What Thomas Merton would say about war with North Korea

(CNS)

Yesterday, Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor and close adviser to Donald J. Trump, said that the president has biblical permission and moral authority to “take out” North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un. Citing Romans 13, Rev. Jeffress said that God grants governments the authority to punish evildoers with whatever means necessary.

Thomas Merton was no stranger to the horrors of war.

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Rev. Jeffress has added to the tensions prompted by the recent saber-rattling between U.S. and North Korean military forces. A bracing contrast to his take on Scripture can be found in the works of Thomas Merton, an American writer, mystic and Trappist monk who used apocalyptic language to demonstrate how Christians must avoid war—and any kind of religious justification for war—altogether.

Merton (1915-68) was no stranger to the horrors of war. Born at the beginning of World War I in a French town where “the world was a picture of hell,” Merton described his childhood in this way: “Not many hundreds of miles from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses in a forest of trees without branches along the river Marne.”

As a monk at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Merton wrote many books that would shape Christian thought throughout the 20th century. A persistent theme in his writings is the call for Christians to recognize their vocation as peacemakers. After living through two world wars, Merton was horrified by nuclear threats at the height of the Cold War. In an essay originally published in 1962, he writes:

There is no need to insist that in a world where another Hitler is very possible the mere existence of nuclear weapons constitutes the most tragic and serious problem that the human race has ever had to contend with. Indeed, the atmosphere of hatred, suspicion and tension in which we all live is precisely what is needed to produce Hitlers.

His horror at the mere existence of nuclear arms brought Merton to reflect on Christ’s promise of peace. Christ, the Prince of Peace, does not simply offer a kind of supernatural peace, Merton writes. Rather, he compels those who follow him to actively strive for peace in this life:

Christ Our Lord did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to His disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself.

This is Merton’s principal point: Christians may not excuse themselves from the work of building peace in the world. It is the vocation Christ gives us in baptism. Amid North Korean nuclear missile tests and American promises of “fire and fury,” calls for peace may sound naïve. Yet Merton reminds Christians of the responsibility that comes with our baptism. As the world commemorates and mourns the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Merton’s critique of Christian failure to recognize this vocation is especially poignant:

There can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes. And who was responsible? No one. Or “history.” We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results as “history.” We are the ones concerned. We are the ones responsible. History does not make us, we make it—or end it.

Given this responsibility, Merton advises Christians on how they can live the vocation of peace in the world of nuclear threats. In a letter penned to his friend Etta Gullick in the 1960s, Merton writes:

I do not mean to say that you have to swim out to nuclear submarines carrying a banner, but it is absolutely necessary to take a serious and articulate stand on the question of nuclear war.... The passivity, the apparent indifference, the incoherence of so many Christians on this issue, and worse still, the active belligerency of some religious spokesmen, especially in this country, is rapidly becoming one of the most frightful scandals in the history of Christendom.

Merton believed that Christians had a simple choice with regard to the scandal of violence in Christian history: Do we continue (actively or passively) betraying our vocation as peacemakers or do we make a stand for an end to violence? In Seeds of Destruction (1980), he writes:

What are we, the dwindling and confused Christian minority in the West, going to do? Or at least, what do we really want to do? Do we intend to settle our problems peacefully or by force? Have we anything left to say about it at all? Have not the decisions been taken, to a great extent, out of our hands? Not yet. Among our leaders, some are Christians.... These leaders will (we hope) take kindly to suggestions and to pleas that are based on Christian ethical norms.

If Merton was alive today, I suspect he would not be surprised by the words of Pastor Jeffress, but his response would be sharp and challenging to us all.

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James MacGregor
2 months 1 week ago

I find it difficult to investigate anything Thomas Merton would have said about almost anything - except maybe his treatise on the Psalms which was aimed mainly at clergy.

Mike Evans
2 months 1 week ago

He would say, bend over, kiss your rear end good-bye and Pray, Pray, Pray!
If you aren't melted by the blast or poisoned by radioactive dust, then get to work helping the wounded survivors.

Thomas Farrelly
2 months 1 week ago

Despite Merton's assertions, Christ had just about nothing to say about war and violence. We may assume he loved peace, but there seems to be no evidence that he taught that all war is impermissible, even in self defense.

Christopher Lochner
2 months 1 week ago

You know, I've always wondered how the Holocaust could have actually happened. But it's partially from attitudes like Merton's, after all, there is nothing to fight for, maintain pseudo moral superiority, watch others die, shrug your shoulders, then decry those who are trying to save lives. Again, this is about his carving another notch in his halo. Perhaps Christ calls us to be peacemakers more so in our individual interactions?

