The Silenced Monk

Thomas Merton spent almost half his life in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Strict silence was an integral part of the Trappist way of life when he entered in 1941. Merton took readily to the rule of strict silence, but circumvented it when necessary. By the mid-1960’s the Second Vatican Council’s renewal of religious life reached even contemplative orders, relaxing the rigorous observance of silence. During that time, Merton experienced a growing desire for more solitude, which eventually led him to a brief period living as a hermit on the abbey’s property. Even then he managed to maintain lively contacts through written correspondence and personal visits with an international parade of prominent literary, ecclesiastical and political figures.

Merton had a deep need to express his thoughts and sometimes his inner life through an avalanche of published writings and voluminous correspondence. Contrary to the fear of his literary agent, who said at his entrance to the monastery, “Oh my God. He will never write again,” Merton never stopped. Fans of his early spiritual and devotional books were not pleased with his turn to cultural and social issues like racism, war and liturgical renewal during the volatile early 1960’s. And his unpopular stand on nuclear war eventually provoked criticisms from church authorities.


Merton and the Censors

In his formative monastic years, Merton faced tensions inherent in his double vocation of contemplative monk and popular author. He submitted meekly to the prickly Trappist censors and even abandoned the abhorrence of any censorship that had characterized his young adulthood. Merton had permission from the Trappists’ highest authorities to continue writing for the good of the order and the church. But his world-famous autobiography, The Seven StoreyMountain, was initially rejected by Trappist censors because of the numerous references to sex and drinking that might scandalize pious Catholics.

As his vocation of writer-monk matured, Merton’s attitude to ecclesiastical censorship changed. He grew more irritated by restrictions placed on what he could say about controversial issues facing the church and world. Even some of his most successful spiritual works, like The Sign of Jonas, The Secular Journal and The New Man, were initially rejected or held up from publication. Often it took months or even years of wrangling and rewriting to receive permission to publish certain pieces.

By 1961 Merton’s reputation and image as a spiritual writer had undergone significant alteration. By then he was engaged in the public debate on war and mused about writing an unambiguous statement of his own position. In November, Merton clearly realized that he must definitely commit himself “to opposition to, and noncooperation with, nuclear war.”

Some of his devotees quickly labeled him an “activist”—if not a Communist—for his positions on racial justice and nuclear disarmament. He was not unaware of the growing opposition. “It will certainly not please many people,” he commented on an article about peace in October 1961. In December he wrote to W. H. Ferry at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions that he was having “a bit of censorship trouble.” He could avoid this, Merton suggested, by having his materials circulated along with Ferry’s writings. He did not view this as a violation of censorship rules.

Friends, including his publisher at New Directions, James Laughlin, disagreed. Merton denied engaging in “some kind of monkey business.” He acknowledged the order’s strict censorship laws but added: “I have hitherto been very conscientious about keeping them.” Circulating his writings through others “would not be wrong unless it had been expressly forbidden.” For Merton, the circulation of a few hundred copies was not, technically at least, “publication.”

Merton’s Position on War Criticized

Merton’s increasingly vocal antiwar stance began to draw fire. One significant critic was The Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. In the March 16, 1962, issue, a lengthy editorial challenged an article of Merton’s that had appeared in Commonweal in February, accusing him of “a startling disregard of authoritative Catholic utterances.” Privately, Merton claimed he had been misquoted and dismissed as an “absolute pacifist.” He did not suggest that the pope had made a statement against all war, as the editorial implied. (The paper’s editor was the auxiliary bishop of Washington, Philip Hannan, a former Army chaplain and paratrooper who some surmised had written the editorial. Hannan was later one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace.)

Merton had, however, compared the traditional just war theory to “a boat that has slipped its moorings and is now floating off in mid-ocean a thousand miles from the facts.” But he did not reject the teaching outright. In fact, he had earlier penned an essay in the context of traditional Catholic moral teachings specifically to pacify the censors and the traditionalists.

