In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.
Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.
Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.
Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.
All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.
As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.
This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:
He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:
Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.
There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.
In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.
As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.
Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.
Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.
It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.
Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.
There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying
We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.
How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?
Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.
It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.
In my new eBook short The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton, which is also available as a paperback, I have collected many of Thomas Merton’s humorous journal entries. These brief passaged show how deeply he loved his monastic community and also how badly it let him down when it could have done so much more for the common good at a moment of international crisis.
There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.
It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.
In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.
I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.
Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.
On sale now: The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton