NJ Talk and Thomas Merton on the Source of War

Last night and again later this morning I am giving talks in Beach Haven, NJ, on the Franciscan influence in the life and thought of Thomas Merton. I particularly enjoy being reminded of the various insights and nuggets of wisdom that shine through Merton’s work. Sometimes one who spends so much time with a particular thinker or subject can begin to take that person or area of thought for granted. I’m not sure that I do that with Merton, but I do know that what can be “old news” to me can make a lot of difference for a lot of people.

While most people are completely oblivious to the fact that the famous Trappist Monk was technically first a Franciscan even though his dream of becoming a Franciscan Friar was never realized  (He was a member of the Third Order or SFOs, which he joined two months before leaving for the Louisville, KY to become a monk), the ways in which the Franciscan tradition informed and shaped Merton’s outlook are manifold — much more so than one can share in just a few hours, and much, much more so than even I have explored (there remain new and exciting research discoveries!).

One of the most interesting comments in recent decades by a Merton scholar, although made in passing, was that of George Kilcourse in his book on Merton’s Christology. In that text Kilcourse offers the conjecture that it is quite possible that a book on the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus that Merton had expressed a strong desire to write in the early 1940s might have ultimately turned out as the famous Seeds of Contemplation (later New Seeds). There is much theological evidence within the text(s) to support such a claim, yet there remains much more that can be done in terms of manuscript study and contextual analysis. (to be continued…)

Meanwhile, speaking of New Seeds of Contemplation, I returned to the text last night to have a little read from one of my favorite books. My attention was drawn to the chapter titled, “The Root of War is Fear.” I find myself returning to this chapter now and then, particularly in times of global conflict and violence. There is much wisdom in Merton’s reflection, some of it seems so commonsensical, yet the human family continues to seem incapable of learning or seeing reality as it truly is. This is some of what Merton has to say:

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men [and women] 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 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.

He goes on for what amounts to be one of the longest chapters in the book (most chapters are only a few pages). The whole chapter is worth reading, as the whole book is indeed worth reading — several times! But I wish to skip ahead to the closing section of the chapter. I think Merton offers us a lot to seriously take to heart about what it is that we pray for when we prayer for “world peace.”

If men [and women] really wanted peace they would sincerely ask God for it and He would give it to them. But why should [God] give the world a peace which it does not really desire? The peace the world pretends to desire is really no peace at all.

To some men [and women] peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.

Many men [and women] like these have asked God for what they thought was “peace” and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war. The “cold war” is simply the normal consequence of our corrupt idea of a peace based on a policy of “every man for himself” in ethics, economics and political life. It is absurd to hope for a solid peace based on fictions and illusions!

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men [and women] and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

There is not much more that one can say after something so wise.

Except, perhaps, “Amen.”

Photo: Merton Legacy Trust
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One Response to “NJ Talk and Thomas Merton on the Source of War”

  1. Matthew M Says:

    Wow! Br. Dan, you are batting two in row for me. I might actually have to read more on this Merton guy. Thanks!

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