American Prophet Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action

Yesterday, across America hundreds of thousands of women and more than a few men marched together to oppose the lunacy that now masquerades as normal politics in Washington, D.C. These marchers walked the way of non-violent protest, one which civil rights icons like Fannie Lou Hammer and Dr. Martin Luther King followed decades ago. Part of the path of nonviolent resistance is a commitment to seek to convert, not to defeat, opponents. Whether seeking equality for women, opposing segregation, obtaining equal rights for LGBTQ Americans, or aiming to end the war in Vietnam, this approach is always directed against evil, not individual persons. Through this approach, the movement avoided the violence that can come from hating your opponents.

Part of this path was based on Dr. King’s belief that suffering could be redemptive by transforming both the sufferer and the oppressor. This is an essential lesson for us to remember today. But how do we justify this belief in transformative suffering? Why can’t we just hate our enemies and be done with it?

Part of the reason Christians shouldn’t hate their enemies comes from the words and life of Jesus the Christ. Remember Matthew Chapter 5, verse 44: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”

But there’s more to this than scripture. Thomas Merton, the American prophet we remember today, played an important part in establishing the foundation for this part of Dr. King’s theology of nonviolent protest.

Merton was born in France in 1915 to parents who were artists. He lost his American mother at age 6 and his father from New Zeeland when he was 15. He spent as unsettled childhood moving from Europe to the US and back again. As a youth he was well acquainted with feeling homeless and out of place.

Perhaps that is why he sought and took quickly to the structured life of a Roman Catholic monk. At the monastery, Merton focused on his talent as a writer and thinker, publishing 48 books of poetry, essays, biography, journals, meditations, and more. At first the monastic life provided Merton with both the structure and solitude he needed to write. But in time he changed: all that solitude opened a way for Merton to see clearly that we are all interrelated, that we are all children of the same God.

“We are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolutions and all the rest.”[1]

“There are no strangers!” he continued. “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes…If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed.”[2] This center of our being Merton calls le point vierge which is untouched by sin. It stands as a point of pure truth, and provides the basis for living as if we are all bothers and sisters, children of the living God.

We can’t, Merton argues, be taught how to see this fundamental truth. Rather, we have to open ourselves to God’s grace though prayer and meditation. Our trouble,’ Merton writes in Seeds of Destruction, is that we are alienated from our own personal reality, our own true self. We do not believe anything but money and the power of the enjoyment which comes from the possession of money”[3]

This alienation is the basis for our violence towards one another, Merton argues.[4] The cure, he teaches, is to be awake and aware.[5] He writes:

“The only way to achieve this awareness is solitude, simplicity, and silence—the contemplative life. Not everyone can be a monk, but every Christian is called to develop within his own life a dimension of silence and solitude in order to become aware of the inner self which is crucial in order to come to an awareness of God. Racism along with consumerism is only a symptom of alienation from the true self.”[6] Those who live lives of solitude, he said, are the ones obligated to speak out and share the implications of this fundamental truth. And Thomas Merton did just that.

In 1961 he began to speak out on war and nonviolence. In 1963 he began to speak out on civil rights and race. He was the one who warned white liberals ending racism required more than passing laws.

He was the one who called Northern liberals who lived in racially segregated communities but condemned racial segregation in the south. He was the one who joined Dr. King in attacking all three of the “giant triplets:” racism, extreme militarism, and militarism.[7]

Merton also joined Dr. King in opposing the war in Vietnam and the Pentagon’s policy of destroying villages to save them. Merton’s affirmation of the precious value of each human life is especially important today when some in places of power talk of launching a “first strike” with nuclear weapons to “neutralize” North Korea or respond to a major cyberattack on our nation.

King and Merton’s commitment to nonviolence also grew from the belief all human life is precious; that we are all brothers and sisters of the living God. Human relations, they felt, should be governed by love – not sentimental, Hallmark love, but rather the love we hear of in 1 John 4:7-10:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Along with Dr. King and Preacher A. J. Muste and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Merton believed their America was in the midst of a providentially appointed time in history.[8] Today, our federal government is shut down by political intransience and far right ideas.

A recent poll shows 88 percent of Americans support continuing the CHIP program that helps parents provide affordable health care to children who would otherwise not receive preventive care and other medical services. Its federal funds ran out on Sept. 30[9] and those who lead America have only now decided to include CHIP in a funding measure, causing some to accuse these politicians of playing politics with children’s lives.

By an almost 8 to 1 margin — 79 percent — think Dreamers should be allowed to remain in the country and apply for citizenship.[10] Yet those who rule America refuse to protect these dreamers from being deported from our nation. Suddenly, the land of the free and the home of the brave seems a lot less free and a lot less brave.

Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Kr. together offer us a way to respond to America’s current difficulty. Theirs is a way based on seeing the value in all people, of refusing to hate those with whom we disagree, of using nonviolent actions to change ourselves and those we oppose. Merton calls each of us who want to be a Christian to develop within our lives a time of silence and solitude so we can sense our inner self, a step which enables us to become more aware of our own true self and of God.

Let us join in a prayer Merton wrote. Let us pray:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

May God’s church say Amen.[11]


[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY, Doubleday), 140-42.

[2] Op cit.

[3] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964), 25.

[4] Ibid. 289.

[5] Albert J. Raboteau, American Prophets, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018), 129.

[6] Thomas Merton Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions. 1966), 15.

[7] Ibid. 136.

[8] Ibid. 130.

[9] on 1/20/2018 11:04 PM

[10] on 1/20/2018 10:57 PM

[11] on 1/20/2018 11:13 PM


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