Thomas Merton: Peacemaker
I think that Thomas Merton could easily be called the greatest spiritual writer and spiritual master of the twentieth century in English speaking America. There is no other person who has such a profound influence on those writing on spiritual topics, not only on Catholics but non-Catholics, as Merton has.
Lawrence Cunningham, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton p.183
With Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) personified the potential of the Catholic peace tradition in America. Merton stands out as one of the most brilliant peacemakers in the entire Catholic tradition.
Ronald Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition p. 249
Merton never fully embraced pacifism. Like Thomas More and Erasmus, he believed in the theoretical applicability of the just war. Yet, like the Renaissance Humanists, he looked at the horrors of contemporary warfare and concluded that the just war theory was irrelevant in practice. He was, in fact, one of the first “nuclear pacifists”.
Ronald Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition p. 250
I Merton: War and Peace
On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of great war, and down in the shadow of some mountains on the border of Spain, I came into the world.
Merton, indeed, came into the world ‘in a year of great war’. WW I dominated Europe when Merton was born, he lived through the carnage of WW II, the Korean War, McCarthy-Cold War years and the emergence and devastating nature of the Vietnam War. Merton’s social conscience became more public with the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, the nuclear threat, the rise of ecological consciousness and much American domestic violence in the 1950s-1960s. In short, Merton lived through a period in 20th century history in which war and violence were the order of the day, and he sought, through a variety of means, to be a moderate and peacemaking voice and presence. How did Merton become the significant peacemaker that he did, and what was Merton’s understanding of peacemaking? This short paper will, in a suggestive and historic way, answer these questions.
Merton’s life journey can be divided into four distinct yet overlapping phases, and it is in the fourth season of Merton’s life that his peacemaking vocation became the clearest and most mature.
The first phase (1915-1938) was a rather indulgent and narcissistic period in Merton’s life that can be partially explained by a reaction to the loss of both parents when young and an inheritance that paid for schooling at Cambridge and Columbia Universities. Merton was well provided for throughout the depression of the 1930s (unlike many who weathered the depression in dire need), and he was rarely in need of finances. The fact that he made a woman pregnant when in England and his commitment to his studies at Clare College was hit and miss meant that his guardians recalled him to New York and were more fastidious in monitoring his activities. It would have been impossible in the 1930s to ignore the fact that war was afoot, and one of Merton’s earliest novels, My Argument with the Gestapo, ponders the events of the 1930s in Germany, England and the USA. The book is not particularly deep or profound, it tends to lean more in an aloof and aesthetic direction than a more probing and exacting moral path, but there is no doubt that Merton was preoccupied with the meaning and significance of war at the time. Merton came to see, though, that his rather wayward life lacked substance, and he was in desperate need for boundaries to discipline his rather undisciplined and ill directed desires and longings.
The second phase (1938-1948) can be seen as a counterpoint and reaction to his initial phase. Merton turned to the Roman Catholic tradition in 1938, but he was convinced, increasingly so, that the role of a lay catholic was not his vocation. Merton received his MA in February 1939 (his thesis was on William Blake—who certainly had firm views on war and peace), and he began doctoral studies on Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1939. Was Merton to become an academic who would teach English Literature or was his trail to be different? Merton was not convinced the academic path was to be his, and he applied to the Franciscans, but was rejected when he was too honest about his questionable youth. WW II was very much before one and all at Easter 1941, and Merton did a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani at the time to further discern his vocation. He came to think, in his enthusiastic manner, that Gethsemani was ‘the center of America’. Merton waffled for a few months in the autumn of 1941 between working with Catherine de Hueck Doherty at Friendship House in Harlem or becoming a Cistercian monk at Gethsemani. Merton was quite aware at the time of ‘Catholic Action’ and the challenge of discerning ways of being a justice activist. The correspondence between Merton and Doherty in the autumn of 1941 is most telling and instructive. Merton seriously pondered in 1941 whether his vocation was to be a political activist. Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Catherine de Hueck Doherty (2009) speak volumes about another path Merton almost chose, and the letters between Merton and Doherty in the autumn of 1941 are lengthy, informative and illuminate much about Merton’s thinking at the time. It is significant that Merton, after months of pondering, was interviewed by Abbot Dom Frederick Dunne on December 13 1941, and he became a postulant choir monk. The attack on Pearl Harbour occurred December 7 1941, and on December 8 1941, Congress declared war on Japan. The dogs of war had certainly been unleashed when Merton joined the Cistercian order. If Merton’s earliest phase was one of indulgence, then his second phase was definitely a lean and ascetic one. The Cistercians were, at the time, one of the strictest orders in the Roman Catholic tradition, and they turned far away from the madding crowd. Merton joined the Cistercians at a time when the world was at war, and throughout the duration of WW II, Merton seemed dead to the world. Was Merton a pacifist at the time? I don’t think such a position can be argued with any surety. We do know, though, that Merton was thoroughly immersed himself in the contemplative way of the Cistercians. The ‘vita activa’ had led the west into the carnage and tragedy of war. Could the ‘vita contemplativa’ offer an alternate way? These were the deeper questions that Merton had to ponder, think about and live through in the 1940s. WW II ended in 1945, and Merton was growing in his monastic vocation. Many were returning from the war badly bruised in soul and body, and Merton’s writings on the contemplative way, poetry and spirituality spoke to a generation of people that had seen the darkest and most brutal aspects of the human condition. The publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 catapulted Merton to prominence. It’s hard to believe, but by the spring of 1949, 100,000 copies of The Seven Story Mountain had been printed. Merton spoke to a generation hungry for something more meaningful than war, killing and lost lives. There is a sense that with the vivid tale told by Merton about his early life in The Seven Storey Mountain he could no more be a secluded monk hidden away and dead to the world. Many were now looking to Merton for spiritual guidance, wisdom and a north star to live by.
Merton’s third phase (1948-1958) was a period of time in which he emerged as one of the most significant writers in the USA and beyond on issues of the contemplative life, poetry, the monastic way, prayer, the role of the saints, liturgy, and the deeper meaning of interior transformation and the mystical life in God. He was master of Students (Scholastics) from 1951-1955 and of Novices from 1955-1965, and his articles, books and correspondence increased. Ascent to Truth (1951), Bread in the Wilderness (1953), The Last of the Fathers (1954), No Man is an Island (1955), Praying the Psalms (1956), The Living Bread (1956), The Psalms are our Prayer (1957) and Monastic Peace (1958) were just a few of the books that were published on contemplative life in the 1950s from Merton’s prolific pen. Gethsemani prospered because of Merton’s lucrative publishing, and many was the novice that came to Gethsemani to study with Merton. Merton had become for many a spiritual director that understood the core of the religious journey rather than merely the ornaments and externals. The inner digging that Merton did throughout most of the 1940s-1950s clearly defined and distinguished him as on the cutting edge of a new way of being Roman Catholic. Merton was keenly aware that at the core of the mystical, contemplative and meditative life was the ‘agon’ or struggle between the false and true self, the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Adam. The process of authentic self understanding meant that many a death and resurrection, phoenix-like, had to occur in the journey to the new being or new and divinized person. James Finley, a novice and directee of Merton’s, has written wisely and insightfully about the core of Merton’s transformative and razor sharp probes into the false-true self in his classic missive, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through the Awareness of the True Self (1978). The deeper journey to inner peace and outer peacemaking had to begin and end with a genuine understanding of the counterfeits and decoy ducks of the true self. If this did not occur, peacemaking could just become a more subtle form of a will to power and egoism.
Merton was aware, increasingly so, that the inner life should not be divorced from the outer life, contemplation should not be separated from public responsibility. The Cistercian order, in origin, was an order that had contemplative roots, but was engaged in many of the challenging issues of their time: Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelrid of Rievaulx and William of St. Thierry were front and centre in the hot button issues of their era. The more Merton dug into the origins of the Cistercians, the more he came to see that the monastery he was in had retreated from the world in a way the early Cistercians never did. In fact, the Cistercian order in origin emerged at a time in which war and peace could not be missed or ignored. But, there was sticky dilemma in this for Merton. This was faced in Merton’s book on Bernard, The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter (1954). There was no doubt that Bernard was the driving force and visionary of the 1st generation of Cistercians, and such a generation was thoroughly engaged in the tough war and peace issues of the time. The problem was this. Bernard came down firm and obstinate in a hawkish way for the 1st crusade, and he strongly encouraged a former monk in the order (then the Pope) to preach a convincing sermon on going to war against the infidels. Merton held Bernard high when it came to most of his exegetical and mystical writings, but his warlike politics and his treatment of Peter Abelard were problematic. Merton was very much finding his way in the 1950s, and he was, in many ways, outgrowing the Cistercian order, and yet he was committed to remaining a faithful Roman Catholic and Cistercian. Much was happening in the broader world and in the USA at the time, and Merton was alert and attuned to the shifts in the tectonic plates. Many were quite displeased with Merton’s turn to the world, and others were delighted by it, but there can be no doubt Merton had become, by the late 1950s, much more unified and integrated in his thinking and activism.
