Prophetic Messages

Book cover
Cold War Lettersby Edited by Christine M. Bochen and William H. ShannonOrbis Books. 206p $16 (paperback)

For years I have stared at the five published volumes (over 2,100 pages) of Thomas Merton’s letters arranged neatly on a shelf in my Merton collection and wondered if I would ever have time to work through them. Occasionally I opened a volume to check a reference, but the massive collection of some 10,000 letters addressed to 2,100 correspondents remained largely unread. Reading Signs of Peace and Cold War Letters has been an enjoyable way to break into this massive collection for insight into Thomas Merton the letter writer and, additionally, to reflect through Merton’s eyes on two issues as crucial in our time as in his (1915-68).


Signs of Peace, by William Apel, a professor of religious studies at Linfield College, McMinnville, Ore., contributes significantly to the current interfaith dialogue. An excerpt from a letter to Anna Coomaraswamy catches the theme of the book:

I believe that the only really valid thing that can be accomplished in the direction of world peace and unity at this moment is the preparation of the way by the formation of men who, isolated, perhaps not accepted or understood by any “movement,” are able to unite in themselves and experience in their own lives all that is best and most true in the numerous spiritual traditions.

Merton is convinced by his own experience that religious believers who appropriate their own spiritual traditions can make bridges to other spiritual traditions and so become “signs of peace” in our world. He is emphatic that the dialogue remain on the level of experience, for only on the experiential level is communion and peace possible. When the dialogue reverts to debates over dogma and doctrine, the union is shattered. The book illustrates well the “dialogue of religious experience” called for by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1991 in its document Dialogue and Proclamation. Merton, of course, was engaged in the dialogue in the pre-Vatican Council II era—when the church’s attitude to other religions was condemnatory and the convictions presented in this book would have made him suspect to many.

Signs of Peace pulls together Merton’s own dialogue with correspondents in major world religions: Sufism, Hinduism-Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Zen Buddhism. Merton readers will be familiar with the names of his correspondents: Abdul Aziz, Amiya Chakravarty, Dona Luisa Coomaraswamy (Ananda’s widow), John Wu, Abraham Heschel, D. T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh. Focusing on a theme common to Merton and his correspondent—love, wisdom, holiness, openness, compassion, courage, unity—each chapter explains the evolution of Merton’s relationship with his correspondent, gives pertinent quotations from the exchange of letters as well as from related Merton writings and concludes with an extended excerpt from a particularly significant Merton letter.

In addition to the interfaith dialogue, Signs of Peace contributes to inter-Christian dialogue by presenting Merton’s correspondence with two Protestant friends, Glenn Hinson, a Baptist, and June Yungblut, a Quaker. Christians must also be “signs of peace” to one another:

If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From the secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians.... We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Apel’s book has particular significance for our world today, combating the accusation of many that religions foment violence. Apel uses Merton’s interfaith and ecumenical correspondence to illustrate that the commonality of religious experiences can make committed religious believers “signs of peace” in a world divided by antagonisms. Committed believers will be grateful to Apel for his defense of religion, and Merton readers for this very readable one-volume synthesis of Merton’s interfaith dialogue.

Cold War Letters also contributes significantly to a critical current discussion, about the morality of using nuclear weapons in war. These letters were written from October 1961 to October 1962, between the Berlin airlift crisis and the Cuban missile crisis. In 1961 Merton judged that humanity faced its greatest historical crisis because it was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. And American assumptions were to blame. “The first and greatest of all commandments,” he wrote, “is that America shall not and must not be beaten in the cold war, and the second is like unto this, that if a hot war is necessary to prevent defeat in the Cold War, then a hot war must be fought even if civilization is to be destroyed.” Merton was astounded that President Kennedy, at the urging of the military establishment, seemed to be considering a pre-emptive nuclear first strike.

Why resort to letters to sound a warning on such an urgent issue? In October 1961, The Catholic Worker published Merton’s first article condemning the use of nuclear weapons in war. Until then no Catholic of any stature had condemned the use of nuclear weapons. Immediately the superior general of the Trappists forbade Merton’s further publishing any articles or books on war. Merton had just completed such a book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era; it remained unpublished until 2004.

What was Merton to do? His conscience would not let him remain a “guilty bystander.”

Merton conceived an ingenious plan to get around censorship: he would write private letters—letters are not strictly “publications.” So in October 1961, he began composing, numbering, mimeographing and binding into spiral notebooks each of his letters pertaining to nuclear war. He duly labeled the notebooks “Cold War Letters: Strictly Confidential: Not for Publication.” His first collection of 49 letters appeared in late spring of 1962; his second and final collection of 111 letters appeared in January 1963. The 81 original recipients of the individual letters lived throughout the world in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Japan and Pakistan. They included the peace activists Dorothy Day and Gordon Zahn, fellow writers Henry Miller and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the psychologists Karl Stern and Erich Fromm, along with friends and many others.

The co-editors, William Shannon and Christine Bochen, are well-known Merton scholars as well as authors and editors of previous Merton volumes. They present each cold war letter in its entirety and in the order compiled by Merton. The individual letters contain no introductory notes. Merton’s own situation, however, as well as the 1961 historical crisis, is deftly presented through a foreword by James Douglass, a preface by William Shannon and an introduction by Christine Bochen.

In his own preface to the collection, Merton gives the unifying theme of the letters:

It is taken for granted that the mere idea of questioning recourse to war as a valid, rational and ethical means of settling problems is not only absurd but may even be treasonable. There are not lacking moralists, Catholic theologians, who can argue that there exists a moral obligation to threaten Russia with nuclear destruction! In the opinion of the present writer such opinions are not only disgraceful, scandalous, and unchristian, but also plainly idiotic.

Both Signs of Peace and Cold War Letters are riveting. Their prophetic messages on interfaith dialogue and nuclear disarmament, delivered long before these views became fashionable and endorsed by the church, can be ignored only at peril to our planet. They are as relevant today as when they were delivered. Each volume offers uncensored insight into Thomas Merton the person as well as into the most significant contemplation-action Christian synthesis of the 20th century.

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