Nevertheless, Merton’s own pacifist view was evident in his Cold War Letters (October 1961–October 1962). These were Merton’s private mimeographed articles that were widely circulated among friends and correspondents. The Cold War Letters referred Catholics to papal principles on war, though it was evident he would have preferred a clear, strong church condemnation of all nuclear war:

One would certainly wish that the Catholic position on nuclear war held as strictly as the Catholic position on birth control. It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults, some of whom may be Christians and even our friends rather than our enemies. I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other.

The Ax Falls

Behind the scenes, ecclesiastical events were unfolding that would eventually affect Merton directly. On Jan. 20, 1962, Dom James Fox, the abbot of Gethsemani, received a letter from the French abbot general in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais. The letter, addressed to Merton, was withheld from him for almost three months. (Was this Fox’s way of providing Merton time to publish more articles, as some have surmised?) Finally, on April 26, Merton saw the letter. Opposition from Trappist censors and no doubt from some bishops culminated in the decision that Merton confided to his private journal: “I am to stop all publication of anything on war. In other words I am to be in effect silenced on this subject for the main reason that it is not appropriate for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the message of monasticism.’”

Writing to the peace activist Jim Forest, Merton angrily explained: “The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.”

Merton wrote to Sortais immediately asking for a modification. The manuscript, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, was ready for publication. Could he submit the manuscript to the censors? Sortais responded on May 26, 1962, ordering him “to abstain from writing in any way whatsoever about the subject of nuclear war.” Merton responded dutifully, “I accept your decision joyfully,” but more honest feelings soon surfaced: “I have written a whole book but it has all been forbidden without even going to the censors. I have just been instructed to shut my trap and behave which I do since these are orders that must be obeyed and I have said what I had to say.”

The stencils of the banned book were finished just as the silencing order arrived, and Merton lost no time in making use of them. “I will send you a mimeographed copy of the book if I can...with the [Cold War] letters, you can use them discreetly....” Friends who received copies included Jim Forest, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Dorothy Day and the publisher of the British peace bulletin Pax.

To another correspondent Merton offered wiggle room: “I think that if you just lifted a paragraph here and there without further identification, once in a while and just use it, there would no real objection....” But, he warned, nothing more was possible until a new decision from Rome. This would be not happen for several years and certainly not from Sortais, whom Merton once described as “a very autocratic Gaullist type, Legion of Honor and all that.”

To other friends Merton reacted with both caustic humor and scarcely concealed anger: “The Peace Book is not to be published. Too controversial, doesn’t give a nice image of monk. Monk concerned with peace. Bad image.”

He argued, somewhat bitterly, that his peace work was really trying to salvage the monastic reputation, not bring it into disrepute: “Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last thread of repute for an institution that many consider dead on its feet...these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.”

Writing to Jacques Maritain in 1963, Merton was still smarting from Sortais’s admonition that writing on war and peace was “a hateful distraction, withdrawing the mind from the Baby Jesus in the Crib.” Merton could not resist: “Strange to say, no one seems concerned at the fact that the crib is directly under the bomb.”

He told Berrigan that his (Merton’s) writings are considered “dangerous, subversive, perilous, offensive to pious ears and confusing to good Catholics who are all at peace in the nice idea that we ought to wipe Russia off the face of the earth.”

But some thought the opposite. Jim Forest sensed that Merton was bending over backward trying to please the censors and not really saying what he meant. Merton acknowledged his qualifications were an attempt to please the censors by staying in the middle and being perfectly objective. He wanted to remain in and speak from the church: “ position loses its meaning unless I continue to speak from the Center of the Church. Yet that is exactly the point: where is the true center? From the bosom of complacent approbation by Monsignors?”

