Through contemplation Merton was brought closer to the world, to others and to nature. He wrote about gaining a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic, and social movements in this world. He wrote to Dorothy Day who established the Catholic worker in the United States that ‘I cannot just bury my head… I have to face the big issues, the life and death issues.’ He still believed that prayer remained his chief means but that also he needed to speak out when he was able as forthrightly and as uncompromisingly as he could. Commenting on warfare, violence and injustice he saw that the issues were ‘purely and simply the crucifixion over again’. He also believed that we are all deeply and personally involved in all the events going on whether we like them or not. He wrote ‘the “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the loves, the hates, the fears, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is war because nobody trust anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, and untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of death wish.’ (Contemplation in a World of Action)
Merton wrote about the reasons for war and the roots of hate and violence and it seems particularly appropriate at this time when there is such violence in various parts of the world he wrote about what he called true war-madness which he described as an illness of the mind and the spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that he thought was sick he thought that America was perhaps the most grievously afflicted and described our rage as the post-Christian era. So what are we to do? Merton thought that the duty of the Christian in such crises is to survive with all their power and intelligence, with their faith and hope in Christ the love for God and man and to work for peace – for the abolition of war. He understood that the root of all war is fear – the fear of everything because people have ceased to believe in God.
For Merton the answer was a call to compassion and whilst it was true that political problems are not solved by love and mercy he reminds us that the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for anyone. When a country is rebuilt following the exhaustion of war the passions and energies of war are no longer enough and there are mergers and there has to emerge a new force: the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.
In his preface to the Vietnamese edition of No Man is an Island Merton wrote that,
‘We must all believe in love and in peace. We must believe in the power of love. We must recognise that our being itself is grounded in love; that is to say, that we come into being because we are loved and because we are meant to love others… In order to recover the true perspective, which is that of love and compassion, we must once again learn, in simplicity, truth, and peace, that ‘no man is an island’. In his last journal Merton writes of a call to unity;
‘We are already one, but we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.’ Through contemplative prayer Merton knew experientially that we are all one in the hidden ground of love that is God for the differences between us are really superficial, the differences of culture, race, ethnicity, and religion are at root illusory. Deeply rooted in his own tradition, Merton was open and receptive to the wisdom of the world’s religions and respectful of other beliefs and practices. He was also clear and firm in his own faith convictions. Searching for common ground, he knew well, does not mean discounting one’s own roots.
Merton urges us to keep faith and to trust in the guiding spirit of God. The handout for the second part is based on a correspondence between Merton and Czeslaw Milosz the Nobel writer. I’ll read it first of all to you and then give you a copy to spend some time with.
Life is on our side
Life is on our side.
The silence and the Cross of which we know
are forces that cannot be defeated.
In silence and suffering,
in the heartbreaking effort to be honest
in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),
in all these is victory.
It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness
to a light of which we have no conception
and which can only be found
by passing through apparent despair.
Everything has to be tested.
All relationships have to be tried.
All loyalties have to pass through the fire.
Much has to be lost.
Much in us has to be killed,
even much that is best in us.
But Victory is certain.
The Resurrection is the only light,
and with that light there is no error.
Taken from a letter to Czeslaw Milosz, February 28, 1959, Courage for Truth, 1993, p. 57-58. Excerpt from letter rewritten as poem by Christine Bochen. Included in her book Thomas Merton – Essential Writings, 2000.