Category Archives: Thomas Merton

Courage and nonviolence

Do not throw aside your boldness…
You need patient endurance to do the will of God…
Hebrews 10: 35-36

 Today is the international day of peace and nonviolence.

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma (the Great-souled one), was assassinated by a fanatic.

Gandhi had led the people of India in a long nonviolent campaign for independence. He also sought an end to the caste system and the marginalization of the so-called “untouchables.” In addition, he sought reconciliation between Hindus and Moslems.

The first writings of his that I remember reading were in the collection of Thomas Merton, Gandhi on Nonviolence.

What most impressed me was Gandhi’s insistence that nonviolence demands courage. A coward cannot be a practitioner of nonviolence. It is easier for a soldier to struggle nonviolently than for a coward. A soldier knows that he (or she) must be willing to sacrifice one’s life for others.

The votary of nonviolence must be courageous and willing to struggle, willing to die. If she or he cannot, it is better to use violence than to flee, as noted int hse two quotes of Gandhi from Merton’s book:

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence . The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

Nonviolence is a weapon of those without power – but it is not weakness.

Many think of nonviolence as passivity; probably for this reason, Gandhi called his method Satygraha – the force, the strength, of truth.

In Brazil, the method has been called firmeza permanente – permanent firmness.

In many ways this phrase mirrors what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews advocates:

Do not throw aside your boldness …
You need patient endurance/steadfastness to do the will of God.

May we learn boldness and endurance to live as followers of Christ and be true instruments of peace.

Love Your Enemies

Remembering today the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a plane in 2001, recalling the US sponsored coup in Chile in 1973, and noting the massacre at the church of Saint Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1988, today’s Gospel (Luke 6: 27-38) is one that most of us don’t want to hear.

love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you….
love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind
to the ungrateful and the wicked….
Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful.
…the measure with which you
measure will in return be measured out to you.

These words of Thomas Merton, in his essay “The Root of War Is Fear,” found in New Seeds of Contemplation and first published in The Catholic Worker in October 1961, give us a hint of why this Gospel is so challenging:

At the root of all war is fear, not so much the fear men 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 even 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.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. …

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 causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

And so today it would be good to ask ourselves if we are willing to let ourselves be converted, from fear to love, from self-righteousness to mercy, from revenge to self-giving nonviolence.

The paradox of Mary’s nothingness

…[Mary’s] highest privilege is her poverty
and her greatest glory is that she is most hidden,
and the source of all her power is that she is as nothing
in the presence of Christ, of God.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Today we Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Among the Orthodox, this is the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin.

The Dormition Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Dormition, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Gospel, the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, closes with Mary’s Canticle, the Magnificat.

Mary is the Lord’s handmaid, God’s lowly servant. But she connects that status with the grand revolutionary vision of a God

who scatters the proud-hearted
who casts the mighty from the thrones
and raises up the lowly,
who fills the starving with good things
and sends the rich away empty.

How can one whose “chief glory is in her nothingness,” according to Thomas Merton, be connected with such an upside-down vision of the world?

That’s the paradox.

Nothingness puts oneself at the service of a radical transformation.

God uses the poor and weak of the world to confound the strong.

Just because we are lowly doesn’t meant that our vision should be limited.

Our lowliness can open us to the wide vision of God and put us at the service of God’s Reign.

That lowliness recognizes our limitations but give us hope that our limitedness can help God transform ourselves and the world.

A fourth of July meditation

Hear this, you who trample on the needy,
to do away with the weak of the land…
I will turn your festivals into mourning,
and all your singing into wailing.
Amos 8: 4, 10

 While the US celebrates Independence Day with its proper lectionary readings, the universal church continues reading the prophet Amos, with his warnings against oppressing the poor.

Today the universal church also celebrates the feast of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, a queen who was a peacemaker and a lover of the poor.

St. Elizabeth, the daughter of the king of Aragon was given in marriage to the king of Portugal. As a queen she cared for the poor and needy, founding hospitals, orphanages, and homes for homes for “fallen women,” She cared for her children as well as the children of her husband’s affairs.