William Bannon
2 months 1 week ago

Angelo, you're young and innocent. Merton is very lucky that the fiance of the young nurse he got involved with while a monk...in "outercourse" as he described it...didn't knock the daylights out of him. Or for that matter, he's lucky the father of the girl he got pregnant as a youth fortunately didn't knock the daylights out of him. I don't see him as therefore an expert on peace making. Neither am I....I almost killed a criminal for breaking into my house after he left the house...I tracked him and mugged him. I'm far from perfect...so was Merton....as peacemakers both of us. Find a Catholic that lived peacemaking thoroughly. Not Merton...not me. You're too impressed by book publishing in Merton's case. His first " Seeds of Contemplation" was excellent as was his book on the Eucharist....but necking with another man's fiance is egotistical and it's war making.

Randal Agostini
2 months 1 week ago

Please stop being the jerk reaction to everything that Trump says or does. Maybe you missed his conversation where he promotes a world without nuclear weapons.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 1 week ago

At some point, Trump has supported both sides of every question. at some time in his life and sometimes the same time. He stands for nothing. There's no there there. The voting system of the US along with the matrix-embedded electorate, has practically decapitated the government of the United States. Meanwhile, the above posters always point to Merton's two lapses as proof nothing he ever said has validity. If he was someone they liked, like a trad, they'd be talking about how the nurse seduced him as he lay poor, weak and vulnerable in the hospital bed.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Now that I know that my postings are getting through, without being moderated, I'll try again.

Thomas Merton had a lot to say about war and the preparations for war, and what response that calls from people who follow the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps more than any other Catholic writer, Merton's words speak to our times, and still resonate 50 years after his death.

His words are no less challenging when they wrote them than they are now. Merton nailed the root of war as FEAR and challenged us to look within ourselves for the source of the world's violence, misery and destruction.

"At the root of all war is fear, not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another: they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

"It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves which is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.

"When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. …"

from "The Root of War is Fear", published in The Catholic Worker, October 1961; also Chapter 16 of New Seeds of Contemplation

I have been reading Merton for more than 50 years, and I would not characterize him as a mystic, but rather as a contemplative. Like our pope, Francis, Thomas Merton was a man of prayer. He was a quite ordinary man, with a prophetic voice and insight.

http://fatherlouie.blogspot.com

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

I will try to post my comments in small segments.

Thomas Merton wrote about war and the preparations for war probably more than any other Catholic writer. The topic haunted him. His writings on war were prophetic and challenging, as much now as when he wrote them. In many ways he was 50 years (or more) ahead of his time.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Merton called the root of war to be FEAR. Fear of ourselves, fear of everything. He claimed that we could not trust anything because we had ceased to know God. At a very deep and unconscious place, we hate others and ourselves, and can not consciously face this darkness in ourselves. Therefore we see our evil in others rather than ourselves. We see crime in others and try to correct it there by destroying the others.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Many people speak of Thomas Merton as a "mystic". Having been reading Merton for more than 50 years, I would not use this word. I would call him a contemplative. Like our pope, Francis. Merton was a man of prayer. He was a very ordinary man, with a prophetic voice. He calls us to hear and respond to that voice in ourselves.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

I think that the reason my postings were being re-routed to the moderator was because I referred (and linked) to my blog. I have kept a blog of Merton's writings, art, and vision for more than 10 years. There are many entries with his thought on war. I will be re-reading those entries so that I can use them to address the war issues that we now face.

Merton gave us this language and these insights.

My blog is at fatherlouie (dot) blogspot (dot) com

Frank & Gwen Huber
2 months 1 week ago

Angelo, thanks for presenting us with a view of Thomas Merton, though one not necessarily accepted by all. It would appear there are nerves still jangled by Merton and his insights. Mysticism is not scientific, Again, thanks!

Steve Thompson
2 months 1 week ago

Jesuit Father John Hardon knew Merton personally and often sternly warned people not to be influenced by his eastern mysticism laced writings. Father Hardon once remarked that he believed that Merton died a Catholic seemingly implying that Merton repented in the end, but Merton's opinions on anything are hardly worth being proclaimed in a magazine that claims to be Catholic.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Yet in his speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015, Pope Francis recommended Thomas Merton.

For Francis, Merton “remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. …Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

Steve Thompson
2 months 1 week ago

With all due respect for our Holy Father, Father Hardon was a much more qualified theologian and catechist than he. This is especially true with regard to Merton whom he studied and personally counselled.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Fr. Hardon personally counseled Merton??? I don't think so. Any references? Dates? Seriously, I would like to know more about this.

Steve Thompson
2 months 1 week ago

Yes, Father Hardon taught theology at Merton's Trappist monastery. Father Hardon was told to talk to Merton which he did. Their relationship lasted about six months. I do not know the dates, but they could probably be easily ascertained. Much of Father Hardons recordings are contained at therealpresence dot org. He speaks about Merton in a few of these recordings. I believe his series on the new age movement is one. He considered Merton to be one of, if not the spiritual leader of the new age movement.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you, I will look for this and get back to you.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

Steve,

I’ve done some research and found out more about Fr. Hardon and what he had to say about Merton. It’s interesting that the 2 men were almost exactly the same age, both were smart men, and they were on very different wavelengths.