On Oct. 11, 1962, the Second Vatican Council commenced, and in 1963 Pope John XXIII published Pacem in Terris. Merton lost no time tweaking Sortais in a “cheeky” letter: “Fortunately [the Holy Father] does not need to be approved by the censors of the Order in America, for they said very energetically last year that this thesis, when I proposed it myself, was wrong, scandalous, and I don’t know what more.” This was a serious tactical mistake. Merton then asked if he might revise his unpublished manuscript in light of Pacem in Terris. The response was prompt and harsh. He was refused categorically, Merton said, because among other things, “I am incompetent and my opinions are of no value since I don’t know what I am talking about in the first place....” But Merton was not one to give up easily. Clandestine circulation (“private circulation goes much further,” he remarked) and the use of pen names (“Benedict Monk” and “Benedict Moore”) for articles published in The Catholic Worker were effective strategies.

He missed no opportunity to send his writings to influential people like Maritain: “...if you know anyone who might be interested, you can pass the copy on to them.” In May 1963 he sent a copy of the banned book to Ethel Kennedy “just for the files,” or “maybe the President may have five minutes to spare looking at it.” Bishop John Wright had even circulated copies among experts at the Vatican Council. Merton told Wright “even though the book was not published, I am happy to think that the work was not wasted.”

On Nov. 16, 1963, Dom Gabriel Sortais died. Merton harbored no illusions that a new regime would change things. The new abbot general, Dom Ignace Gillet, continued the ban on Merton’s writings. By July 1964, however, the atmosphere in the church and in the order had begun to change. Merton was informed that his controversial and originally banned essay could now be published in his new work, Seeds of Destruction. For Merton, the “real heart of the forbidden book” had finally seen the light of day: “This is something to think of when we think of religious obedience. The Church is not entirely run by officials.”

Merton and Religious Obedience

In the past half-century, many prominent theologians—like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Yves Congar, O.P., and John Courtney Murray, S.J.—have been silenced or disciplined. Normally this was accomplished with little or no public fanfare—let alone organized opposition—unlike the more high-profile Vatican actions against Hans Küng, Charles Curran or Tissa Balasuria, O.M.I. Yet the same question arises in each case from the individual silenced and from his supporters: why obey? Merton pondered this also: “Wouldn’t it be justified to disobey such manifest unjust orders?”

He had wrestled with the issue of obedience before. As a young monk, fresh from a rather undisciplined and directionless life, he found obedience came easily at first. As his religious life matured and his thinking on ecclesial and social questions developed, he began to chafe under the strictures placed on him. He revisited his silencing a year later: “One is faced with the very harrowing idea that in obeying one is really doing wrong and offending God. There is also a culpable silence. Silence is not an absolute, not an end in itself.” In more colloquial language, he wonders if he shouldn’t “just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?”

In the end, Merton did not “blast off,” at least publicly—a common phenomenon today—but he made certain his silencing was widely circulated. He also worried about complicity: “Certainly I refuse complicity. My silence is a protest and those who know me are aware of the fact. I have at least been able to write enough to make that clear. I have been able to write enough to define the meaning of my silence.”

For Merton the solution to the crisis of obedience was simply love. As for the restrictions, he described the inner faith-stance that helped him survive and continue writing:

This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authorities, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment comprehend. I know he can and will in his own good time take good care of the ones who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely.... I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands.

By the summer of 1967 the Trappists’ censorship rules had changed dramatically. Merton was informed by Paul Bourne, O.C.S.O., one of his censors in Rome, that he would no longer be required to submit his writings for censorship and that he would have “no more trouble.” Despite the fact that he had been given a permanent green light, Merton continued to submit his writings for approval until his accidental death by electrocution in 1968, following a talk on monastic spirituality at an international conference in Bangkok.

Merton’s book Peace in a Post-Christian Era was finally published, in its entirety, by Orbis Books in 2004.

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11 years 11 months ago
Thank you for “The Silenced Monk,” by Robert Nugent, S.D.S., (5/15) on the silencing endured by Thomas Merton. Merton’s obedience coupled with his finding ways to share his thoughts with others is inspiring. Without screaming it from the housetops, the parallels between Merton’s experience and that of others among us who have been censored or silenced cannot but cause us to ponder.

