The centenary year of Thomas Merton’s birth in 1915 is an ideal time for reflections on his thoughts, activities and writings concerning the spiritual life. The author here, a well-known writer, activist and former director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, is a longtime admirer of Merton. He is as well suited as anyone to write about Merton’s relating spirituality to peacemaking. The theme of the book could be summarized in one sentence: the spiritual life is peacemaking, and true peacemaking for Merton is spiritual. The road to complete merger of these two truths is at the heart of Merton’s prolific writing.
The book consists of 27 brief meditations in which Dear explores Merton’s long journey, his steps from “liking” nonviolence to a final embrace of peacemaking as the core of his spiritual life. These steps take us through his finding in Gethsemani monastery the solitude and silence he so hungered for, and the constant deepening of the contemplative life he found there. But we also see the violence within that he had to confront and learn to deal with: the conflicts with some of his fellow monks and his chafing at what he considered “the idolatry of hierarchy.” Merton, we are reminded, was a pilgrim who never quite fit in.
He detailed his series of conversions and transformations in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and found inspiration when he prepared the collection of writings and action, Gandhi on Non-violence. The influence on Merton of many active peacemakers along the way is noteworthy. One is Thich Nhat Hanh, who in many meetings with Merton helped him explore Eastern ideas of compassion and daily mindfulness, continuing until shortly before Merton’s death in Bangkok in 1968. Merton could not have developed deeper insight into the spirituality of peacemaking without his close friendship with two other active peacemakers: Daniel Berrigan and the less well-known activist, writer, and poet Robert Lax, Merton’s oldest and best friend.
The reader may agree that Dear’s constant reminders of the evils of violence, the idolatry of war, and the urgency of banning all nuclear weapons cause in the first dozen chapters a certain repetitiousness—which Dear himself disarmingly concedes. But this is more than made up for by the discomforting wake-up call that comes in chapter 19, “A Chant for Peace,” where he allows Merton to hold the brutal truth about our own violence right before our eyes. Merton’s poem “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces” first appeared in the Catholic Worker in 1961, and in it we hear the chilling voice of a Nazi official celebrating, as if it were a devotional or pious act, his obedient work for the state in leading millions to gas chambers and cremation ovens. To make sure no one misses the point, Merton adds, “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”
Dear points out, especially in chapter 16, “Not Survival, but Prophesy,” how Merton’s personal road led him inevitably into the prophetic tradition. When Merton calls on all of us to rediscover our prophetic ministry, he is saying that each of us has a prophetic calling and that the faith community is a prophetic community. Friends will think immediately of George Fox’s rephrasing of the prophet Joel when he says, “Let not the sons and daughters, nor the handmaids, be stopped in their prophesying.”
In Dear’s view, explored in chapter 22, “Living with Wisdom, Our Feminine God,” Merton’s spiritual thought reaches its true completion and fulfillment when he publishes his famous prose poem “Hagia Sophia,” celebrating holy Wisdom as the feminine manifestation of God. Dear quotes a theologian’s words that “Hagia Sophia is Merton’s consummate hymn to the theological dignity of humankind and of all creation . . . It is a hymn of awakening, a hymn to peace, a call to peace.” Peace, to Merton, is submitting to the guidance of the Light of Christ.
Few of us will disagree that Dear’s book, slim as it is, succeeds in illuminating for us how the “Peacemaking” and the “Spiritual Life” of his subtitle are truly one.
Correction: the print version of this review erronous claimed that the author John Dear was a personal friend of Merton’s.