In sum, the first season Merton’s life tended to be rather indulgent and narcissistic, whereas the second season of his journey was ascetic and decidedly inward. The publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 (and the immediate success of it) meant that Merton had become a public monk, and a monk in much demand. Merton became well known in the 1950s, in the third season of his life, as an insightful and incisive writer on the contemplative life, poetry and mysticism. He was, in fact, one of the best, and he was turned to by many for his spiritual wisdom and insights. The fourth and final season was about to emerge, and the seeds of such a transition had been germinating for many a year.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was begun in 1956, and in this book there is the oft recounted March 18 1958 ‘Fourth and Walnut Street’ experience in which Merton realized, in a graphic and not to be forgotten way, that he was connected to the fate and lives of all he saw at the time. The notion that a monk could retreat from the world, ascetic and contemplative like, was shattered in this illuminating moment for Merton. There were, of course, contributing causes to such a transformative moment, but the Walnut Street epiphany was significant for Merton.
II Merton: Peacemaker
The fourth and final season (1958-1968) in Merton’s mature peacemaking journey can be found in much that Merton was pondering in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Merton would be a bystander no more. He had to discern, though, how his activism would be interpreted, thought through and lived. If the contemplative way is the roots from which the fruit of prophetic thought and action should emerge, where would Merton’s peacemaking path take him? This was not an easy question for Merton to answer, but the times were about to call forth an answer from Merton, and he was about to respond to the call.
The dilemma for many Roman Catholics in the 1950s-1960s was that the public expression of their faith was often hitched to either republican or democratic politics. Many a Roman Catholic school or parish had Pro Deo et Patria (for God and country) etched on the mantle. Kennedy had come to power in 1961 as a Democrat, and there were Roman Catholics that were more than pleased to shift their alliance from the republican tradition to the democratic. Were these the only two options, though?
Merton had reached a definite ‘fork in the road’ in the late 1950s. The issues that were coming Merton’s way could no more be ignored. Ernesto Cardenal, for example, had been a novice with Merton from 1957-1959, and he brought to Merton tragic tales of the situation in Latin America and Nicaragua. I was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s, and I had to interview Cardenal to get his reaction to an Amnesty report on Nicaragua.
After we finished the interview, I asked Cardenal about Merton. Cardenal waxed enthusiastic for more than an hour about Merton’s impact on his life and Merton’s sensitivity to the situation in Central America. I was rather delighted and surprised that when we parted, Cardenal gave me signed copy of his book of poetry, The Music of the Spheres. American foreign policy in Latin America was wrecking havoc with the poor and marginalized. Merton could not, in good conscience, be blind to such life searing stories, and Cardenal was one of the more important novices who deepened and informed Merton’s conscience on these issues. The blacks in the southern states were opposing segregation and the cold war was creating a MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) situation. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) signaled a new shift in ecological awareness, and Merton’s interest in aboriginal people was highlighted in Ishi Means Man: Essays on Native Americans. There are even hints of Merton’s public awakening in his poem, ‘The Guns of Fort Knox’(1957). Fort Knox was in Kentucky (quite close to the monastery), and Merton could not help but be aware of the shattering of monastic silence by the nearby military gunfire. There was, in short, fragmentation, alienation and much violence afoot from a variety of places. Those who sought peace were often called ‘communists’, ‘pinkos’ or ‘antipatriotic’. Where could and did Merton turn for guidance as a peacemaker in such a time?
Merton had written Pope John XXIII in 1958 a few weeks after he was elected as Pope. Pope John XXIII responded to Merton’s letter on February 11/1960. Merton was somewhat surprised in April 11/1960 when Lorenzo Barbato brought Merton a gift from the Pope: it was the stole that Pope John XXIII wore at his coronation. Merton’s work in peacemaking had many affinities with the peace Pope, and it was these explicit affinities that bore much fruit at Vatican II. The recent book by James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (2008, 2010), makes it abundantly clear that JF Kennedy, as a Roman Catholic, had a passion for peace, like the Pope and Merton, and as Kennedy moved more in a dovish direction in his foreign policy, his life became expendable for many of those in power. Douglass has done an admirable job in JFK and the Unspeakable in highlighting the Roman Catholic peace tradition of which Merton, Pope John XXIII and Kennedy played a significant role, and the role they played brought much peace and avoided war with the USSR in the early 1960s.