11 years 11 months ago
“The Silenced Monk,” by Robert Nugent, S.D.S., (5/15) was interesting and informative as far as it goes. But I suggest it did not go far enough. The silencing of Merton by church authorities brings to mind the institutional church’s lack of will to engage in any meaningful form of dialogue on those “hot” issues of our time that many devout, learned Catholics wrestle with. The problem is that we are not allowed to talk about them. The church hierarchy either demurs from discussion and/or summarily defaults to 19th-century dogma without so much as a hint that a review, in the 21st century, might now be in order.

For Merton, it was a critique of the just war theory that got him into trouble; today it could be a wide range of topics, not the least of which is the ordination of married priests or greater participation by women, such as the ordination of women deacons, that could rile the silencers of today.

Jesus challenged the Jewish authorities of his day with his parables and his teaching, and he did so radically, by encouraging his listeners to see God’s love in their midst, to turn the other cheek and not to get hung up on the sticky details of the Law, because their God was, above all, a God of love. Those, like Merton and many who write for this periodical, who are all deeply wedded to Roman Catholicism, whose credentials are impeccable, whose intentions are without guile, and who have the courage to suggest an alternate take on church teachings ought not to be silenced or shunned, but rather engaged. The mere possibility that from such dialogue a clearer vision of what Jesus had in mind, all under the watchful eye of the Holy Spirit, is reason enough to enter the dialogue, all with the hope that meaningful, appropriate change in the institutional church could evolve.

The teachings of the church can carry the mantle of Jesus’ authority only if such teachings speak to, engage and stir the heart of the faithful. Jesus appealed to our hearts because when you know something in your heart to be true, you do not need the church authoritarians to tell you it is so. You see it immediately (as in the parables of Jesus) and, in a sense, realize that you already knew it. The church’s inclination to rely solely on institutional authority, if you will, leaves an inexplicable void that diminishes credibility, and simply does not pass the red-face test.

So if Merton’s censorship could eventually be lifted, why can’t the church’s de facto prohibition to engage in an earnest, informed and faith-filled exchange of ideas concerning the great issues of our faith and of our time also be lifted? I call to mind the words of Pope John XXIII, “Let us open the window, and let the fresh air in.”

11 years 11 months ago
As a faithful reader of America, I was curious to see what sort of letters I’d read in response to “The Silenced Monk,” by Robert Nugent, S.D.S., (5/15). Michael Belford, “Not Far Enough” (6/5), wrote that the article “was interesting and informative as far as it goes. But I suggest it did not go far enough.”

Au contraire! When the adult education class of the Episcopal parish of which I am rector recently asked me to speak on “Being Christian in a Time of War,” Nugent’s article on Thomas Merton became a springboard for doing exactly what Mr. Belford suggests in stirring the hearts of the faithful toward lively dialogue and action. It has inspired me to invite a local Mennonite minister, eager to start an ecumenical peace and justice network in our community, to join us. Using Merton’s censored book, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, which, according to Nugent’s article was not published in its entirety until 2004, there’s no telling how far we might be able to go in raising consciousness concerning our baptismal calling to be peacemakers, not just peacekeepers.

Thank you for your weekly fare of delicious, substantial food for thought—and action!

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 8 months ago
I finished the Lipsey book ("Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down") last night. I had been reading it almost non-stop since it arrived. I knew that Lipsey could do this. He could honestly delve into the muddle of confused emotion that characterized Merton’s relationship with his abbot, Dom James Fox, and come out with something authentic and believable. Even more than Merton’s own journal writing, Lipsey’s accounting of what was happening between Merton and his abbot makes Merton more believable. More human and relatable. Here is a popular monk, the 20th Century’s most popular spiritual writer, and he is embroiled in the same complicated and painful relationship patterns that afflict most every family. Resentments, questions, self-examination, distrust, projection, exasperation. Merton’s own writing about the struggle is one sided, not giving the full context. Lipsey gives Dom James’ side of the story. He looks for ways to understand and explain Dom James and gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. In the end, it is what it is and one is left with a clearer view of the role of providence in this particular relationship and all relationships. Thank you Roger Lipsey. It all had to be said. The next time I visit Gethsemane I will be sure to bring some flowers to the grave of Dom James Fox.


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