Friday, February 10, 2012

Cold War Letters redux

In April of 1962, Thomas Merton (Father Louis to his Cistercian Order brothers) was ordered by his abbot, Dom James Fox, via the Abbot General of the Cistercian Order (O.C.S.O.) in Rome to stop writing about war and peace. What instigated the controversy was an article Merton wrote for The Catholic Worker newspaper (Oct 1961) called “The Root of War is Fear”.

Also in October 1961, Merton began writing a series of letters to influential thinkers, writers, politicians, and activists about what he saw as a serious global crisis; the reality of nuclear war. From October 1961 to October 1962 his letters made the rounds, for they were read by more people than the receivers. His letters coincided with the Berlin Crisis to “The Cuban Missile Crisis”.

We have Merton’s Cold War Letters in book form now as of 2006, in paper only, no Kindle version for immediate download. Merton published them, with a preface, privately but never intended a wide printing.

Merton wrote with thoughtful persuasion, cognizant of the multiple lenses of perspectives worn by his potential audiences. His letters, 111 of them, read with resonant meaning today, fifty years later. I cannot name a contemporary Catholic sister, brother, or priest who writes publicly in this way. Can you?

Writing today, as in this short piece, can be immediately posted and widely disseminated with unfathomable yet real accelerated immediacy. How would Merton and Dorothy Day operate today with the digital tools we possess? How would Pope John XXIII have reworded his “Pacem in Terris” had he been able to tweet?

The complexities of today’s issues where the Catholic Church is part of the orbit are not counterbalanced or thoughtfully examined with meaningful writing. The news of this particular day has a narrative that reminds us that the Catholic Church is in serious business (as in healthcare, not to mention other sectors) and looms as a powerful constituency for American candidates to court in the coming months. A Church sincerely stands for their beliefs in contraception yet, with benign neglect, sanctions war with an Augustinian “just cause” argument.

The intellectual torch that Gandhi lit, that Merton kept burning in his writing, dims in a field somewhere, still smoldering, warm. King held it for a while and marched with it. It’s a dangerous instrument to see much less touch. Dangerous still to write about non-violence, the absurdity of war, when war’s become such lucrative business, a veritable profession one can choose or not choose in this land of the free. War’s a necessity. It’s pragmatic. What would we do without it? We publicly trade it. We invest. We’re paid nice dividends. We outsource it with practical ease and peace of mind to contracted peacekeepers, subcontracted to uniformed government oath-taking leaders.

The Cold War and the contemporary War on Terror share absurdities in their very titles. The Cold War wasn’t cold and isn’t over. The War on Terror is a war fought against a method, a technique pioneered by the likes of Manachem Begin (in his Irgun days as architect of the King David Hotel bombing, 1946) and Guy Fawkes (that 1605 “Powder Plot” is an awkward subject in Catholic History).

With struggle, we've become weary, lost the spiritual anchor of God (I have often), while arguing over God's favor as if God favors. We have alternatives and choices in where we focus our faith; be it to a deity or a tree, a sport, or a lover, or nothing. Perhaps we question the very existence of faith. I wonder about my own sometimes. Sometimes I feel like a Quaker without membership.

I like Merton’s self-summary here;

"Whatever I may have written, I think it all can be reduced in the end to this one root truth: that God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another in Christ, in the Church which is His Mystical Body. It is also a witness to the fact that there is and must be, in the church, a contemplative life which has no other function than to realize these mysterious things, and return to God all the thanks and praise that human hearts can give Him. It is certainly true that I have written about more than just the contemplative life. I have articulately resisted attempts to have myself classified as an "inspirational writer." But if I have written about interracial justice, or thermonuclear weapons, it is because these issues are terribly relevant to one great truth: that man is called to live as a child of God. Man must respond to this call to live in peace with all his brothers and sisters in the One Christ."...from the Thomas Merton Center Collection, Bellarmine University, KY.

I wish I had his faith, or at least the faith he expressed and the resolve to write it. I know he was as human as you and me.

Ours is a connected world, that's always been connected. The tools we have in our hands allow us to experience and share the connections in immediate ways. Merton mailed letters after typing them, peeling the carbon paper, keeping the copies, re-using the carbon paper, walking to the gatehouse of his Gethsemani Abbey, dropping off the letters and walking back to his room to begin typing again. Today, we point, click, slide our finger, and curse when the auto-correct wizard inserts "chicken" when we meant "checking".

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Ryan,
    I have just 'found' this book and am devouring it now. I feel this book and Father Merton's letters are even more compelling today. As a child of the 60s - I was blissfully unaware of what was going on - as a grown woman now, I am ashamed I have done so little to carry on that torch handed down to me...I hope through my own writing and my own speaking out, I am able to remedy that.

    I think you DO have his faith...don't sell yourself short. You can affect change...we are called to do so. And if Thomas Merton could disobey and create such a peaceful uproar, so can we.

    In peace,