But she is known as the patroness of peace for her efforts to reconcile warring parties, many of whom were her relatives.

After her husband’s death, she lived as a poor Franciscan tertiary near a convent of the Poor Clares, but continued her work of reconciling enemies and preventing wars.

As noted in Robert Ellsberg’s Blessed Among All Women, she once said:

 Do not forget that when sovereigns are at war they can no longer busy themselves with their administration: justice is not distributed; no care is taken of the people; and this alone is your sovereign charge: this is the main point of your duty as kings.

All nations, especially the US, should take her words into account as well as the warning of the prophet Amos.

I dare say that Thomas Merton had it right when he wrote more than forty years ago:

It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?


From where we stand

Today is the anniversary of the execution in 1945 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, who opposed Hitler.

He had the chance to stay in New York City and avoid returning to Nazi Germany. This would have saved his life, but he decided that he needed to be in Germany, especially if he hoped to be part of the rebuilding of Germany after the war.

Where we stand is important. Where we walk and the people we encounter influence the way we look at the world, the way we live our faith.

I believe that that means being with the suffering, the poor, the marginalized – in some way or another. Then I think we will begin to understand the world, history, and ourselves.

As Bonhoeffer once wrote:

We have for once learnt to see the events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

A few days ago, I encountered this quote from Robert McAfee Brown, a US theologian, who was very sympathetic to Latin American liberation theology.

Stand up and speak on behalf of the poor
and those who need your voice in this world.
Remember that:
Where you stand will determine what you see;
Whom you stand with will determine what you hear;
What you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act.

For some, this might seem to be a secular, merely sociological reflection on the human way of understanding things.

But I think it is essential a Christ-centered approach. Jesus is God who became flesh and situated Himself in the midst of the pain, the suffering, the oppression, and the poverty of first century Galilee and Judea.

He thus provides His followers with a key to understand life, to understand history, to help make sense of our world – in the midst of the suffering.

And so meditating on the Passion of Christ should open ourselves to the suffering world. As Thomas Merton wrote in A Vow of Conversation:

 We have to see history as a book that is sealed and opened only by the Passion of Christ. But we prefer to read it from the viewpoint of the Beast. We look at history in terms of hubris and power — in terms of the beast and his values. Christ continues to suffer his passion in the poor, the defenseless, and his Passion destroys the Beast. Those who love power are destroyed together with what they love. Meanwhile, Christ is in agony until the end of time.

This is I think what has happened to so many who commit themselves to the poor. It is certainly what happened to Cardinal Raúl Silva who, as archbishop of Santiago, Chile, defended the poor and the oppressed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. He died fifteen years ago today, on April 9, 1999. In his Spiritual Testament he wrote:

My word is a word of love for the poor. Since I was a child I have loved and admired them. The sorrow and the misery in which so many of my brothers and sisters live in this land have moved me enormously. That misery is neither human nor Christian. I humbly ask that all efforts, possible and impossible, be made to eradicate extreme poverty in Chile. We can do it is a current of solidarity and generosity is promoted in all the inhabitants of this country. The poor have honored me with their loving affection. Only God knows how grateful I am for the affection they have shown me and their adherence to the Church.


The foolishness of love

The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.
1 Corinthians 3: 9

 What can be as crazy as loving your enemies, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, Matthew 5: 44?

What can be as foolhardy as praying for your persecutors – except praying that they may die before killing you?

An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” makes sense, until you realize, with Gandhi, that taking an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

Love your enemies.

We won’t even talk to those who hold a political position different from ours.

This is not just a problem in the polarized situation in the US. It is a problem here in the deeply polarized climate of Honduras. A friend recently told me of a base community in which two families have stopped coming – since they are in conflict largely because they supported different political parties (the Nationalists and LIBRE) in the last election.

Pray for your persecutors.