First of all, I want to point out that Fr. Hardon has a few superficial things wrong when speaking of Merton. These may be trivial, or they may point to the deeper ways in which Hardon misunderstands Merton. Hardon says that Merton converted to Catholicism in the late 40s, when, in fact Merton converted in the late 30s and was already an ordained priest by the late 40s, having entered the Abby of Gethsemani on December 7, 1941.

Hardon also claims that Merton’s “New Age” writings were published after his death, without his Abbot’s permission, and by an unnamed lay person who has been publishing them ever since.

As I said, I’ve been reading Merton for more than 50 years and think that I’ve covered just about all of it, and I don’t know that any of it that has been published without full Catholic approval. Merton essentially laid out his inner spiritual life in his journals, and all of them bear the stamp of approval from the Abbey of Gethsemane.

Though Hardon speaks of Merton, I can find no mention of Hardon in any of Merton’s writings.

Merton was on a new path, and he knew it. As Pope Francis noted: “[Merton} opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.”

Spiritually, Merton was always moving. His innate tendency was to depart rather than to settle down into fixed ideas or perspectives. He was never afraid to walk away from himself when he found himself too narrow or non-inclusive.

Toward the end of his life, Merton realized that his “fans” had an illusive idea of who he was that was “completely out of touch”:

“They have trusted me in building a house I myself once built and then destroyed. I frighten them! But there is no question that my world and that of Thompson Willett have nothing in common. And neither of us wants to pretend.” (p. 298, "Learning to Love”)

Merton puzzled and prayed (and even agonized) over the seeming conflict and confusion that he experienced between himself and Mr. Willett. He did not want to alienate people in order to maintain his sense of identity, but he also knew that his vocation required that he faithfully follow a certain path.

“In the end – it just seems I’ve reached a corner I’ve got to turn, and there is a whole suburb that has to be left behind and never revisited. I am headed for some other city and had better get going!” (p. 287, “Learning to Love).

[Note: Thompson Willett and his family were good friends of my family. I grew up with his children and one Sunday afternoon when I was a teenager, Thompson taught me how to make bread in his big hearth fireplace/oven. I was in his daughter’s wedding. And I was aware, as a teenager, that Fr. Louie visited Thompson at his home. I love them all very much. And I also understand well what kind of “Catholic” Thompson was because it was the same Catholicism that I grew up with.]

Steve Thompson
2 months 1 week ago

Merton wasn't on a new path, but a very old one that Buddhists trod. He wanted to create some kind of bridge between Buddhism and Chistianity but he failed as one only could. Pope Benedict also spoke of Merton, and said that this Zen Buddhism would replace marxism as Catholicism's principle antagonist. A Buddhist saves himself, but only Christ can save. The two are irreconcilable, which is why Merton failed in this hopeless endeavor.

Father Hardon I did not know, but one of my best friends did. Without going into detail, Father Hardon was a true mystic and, as I am sure that the Church will one day confirm, a saint. It is unfortunate that Thomas Merton did not delve deeper into whatever Father Hardon most certainly tried to tell him.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 months 1 week ago

There is room in the Catholic Church for both Fr. Hardon and Thomas Merton. Merton's way with conservative Catholics who did not understand him was not to try to convince them or judge them. He simply stayed true to what God was working out in his own life. And he made a big point to remain in his monastery and obedient to his Abbot.

Merton was true to what he was called to be, and articulated his path in a way that resonates with many Catholics. Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Pope Francis.

Without Merton, I would no longer find a place in the Catholic Faith for myself. I am grateful. Fr. Hardon's way is fine for those Catholics who like it. I notice that Cardinal Burke's photo and endorsement is on the websites that cover Fr. Hardon's thought. I spent a number of years in that kind of Catholicism. It's safe and in many ways, beautiful, but I was suffocating there. I needed Merton.

As for the bridge between Catholicism and Buddhism, Merton was following the missive of Vatican 2 to facilitate interfaith dialogue. That the Dalai Lama and other Eastern spiritual guides recognized in Merton, a Western Christian monk, a deep degree of understanding says much for the contemplative tradition of Christianity. This birthed the Contemplative Movement of Fr. Thomas Keating (also a Trappist monk).

During the 1980s I was attracted to the Eucharistic Adoration (that I see Fr. Hardon promotes). I sat alone from 3-4am in a chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. It was all fine and good, but it wasn't until I found Contemplative Prayer (via Buddhist meditation) that I knew what to do with the prayer of silence.

I suppose we could end this with "different strokes ..." , but I feel that the misunderstanding of Thomas Merton by many conservative Catholics should be corrected -- or at least countered.

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