A 1961 Letter that Speaks a Little of What I Feel
There are times in my life, and I’m sure in most everybody’s, when I read a book, poem or some other text that seems to put words to something that I’m thinking about or feeling, perhaps even in a way better than I could have. I find this happens all the time when I read Thomas Merton. There are aspects of Merton’s writing and interests and life itself to which I can relate more easily than others: we both entered religious life at a young age, we both have a strong connection to the Francsican tradition, we both are deeply influenced by the anthropological and Christological thought of an obscure medieval theologian named Scotus, we both find ourselves compelled to write, among other things.
One thing that has become clear to me in recent months is that I feel more and more compelled to highlight the nonviolent tradition that stands at the core of Christian living, particularly from the vantage point of the Franciscan movement’s prophetic reminder of this truth. While talking with a friend recently, it occurred to me that this increasing passion for raising questions about violence, war and peace in our world really began to ratchet up in January after the Tucson shooting that left Rep. Giffords injured. I started to write more explicitly about violence and Christian discipleship in places like this blog (For example, see: “On Baptism and Violence: A Sad Reflection,” “Our Call Amid Violence: Be A Light to the Nations,” and “The Violent Power of Words: A Franciscan Response.“).
That has continued through the subsequent months and remains something that occupies much of my thought, prayer, reading and writing. I can’t quite explain why I feel so concerned about this issue, but it is something that will not leave me.
As I work on editing the unpublished correspondence of Thomas Merton and Naomi Burton Stone for publication, I am frequently consulting Merton’s other correspondence to see what he was saying to others at the same time. This has really allowed me to gain a fuller picture of Merton’s thought and interests, especially during the last decade of his life. While reading a letter Merton wrote to James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions Books, on August 18, 1961, I found myself nodding along to Merton’s words as he also struggled to express his passion for addressing violence, war and injustice in the world — something that was regularly discouraged or even censored by his religious community.
I share his words with you today for two reasons. First, I wish to share a little of how I feel about these matters and I think Merton’s own reflection accurately gives voice to some of those feelings. Second, I hope that Merton’s own desire to speak out in a society uninterested in hearing these critiques might inspire you to do likewise. Here is an excerpt:
Personally I am more and more concerned about the question of peace and war. I am appalled by the way everyone simply sits around and acts as though everything were normal. It seems to me that I have an enormous responsibility myself, since I am read by a lot of people, and yet I don’t know what to begin to say and then I am as though bound and gagged by the censors, who though not maliciously reactionary are just obtuse and slow. this feeling of frustration is terrible. Yet what can one say? If I go around shouting “abolish war” it will be meaningless. Yet at least some one has to say that. I am in no position to plan a book about it. There is no purpose to a silly book of editorial-like platitudes. Some more poems like Auschwitz, maybe. But the thing is to be heard. And everything is perfectly soundproof and thought proof. We are all doped right up to the eyes. And words have become useless, no matter how true they may be. But when it comes to action, then I am more helpless than anyone: except within my own very limited sphere of prayer, with which I have no quarrel at all. That is perhaps the last great power that can do anything: and the less said about it the better. Not only prayer but holiness, which I don’t have. We are all wound up in lies and illusions and as soon as we begin to think or talk the machinery of falsity operates automatically. The worst of all is not to know this, and apparently a lot of people don’t.