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Thomas Merton on War, Gog & Magog

“ULTIMATELY THERE IS NO HUMANISM WITHOUT GOD”

By David D. Cooper | June 1986
David D. Cooper is a Lecturer in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Thomas Merton made two profoundly crucial decisions in his life. He announced the first with dramatic matter-of-factness in The Seven Storey Mountain. His casual remark to a friend — “You know, I think I ought to go and enter a monastery and become a priest” — set Merton’s life on a course of two decades with an aim “to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowl­edge of them.” Twenty years later, Merton made another important decision that would alter the balance of his life. This time he announced the de­cision in a letter to a friend. He selected that letter, with appropriate fanfare, to lead off his first collec­tion of Cold War Letters which, in 1962, he began circulating in mimeograph to a formidable samizdat of friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers — a collection of letters showing Merton very much involved in “created things” and reaching out to perfect his knowledge and understanding of them. Merton wrote:

One thing that has kept me very busy in the last two weeks…is the international crisis. It is not really my business to speak out about it, but since there is such a frightful apathy and passivity ev­erywhere, with people simply unable to face the issue squarely, and with only a stray voice raised tentatively here and there, it has become an urgent obliga­tion. This has kept me occupied and will keep me even more occupied, because now I am perfectly convinced that there is one task for me that takes precedence over everything else: working with such means as I have at my disposal for the abolition of war.

Underscoring the urgency of his new obligations, Merton quickly followed, in “Cold War Letter No. 2,” with this statement: “I feel that the su­preme obligation of every Christian…is to devote himself by the best means at his disposal to a strug­gle to preserve the human race from annihilation…to abolish war [is] the essential means to accomplish this end.”

Merton was well aware that his new commit­ment to speak out on the question of war and peace would be fraught with personal difficulties. Entering the public debate and even skirting the political arena may not have seemed appropriate or familiar terrain for a cloistered monk. He characterized his new task as that of a boxer who enters the ring blindfolded and with hands tied, and he has good reason to be wary of what lay ahead. As a writer he had already been handcuffed by many years of censorship regulations. He stressed in the inaugural Cold War Letters that his new commit­ments certainly wouldn’t endear him to the censors who, he fully expected, would raise “all sorts of trivial objections…. ” His hunch that “a lot of people are not going to like this and it may mean my head” was realized, in a manner of speaking, a year or so later when Merton was no longer per­mitted to publish articles on war and peace. But he was willing to press on in spite of such roadblocks.

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