Merton was fortunate, also, in having a living precedent and yet another presence to guide him on the peacemaking journey. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker had been active since the 1930s in the area of peacemaking and justice issues amongst the poor in the inner city of large urban centres. Day and the Catholic Worker modeled a way of being more radical in their understanding of the public aspect of the faith journey. Merton began a correspondence with Day in July 1959, and he wrote twenty-nine letters to her between 1959-1968. In a letter to Day in December 1965, he said, ‘If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church’. Merton was drawn to the more radical approach to public faith than the democratic and republican read of the faith. Jim Forest (a friend and correspondent of Merton summed up Merton’s relationship to Day well when he said:
Thomas Merton was one of those who had a high opinion of Dorothy Day and the movement she led. In the summer of 1961 he submitted the first of a series of articles – ‘The Root of War is Fear’ – to the Catholic Worker. (Peace in the Post-Christian Era, ‘Foreword’ p. ix)
The Roman Catholic peace movement in the 1960s was a mixture of people with complex motives and erratic impulses. Merton and Day were aware of this, and their task was to shape and direct the meaning of peacemaking in a meaningful and less reactionary direction. Michael Mott, true to the mark, summed up the dilemma of Day and Merton:
Merton sent letters of support for the non-violent peace strike organized by The Catholic Worker to Dorothy Day and Jim Forest in the spring of 1962. The letter to Forest appeared in The Catholic Worker in February. In the private letters between Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the two shared anxieties about the future of the movement. Both agreed on Forest’s integrity and intelligence, but for Dorothy Day there were too many young people who wanted to help who seemed consumed by violent personal conflicts. (The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, p. 377)
It was these ‘violent personal conflicts’ between many within the peace movement that, understandably so, worried Day and Merton. Both knew that if the peace movement was not grounded in something deeper than mere protest and reaction, more harm would be done than good. Merton was about to face his own challenges in this regard.
Merton was also impacted by the rising Beat and counter culture tradition that emerged in the 1950s-1960s in the USA. Many of the Beats and those who anticipated the Beats such as William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Cid Corman, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder had definite views about the American empire and its tendency towards war and military aggressiveness. Merton corresponded with most of these people, and some of his thinking about peace was shaped and formed by them. I have written about the Big Sur and North Cascade Beats in my missive, Thomas Merton and the Beats of the North Cascades (2008).
There had not been many solid books written on the Christian tradition of peacemaking when Merton entered his peacemaking phase. William Shannon has rightly suggested in Passion for Peace: The Social Essays that Merton’s commitment to peacemaking entered a white heat phase between 1961-1962. It was at this period of time that Merton’s ‘Cold War Letters’ were written and eventually published. There are 111 letters that were written by Merton between October 1961-October 1962, and each of these letters, from a variety of insightful perspectives, deals with issues of war and peace. It was at this period of time, also, that Merton was working on a book on the history of Christian peacemaking. The book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was completed in April 1962, and Merton hoped the book would be published in the autumn of 1962. The Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance was Dom Gabriel Sortais, and he insisted that Merton could not publish the book. Sortais was convinced it was not the role of a monk to be writing on peace and war, public issues and politics. Needless to say, Merton was infuriated by the censuring of his emerging vision of the public role of a monk. Sortais would not back down, though. Merton was fortunate that his Abbot, Dom James Fox, made it possible for him to publish the book in mimeographed editions. There was quite a hunger for the missive, and it has been estimated that by the end of 1962, there were 500-600 copies of the book.
Peace in the Post-Christian Era was not formally published until 2004, and the ‘Foreward’ by Jim Forest and the ‘Introduction’ by Patricia Burton tell the story well of Merton’s journey to be a published peacemaker. The interior reaction of Merton to the command of Sortais is recounted in an honest and vulnerable manner in the letters that passed between Merton and Jim Forest. Merton was certainly learning what it meant to be at peace in a context in which his passion for peace was being subverted, denied and negated. It is significant to note, though, that at much higher levels than Sortais and the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), Vatican II was in process, and much of Merton’s thinking on peace was having an impact on the Council. The publication in April 1963 of the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope John XXIII, was almost step for step with Merton’s thinking on the arms race and nuclear weapons.
Merton’s thinking on peace in the nuclear era was grounded in the Christian tradition of peacemaking, but many of the conclusions he made meant that he had become allies with those within the much broader peacemaking community in the USA and beyond. Merton turned to the Orient for leads on peacemaking, and his missive on Gandhi, Gandhi on Non-Violence (1964), made it abundantly clear that his peacemaking bucket could be dipped in different wells for life giving waters. The emerging countercultural movement and Beat tradition within the USA was drawn to Merton’s writings on peace. New Directions Press and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were keen to publish Merton’s prose and poetry on peace. In fact, Merton’s impact on the larger peace movement spread in a diversity of directions, and the fact he grounded his understanding of peace in a deeper contemplative and communal way of knowing and being meant he had earned the respect of many in the trenches of the more activists wing of peacemaking.
Merton had joined the Fellowship of Reconcilation (FOR) in 1961. FOR’s statement of purpose is clear. Those who join the organization are committed not to fight in war or assist those engaged in combat. Merton was more than willing to sign the pledge as Kennedy intensified the war in Vietnam and the hawks in the arms race continued to build up their machines of war.
The initial publication of Original Child Bomb: points for meditation to be scratched on the walls of a cave in 1961 that dealt with the bombing of Hiroshima was published in Robert Lax’s magazine, Pax, but the sheer power and insights of the prose poem needed much wider attention and circulation. This is why New Directions republished the lengthy and incisive prose poem in 1962. Needless to say, such an approach and interpretation of the American bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki did not go over with hawkish and patriotic Americans who thought the bomb had to be dropped to end WW II. I have a copy of the 1962 New Directions publication of Original Child Bomb with all the black ink sketches that illuminate the graphic and vivid text. Those who take the meditative time to sit with the text and sketches cannot but be internally transformed by what Merton was trying to say and do.
There is a rather stark and poignant transition in Merton’s thinking in The Tower of Babel (1957) and Merton’s “Auschwitz” poem, ‘Chants to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces’(1961). The Tower of Babel is a rather crude and simplistic, detached and disengaged version of More’s Utopia, whereas the publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1961 of ‘Chants To be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces’ is grounded and rooted in real history, real people and the gruesome events of Germany in WW II. There is a maturing of Merton’s thought and poetic/prophetic vision between his more apocalyptic and dualistic vision in Tower of Babel and his more compassionate, informed and engaged commitments in Original Child Bomb and ‘Chants to be Used’. The final season of Merton’s life was one of raids on the unspeakable and emblems in a season of fury. The ascent to truth had given way to the descent into the prophetic truths of history.
There are, therefore, hints of Merton’s more peacemaking and prophetic role in ‘The Guns of Fort Knox’(1957), but with the publication of Original Child Bomb (1961), ‘Chant to Be Used in Procession Around a Site with Furnaces’ (1961) and the joining of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1961, Merton had definitely entered the peacemaking fray. He could no more be a bystander. Contemplation and prophetic peacemaking action were wed in a wise, discerning and integrated manner. The mimeographed distribution of Peace in the Post-Christian Era was the mature fruit on a well tried tree.
III Pastor to Peacemakers
The most recent edition of Jim Forest’s biography of Merton, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (2008) has a fine chapter in it (‘Pastor to Peacemakers’). Forest knew Merton from 1961-1968, and he has internalized Merton’s peacemaking message in a way that few have done.
Jim Forest is now Orthodox, and he founded the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Forest worked with both Dorothy Day and Merton, and he was the director of Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years. ‘Pastor to Peacemakers’ is laced with passages from Merton that deal with, primarily, the need for peace in the inner life if peace in the outer world is going to have much meaning. Merton was a master of dissecting the complex and often contradictory motives that brought people from a variety of backgrounds to the peacemaking vocation.
