December 10th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual author. He is one of the most widely read Catholic authors of this century and is a favourite among Christians involved in social justice issues.
Merton receives very little attention in pro-life circles; this is a shame because there is so much in Merton’s life and work which can both help and inspire pro-lifers.
Without acknowledging it, the pro-life movement is indebted to Merton. Writing in the fifties and sixties, he did much to transform the Catholic notion of the relationship between faith and social justice. Merton saw it as an essential duty of the Church to fight for what is just in society, to work against unjust laws and structures. For him it was not enough for Christians to care for the victims of injustice.
Today in the pro-life movement we take this perspective for granted. Pro-lifers everywhere agree that our work involves more than stopping individuals from choosing abortion. We seek laws and policies which protect the unborn.
As they have immersed themselves in the work of changing society, many pro-lifers have been shocked by the vehemence of the opposition which they have encountered. It leads some to conclude that the world has never been so bad, that the end must be near. Reading Merton is most instructive in this regard. Addressing social justice issues more than a quarter century ago, he makes clear how strong is the opposition between the established political order and Christian ideals. He quickly puts the opposition we face today into perspective.
The inspiration to be found in Merton is not just in his writings, it is also in his life. Raised in a non-Christian family, Merton as a young man led a rather depraved existence. As a college student he immersed himself in the values of pleasure-seeking society, including fathering a child.
His conversion was a profound one. Within two years of embracing Christianity he found himself seeking admission to a Trappist monastery. Merton’s life is a reminder to those doing pro-life work that even in a world in which God appears to have been thoroughly rejected, His love and grace are alive and active.
Merton’s struggles did not end with his admission to the monastery. In the early sixties he became a prominent writer on peace issues as he saw America more and more deeply committed to the ways of violence. He involved himself in the peace movement. Then his superiors ordered him to stop writing on the peace issue. They declared that it was inappropriate for a monk to be addressing the issue.
Merton obeyed, but the order caused him great pain. He struggled with bitterness and cynicism, often very imperfectly. Here Merton’s life is instructive for pro-life activists, many of whom have found themselves becoming disheartened and cynical when they see some Church leaders failing to fight abortion. How strong would be their bitterness should a leading priest be ordered not to write about abortion! Merton lived through just such a challenge and emerged obedient and faithful.
Despite his harsh critique of the secular order, Merton never despaired of the world. Even as he assumed the life of a hermit, he developed a rich appreciation of the contemplative traditions in Islam and Zen Buddhism. He did so confident that God is the author of all life and that His love and truth are to be found in many hearts and in many places. Those of a different faith are not simply to be converted, they are to be welcomed as children of God whom we can work with and learn from.
In many ways the pro-life movement has followed Merton along the same path. Any pro-life meeting today brings together Catholics and Evangelicals. Their goal is not to convert each other, but to work together to do something beautiful for God. In the years ahead, as Canadian demographics change, the movement will include people whose faith is outside the Christian tradition. Merton is one of the pioneers who has made such interfaith action possible.
Throughout his life and throughout his writings Merton remained a contemplative – one seeking God – and his greatest contribution lies in his ability to bring his readers deeper into the mystery which is God’s love and being. He is particularly interesting guide for pro-life people because he sees work for social change not as a distraction, but as an integral part of one’s journey to God.