the soul against body, interior against exterior, and then tries to transcend itself by pushing creatures out into the dark.” [1967 Mar 9]

1967 Oct 10 Merton letter to Dan Berrigan on protest and the peace movement

“In my opinion the job of the Christian is to try to give an example of sanity, independence, human integrity, good sense, as well as Christian love and wisdom, against all establishments and all mass movements and all current fashions which are merely mindless and hysterical. But of course are they? And do we get hung up in merely futile moral posturing? Well, somewhere we have to choose. The most exciting and popular thing at the moment is not necessarily the best choice.”

1967 Oct 27 Baltimore draft board office raid by Phil Berrigan and 3 others; blood poured on draft files

1968 Feb 19 Merton writes letter of support to Louisville draft board for conscientious objection of Joseph Mulloy:

“Doing my simple duty as a priest, I have given him encouragement and support in his fight for his right [to conscientious objection]. I would like to make it clear that such support is a religious matter and is not to be construed as an illegal act, nor is it political. It is essential for the preservation of American democratic values that the rights of conscience be respected even, indeed especially, in matters involving violence and war.”

1968 May 17 Catonsville draft board raid by Dan and Phil Berrigan and 7 others; burned records with homemade Napalm

1968 May 24 Phil Berrigan sentenced to six years in jail for Baltimore draft board action. Merton records thoughts in journal:

“Phil Berrigan has been sentenced to 6 years in prison for pouring blood in the draft files in Baltimore and will also be tried with Dan for burning other draft files. Six years! It is a bit of a shock to find one’s friends so concretely and tangibly on the outs with society. In a way, both Phil and Dan are saying openly and plainly what all of us know in our hearts: that this is a totalitarian society in which freedom is pure illusion. Their way of saying it is a bit blunt, and a lot of people are so dazed by the statement that they don’t grasp it at all. Those of us who do grasp it are, to say the least, sobered. If in fact I basically agree with them, then how long will I myself be out of jail? I suppose I can say “as long as I don’t make a special effort to get in”—which is what they did. All I can say is that I haven’t deliberately broken any laws. But one of these days I may find myself in a position where I will have to.” [1968 May 28]

1968 Sep Merton publishes statement, “Nonviolence Does Not…Cannot…Mean Passivity” in Ave Maria:

“We live in a world of escalation in which no one seems to know how to deescalate, and it does pose a problem. The Peace Movement may be escalating beyond peaceful protest. In which case it may also be escalating into self-contradiction. But let me make it clear that I do not think the [Catonsville] nine have done this.”

“It seems to me this was an attempt at prophetic nonviolent provocation. … In the case of the Berrigans, I would say there is present a sort of ‘jail mystique,’ as a way of saying dumbly to the rest of the country that in our society nobody is really free anyway. That we are all prisoners of a machinery that takes us inevitably where we don’t want to go. … Most people would rather have war and profits than peace and problems. … In such a situation, we speak peace but the answer in the heart is war, and war only. … Small wonder that certain more sensitive and more questioning people are driven to extremities.”

“The classic (Gandhian) doctrine of nonviolence … always emphasized respect for the just laws in order to highlight clearly and unambiguously the injustice of the unjust law. … But if nonviolence merely says in a very loud voice, ‘I don’t like this damn law,’ it does not do much to make the adversary admit that the law is wrong.”

“The current facile rejection of nonviolence is too pragmatic. You point to one or two cases where it does not seem to have got results and you say it has completely failed. But nonviolence is useless if it is merely pragmatic. The whole point of nonviolence is that it rises above pragmatism and does not consider whether or not it pays off politically. Ahimsa is defense of and witness to truth, not efficacy….”

1968 Oct Departure on Asian Journey to engage with Eastern monastics

1968 Dec Merton dies accidental death in Bangkok hours after giving a lecture, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives”:

“I was at a meeting to which many revolutionary university leaders from France, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries had been invited. … I was speaking informally with some of these students, and I introduced myself as a monk. One of the French revolutionary leaders immediately said: ‘We are monks also.’ … What does such a statement mean? … The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures, just as the students identify themselves essentially as people who have taken up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures. … The student seemed to be alluding to the fact that if one is to call himself in some way or other a monk, he must have in some way or other reached a kind of critical conclusion about the validity of certain claims made by secular society and its structures with regard to the end of man’s existence. In other words, the monk is somebody who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent.”