Merton lead a retreat for peacemakers in November 1964 that was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the theme of the retreat was ‘The Spiritual Roots of Protest’. Many of the leaders of the peace movement attended the event: A.J. Muste, Jim Forest, J.H. Yoder, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, John Oliver Nelson, Tom Cornell, W.H. Ferry and Tony Walsh. The fact that the group was a mix of protestants and catholics meant that historic divisions between these groups had to be overcome and peace between them initiated. The Berrigan brothers put together what Merton called an ‘uncanonical’ Mass in English that served the bread and wine to one and all. This was rather radical at the time, and Merton found it ‘way out’ yet ‘simple and impressive’. Merton spoke about Franz Jagerstatter’s resistance to the Nazis and the fine work Gordon Zahn had done on uncovering the historic peace tradition. The retreat was a historic event for a number of significant reasons: the inner roots of peace were probed, peacemakers from various faith traditions were brought together and an ‘uncanonical’ Mass was served that brought ecclesial peace between different Christians.
Merton’s passion for peace, as I briefly mentioned above, drew from the dimmed Christian tradition, but Merton’s vision for peace also spoke to peacemakers from other religious traditions. The Vietnam War had certainly reached a feverish pitch by 1967, and in May 1967 Thich Nhat Hanh (a Buddhist monk from Vietnam) visited Merton at Gethsemani monastery for a couple of days. It was from such a meeting that Merton said ‘Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother’. Dan Berrigan suggested to Merton in 1967 that he go to Vietnam as a ‘hostage for peace’. Merton was open to the suggestion, but the idea never became a reality. Berrigan published a book with Thich Nhat Hanh, The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist/Christian Awareness (1975) that demonstrated the direction more radical Roman Catholics were going on the path of interfaith awareness. Merton had meetings with the much younger Dalai Lama when he was in India in the late autumn of 1968, and Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letters of Thomas Merton (2006) illustrate in ten compact chapters how wide ranging was Merton’s commitment to peace in his dialogue with leaders of other faith traditions.
Merton, although not aware of it, was closing in on the final few steps of his life in 1968. Merton had dreamed of becoming a hermit for many years, and he had become one at Gethsemani, but his popularity made virtually impossible to be a hermit. Many were the visitors to his hermitage. Merton longed for a more isolated and secluded hermitage. He was given permission in 1968 to look for a hermitage far from Gethsemani, and his final few books, Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook May 1968, Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals, and Letters and The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton embody and reflect his quest for deeper silence and a hermitage where the meaning of inner peace could be more meaningfully explored. Sadly and tragically so, Merton died in Thailand after giving a lecture on ‘Marxism and Monasticism’ in December 1968, the issue of justice and peace ever before him. I was fortunate in the autumn of 2008 to visit the site of Merton’s led retreat in Eagle River in Alaska. My trek to Alaska was organized to coincide with the exact days Merton had been in Alaska (only forty years later). I used Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals, and Letters as my guide. This book is often ignored in the final phase of Merton’s journey, but the retreat he led brings together, in an evocative, compact and probing way, Merton’s commitment to contemplation and action, peacemaking in the inner and outer life. It is, in many ways, a more judicious and informed book than The Asian Journal. My article on my pilgrimage, ‘In the Footsteps of Thomas Merton: Alaska (The Merton Seasonal: A Quarterly Review: Vol. 33, No.4, Winter 2008) ponders how wisely and thoroughly Merton had integrated much of his life long thinking in his Alaskan trip and the retreat he led when there.
Merton’s peacemaking journey can be summed up in four phases in his short pilgrimage. The first season (1915-1938) tended to be a more indulgent and narcissistic phase in which Merton was young and egoistic. There were hints in his early years of something deeper, but not much more than erratic and undeveloped pointers of the path he would walk. The second season (1938-1948) was, in some ways, a penitential and ascetic phase in Merton’s journey. The quest went much deeper for an inner peace that was definitely lacking in Merton’s scattered and fragmented youth. The publication and immense popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 brought to an end the more insulated and isolated phase of Merton’s life. The third season (1948-1958) of Merton’s life was a combination of Merton uncovering the relationship of contemplation to peace and, equally important but in a more hesitant way, the relationship between contemplation and public responsibility. It was in the fourth and final season (1958-1968) of Merton’s journey that the integration between the inner peace of the contemplative way, peace and renewed concord between different forms of Christianity, peace in the larger political, social and economic realms and peace between Christianity and other religions was thought through and lived forth in the most meaningful manner. It is in this final phase that ‘Merton stands out as one of the most brilliant peacemakers in the entire Catholic tradition’ and ‘one of the first nuclear pacifists’.