Forty-five years ago, on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died.
Trappist monk, writer and poet, peace advocate, a gregarious hermit, and more: he was a man of contrasts.
His biting essay “Devout Meditation on Adolf Eichmann” and his poem “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces” remind us of how easy it is to be accomplices in the killing of the innocent.
His essay, “The Root of War Is Fear,” in New Seeds of Contemplation, after appearing in the Catholic Worker inspires me in the midst of a world still paralyzed by fear.
The closing paragraph reveals his realization that war and violence have deep roots in our own hearts:
So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the cause of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate them in yourself, not in another.
In some way I think Merton’s insights into the roots of war came not just from his theology, but from his experience. One experience stands out: his famous Fourth and Walnut “epiphany” on March 18, 1958. He realized that we are all connected and therefore he was overwhelmed by the love he felt for all of them.
As he tells it in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness….
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! …
There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….
We are not strangers. We are connected in so many ways – even, perhaps especially so, in God becoming flesh and living among us.
Sometimes this is hard to see, but at times, when we open our hearts, this message that we are “all walking around like the sun.” And we would fall down – perhaps not in worship – but at least to wash each other’s feet.