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Christian Responsibility: Thomas Merton

April 27, 2023
Various “footprints” from our winged beach neighbors

Thomas Merton wrote the following words in an article he was asked to write for the magazine “Commonwealth” in 1961. Even though the article was discussing the Nuclear Arms Race, I find his words prophetically relevant sixty-two years later.

We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of the mass media that keep violence, cruelty, and sadism constantly present in the minds of uninformed and irresponsible people. We have to recognize the danger to the whole world in the fact that today the economic life of the more highly developed nations is centered largely on the production of weapons, missiles, and other engines of destruction… We have to recognize the implications of voting for politicians who promote policies of hate. (Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, pp. 57-58)

William H. Shannon, the book’s editor, wrote the following in his introduction to the chapter “Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility.” Merton’s views weren’t popular within the church and nation. Shannon wondered how Merton felt while dealing with the censors within his order and the greater church. These various rewrites also indicate something of the anguish, anxiety, and loneliness Merton experienced in presenting the positions he felt obliged to take. (p. 41)

In a world that is so fractured by division, mistrust, hatred, and fear; his words cut right to the core of the matter which is the chaos that has become human community. Battle lines are drawn and sides are arming up for war. The war of words can quickly escalate into a literal battle of arms. In a day and time where the idea of shooting first without considering other options is commonplace, the fears are being stoked by so many.

It is at times like this where I wrestle with my own responsibility to challenge what is all too commonplace today. I often feel my own anguish, anxiety, and loneliness while I wrestle with how to stay informed without being swept overboard by the tsunami that is the 24-hour news/opinion cycle. The whole mess is overwhelming for me to say the very least. Yet when I feel like withdrawing from the chaos and hiding away, I hear the words of Jim Finley, a clinical psychologist and former novice at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, who studied under Merton, as he described a teaching moment with Merton. He had come in to see Merton and was complaining about something. Merton told him: You didn’t come here to breathe the rarified air beyond the suffering of this world. You were brought here by God to experience the suffering of the whole world in your heart. Otherwise there’s no justification in living in a place like this. (John Paul, a song from Alana Levandoski’s album, Point Vierge)

To take on the suffering of the whole world in your heart… that’s a pretty hefty task to be given. However, just as Merton wasn’t the only monk in the world with this task, you and I dear reader, aren’t alone in this call to make a difference in the world today. Will you join me? By the grace of God, we will have the strength to do this together.

  1. I do agree…if not to be a change for good, what are we here for? Wonderful read Michael. 💚

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