Learning from Merton’s early experiences: God asks Merton to make a choice

When Thomas Merton receives a letter from the Draft Board ‘telling me that my number was up for the army’ he is surprised but completes a form trying to make clear his position about warfare. Merton puts it then in a different way ‘less abstract and stuffy’ which is that God was asking him to signify where he stood in relation to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’. And here we have glimpses of Merton’s later writings about warfare specifically nuclear war, about peace, about politics, about racism and about ecology and about a right way of living.

Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain that God:

‘was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice…’

Here Merton says that the choice is essentially an act of love for truth and for the gospel and for the mystical body. But he also adds that the choice is for him too as an individual … ‘He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do.’

After some thinking about the implications of war Merton is able to state: ‘To my mind, there was very little doubt about the immorality of the methods used in modern war’ so he applies to become a non-combatant objector using quotes from St Thomas and sees himself helping in the medical corp. This section ends with a funny account of Merton’s attendance at a medical for the Draft Board where he is told by the doctor to go home – ‘you haven’t enough teeth’. As Merton adds ‘So they didn’t want me in the army after all, even as a stretcher bearer!’

Of course the Draft Board returns just before Merton enters Gethsemani, he has already written to ask if he can return for a further retreat with a view to becoming a postulant and enter the novitiate and with that agreement also comes another demand from the Draft Board for a follow up medical – they’ve lowered their requirements – you can fight with bad teeth. Merton replies that he is entering a monastery and his spiritual adviser sees the timing as ‘a very good sign – I mean as far as your vocation is concerned.’

Perhaps learning from Merton in this situation means that each one of us is asked by God to make a choice about our response to ‘the actions of governments and armies and states in this world’ and when we make a choice then other doors open.