You’ve got to be kidding; they are out to kill me and take away my liberty.

But Saint Polycarp, the second century bishop of Smyrna whose feast is today, made sure that the soldiers who came to take him away had dinner. He went off to pray as they ate.

Closer to our time, one day, Dom Helder Camara, the twentieth century bishop of Recife, Brazil, opened the door of his humble dwelling to a man who was sent to assassinate him. The man demurred – “I cannot kill a man of God.”

Praying for persecutors, responding in love to them is not going to assure that we are not killed or injured. But it can make a difference in our lives and in the world.

Consider the example of Bud Welch whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was not easy and it took him a while but he went and visited the father of one of the bombers, Timothy McVeigh.

Bud came to realize that it would be wrong to kill McVeigh and the other bomber, for “the day that we might kill either one of them would be a day of vengeance and rage, and vengeance and rage is exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead.”

How to begin this?

Very simply, pray each day for someone with whom you are in conflict. Let God change your heart as well as theirs.

When I was a kid we prayed at the end of each Mass for the conversion of Russia. We forgot to pray for the conversion of our own country, the United States.

We forgot what Thomas Merton wrote at the end of one of his most poignant articles “The Root of War Is Fear”:

…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 causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

Let us pray for our own conversion and then we may be able to begin to love our enemies.

How foolish!





The dangers of wealth

Pope Francis has been getting a bit of criticism recently for his critique of the “culture of prosperity.” But his critique is not without precedent. Not only did Jesus warn about “filthy mammon,” but so did many of His followers.

When St. John Bosco went off for the seminary, his poor illiterate mother warned him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shan’t set foot in your house again.”

Don Bosco remembered this and dedicated his life to poor youth, especially in the industrialized cities of northern Italy in the nineteenth century. The congregation he founded, the Salesians, still devotes itself to the education and care of the young, even though in some places their school are havens for the rich. But Don Bosco maintained a commitment to the poor. As he noted:

I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people. I study for you, I work for you, I am also ready to give my life for you.

In fourth century Rome, St. Marcella had come from a wealthy family and married a wealthy Roman. After only seven months of marriage he died. As a widow she devoted herself to prayer and study of the Scriptures. She gave away her wealth, preferring to store her money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.”

On January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was born. He subsequently entered the Trappists and became one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.

Though Merton lived in a monastery, he too was aware of the dangers of wealth. As he wrote in 1949 to Sister Marialein Lorenz’s class,

I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.

Like Don Bosco, St. Marcella, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis is warning us about the dangers of wealth, as he writes in  Evangelii Gaudium,  ¶ 54:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…

This is a danger for all of us – no matter how much or how little we have. This merits our prayer and careful examination of our lives and our hearts.


Waking from a dream of separateness

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.

Saints in the ordinary


After this I saw a great crowd,
impossible to count,
from every nation, race,
people and tongue,
standing before the throne
and the Lamb,
clothed in white,
with palm branches in their hands
Revelation 7:9

Today, the feast of All Saints, we remember those who have lived among us showing us signs of the love of God, As Vatican II’s Constitution on  the Church (Lumen Gentium), put it: “God speaks to us in them and offers us a sign of His Kingdom….”

One of my favorite churches in Rome was Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola, the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew on the Island [in the Tiber], which has become the shrine of the New Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. Relics of some of these martyrs are found on the side altars and at the front of the church is a beautiful, detailed icon of he New Martyrs, those who have “washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14)


They represent only some of those who have witnessed to God’s love. If we look we can see “saints” in our midst who speak to us of God.

It is all too easy, however, to look at the saints as extraordinary heroes. But Thomas Merton, in No Man Is An Island, reminds us to seek the glory of God in the ordinary:

It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced with perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with His glory.

So today we are called to be signs of the Kingdom in the ordinary details of every day life.



This quotation from Thomas Merton in  Wisdom of the Desert is a fitting commentary on Columbus and the other “explorers”:

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.

“Proof: the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds, they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.”