Mind discerns God's glory in sublime dawn’s slanting sun. Stiff legs spring toward fleeting sight. Arrival evokes awe, till tears at fading light. Glass pane frames what I perceive, renews what I believe, what Hebrew Prophets fervently conceived, as Christ's Sermon on the Mount decreed: God's work on Earth is ours.
Thomas Merton (1915-68), a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Louisville and Lexington in Kentucky grasped that with model resolve. The cottage hermit's hunt-and-peck-keyboard pounding poured letters, journals, essays urging complacent church and lay readers to counter racism and war. On page 446 in The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious and Social Concerns lies this prescient line: “Our basic need is for truth, not the images or slogans that engineer consent.”
Merton challenged church silence amidst Cold War confrontation, the Vietnam War and violent white supremacy. “When I pray for peace I pray not only that the enemies of my own country may cease to want war, but above all that my country will cease to do the things that make war inevitable,” his New Seeds of Contemplation noted. That aspirational goal for governments rested on the embrace of nonviolence ethics in everyday life, Merton believed. Merton bridged Trappist censorship, bonding with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., folk singer Joan Baez and Father Daniel Berrigan while molding the collective mind of my activist generation.
Long since Merton died, I sense his presence near the window, three months since I snapped the cellphone image. I’d knock then bend the knee were this house across the highway this unique figure’s home. Seventy books preserve his insights. When an old high school friend over Broadway diner corn muffins and coffee cites Buddhism's leavening effect on his own Judaism, I recall the Catholic Merton’s exploratory Zen and the Birds of Appetite and Asian Journal. The latter was his spiritual travel log to a Thailand conference for his untimely death from a short circuit fan wire when he had showered after his own conference remarks. Zen, he wrote, stood apart from religious systems and structures, yet could shine through like light through blue, red or yellow glass, illuminating truth in its pure state at the root of all things.
Merton exposed militarism and greed as a lurking iceberg, shadowed in the sea. Others still avert their eyes but thanks to him, not me. A seasoned mind with open soul seem aging’s fair-trade fruits, yet parquet bark’s slim spaces on the outside oak and elm seem to mock my passing ruminations. “They’ll never learn,” they warn, referring to pedestrians whose daily trash I gather. It’s a metaphor for intoxicants like luxury and accolade that like brass rings at carousels that grasping fingers near but never reach. We profess democratic ideals, dispense charity, denounce war – yet heed demagogues who stoke fear, blame victims, worship wealth.
“Do you feel hopeless,” a synagogue Social Action Committee colleague asked as we strolled in Prospect Park, to which I replied, “Indeed I do,” once discussion clarified.
“The people, with the right information, will make good decisions,” my late Dad declared. His assertive tone drove my youthful political ambitions, culminated to his surprise in my serving years on U.S. Senate staffs. Our recent midterm election slightly restored my tarnished faith in his even with injustice culturally embedded. My father, merchant seaman, union organizer, advertising copywriter, skeptical of Merton’s mysticism, relished the monk’s outspoken public conscience role.
“The great problem is the blindness and passivity of Christians, and the way they let themselves be used by crypto-fascist elements who get stronger and stronger every day. I have just realized that, as Catholics, we are almost in the same position as the Catholics before the last war in Hitler’s Germany,” Merton wrote Father Berrigan in November 1961. The far right’s ascension with the 1980 Reagan landslide was then unforeseen (although a Denver detective’s briefing at a 1994 San Francisco conference that I addressed on “Race and Ethnic Relations in Higher Education” chillingly warned that white supremacists were already infiltrating the nation’s school boards and police departments).
Merton’s influence advanced Catholic Worker hospitality for the Bowery’s Manhattan poor. It aided others’ Ban the Bomb vigils outside White House gates, as Merton’s ink deplored policies that pursued the science of efficient wartime killing, ignoring peacetime poverty. I believe that he would ask this of us if he were still alive: Will we hold the line with dignity and pride to face power’s fist and frosty eye? Or was our species destined at Creation to sow the seeds of its demise?
Tone deaf leaders stir lies, the Devil’s due. Oil barons compile full coffers, causing droughts in Europe, China, here. Nero plucks the fiddle, strolling Congress halls, the President pushing action. Half a million marching to the Washington Monument in November 1969 halted Nixon’s nuclear weapons threats against North Vietnam but protests now fade fast. Herculean grassroots efforts to feed the hungry, aid the migrant, warm the homeless or resist police abuse make incremental gains.
Merton’s challenge now: Have you found your platform for extracting right from wrong? Can you act from moral fiber even when the chips are down? Do you sustain the quest for justice when mundane concerns of others put intentions to the test?
Oh, I believed the star-spangled civics lie after college and the Peace Corps when I wore the U.S. Senate suit and tie. Having organized in urban precincts I had reached the hallowed halls where I nodded to the famous, as perhaps one day I’d be, until maturity revealed that with the people I should be. It's being more than doing now as what's left of hair turns gray. I've transitioned from careers in classrooms and on streets. I breathe deeply as I tap the cellphone screen in wonder: Would my model say I’ve lived by his values when my life is complete?