John DEAR. Thomas Merton, Peacemaker: Meditations on Merton, Peacemaking, and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY. Orbis Books, 2015. pp. xv + 192. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-107-2. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.
Peace activist and prolific author John Dear has frequently pointed to the influence of Thomas Merton on his own commitment to nonviolence and social transformation, most notably in his earlier book The Sound of Listening: A Retreat from Thomas Merton’s Hermitage (2006). Now in commemoration of the centenary of Merton’s birth he has written a series of personal reflections on the significance of Merton’s witness as providing a model and an inspiration for contemplative peacemaking rooted in the Gospel and committed to making God’s reign of love, justice and compassion present here and now.
It is important to note the implications of the book’s subtitle. As the author points out in his Introduction, these “reflections” and “musings . . . are not presented systematically” but are “free-flowing commentaries and gentle meditations on key Merton teachings and moments intended to encourage all those passionate about peace and justice, the contemplative life, the spiritual life, and the long-haul struggle of active nonviolence” (xiv), and, one might add, to awaken those who are perhaps less than passionate about these issues to a deeper awareness that such matters are not peripheral to the Christian life but central to the vocation of discipleship.
Readers might find some of the preliminary material on nonviolence in the opening chapters somewhat “wordy” – even tending toward the “preachy” (and the incessant repetition throughout of the phrases “the God of peace” and “the nonviolent Jesus” – each used well over a hundred times, often multiple times on a single page – can become monotonous, even grating) but once Dear begins to reflect in detail on specific Merton texts, providing generous excerpts, his insightful commentaries not only invite the reader to share his appreciation for Merton’s words but create a fascinating “conversation” between himself and his mentor.
Dear is especially appreciative of the holistic integration of contemplative wisdom and social critique that he finds in Merton. He discusses not only essays that are explicitly focused on issues of war and peace, such as “The Root of War Is Fear” and “Blessed Are the Meek,” along with prose poems like “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces,” the chilling monologue of a concentration camp commandant, and Original Child Bomb, subtitled “Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave,” an ironic report on the development and use of the first atomic bomb, but pieces that are not explicitly concerned with social issues but that reveal the grounding of Merton’s spirituality of nonviolence in his contemplative search for union with God in and through participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Thus Dear provides beautiful reflections on such Merton texts as Hagia Sophia (drawing on the magisterial work of Christopher Pramuk on Merton’s theology and spirituality of wisdom), Day of a Stranger, “Rain and the Rhinoceros, “The General Dance” (the final chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation), the famous “Fourth and Walnut” epiphany that both marks and precipitates his “turn toward the world” in the final decade of his life, as well as the equally celebrated encounter with the Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka a week before his untimely death on December 10, 1968, his “Prayer to God the Father on the Eve of Pentecost” (a key articulation of Merton’s developing ecological consciousness, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) and the sermon He Is Risen that according to Dear reveals “Merton’s passionate faith in the risen Christ” as “the solid foundation for his monastic life and prophetic peace work” (168).
Dear also considers the importance of Merton’s friendships with Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh, Jesuit war resister and “model peacemaker” (107) Daniel Berrigan, and his “oldest and best friend” (108), poet and solitary Robert Lax. He provides as well wonderful anecdotes of his own contacts with these and other key figures in Merton’s peacemaker network, such as Myriam Dardenne, the founding Cistercian abbess of Our Lady of the Redwoods Abbey in California, and the little-known but very influential John Heidbrink of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who was largely responsible for the 1964 ecumenical peacemakers retreat hosted by Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani (which Heidbrink was unable to attend himself, being hospitalized at the time), and who just before his death passed on to the author his copy of A Thomas Merton Reader signed by all the retreat participants.
Also included are lovely descriptions of Dear’s own pilgrimages to locations associated with Merton, not only the hermitage at Gethsemani where he spent his final three years, but the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico that Merton visited twice in the last months of his life, reached from Dear’s own home south of Sante Fe by a road that passes by rusted mobile homes of the rural poor and the Los Alamos nuclear research center: “The poorest part of the country, the most violent place on earth and one of the most authentic spiritual centers of North America – all here in the stark New Mexico desert” (5). He likewise weaves together Merton’s and his own visits to the Monastery of the Redwoods, and to the awe-inspiring Redwood National Forest, site of the ancient stands of trees that give the abbey its name, and that provide, as Merton told the sisters and as Dear tells his readers, “an authentic atmosphere of prayer” and a place “where everything connects” (141) – or where one realizes that everything connects, that, in Dear’s words, “we cannot be peacemakers without making peace first with the earth – all her creatures, indeed, the entire universe” (142).
The ordering of some of the central chapters seems rather random – for example Merton’s 1964 edition of excerpts from Gandhi’s writings, accompanied by a seminal introductory essay, is considered in chapter 4, a discussion of Day of a Stranger, Merton’s account of a “typical” day at his hermitage in May 1965 (three months before taking up permanent residence there) is found in chapter 12, while his anti-poem on the death camps, published in 1961, is considered in chapter 19, and Hagia Sophia, published in 1962, appears three chapters later. A chronological progression might have made more apparent the development of Merton’s spirituality of nonviolence – but Dear effectively draws together his overall perspective on Merton’s witness for peace by considering high points of his Asian journey in the penultimate chapters 24 and 25, and then concluding with reflections on his resurrection sermon in chapter 26 and his vision of the all-inclusive cosmic dance from New Seeds in the final chapter that follows.Dear sums up what he has learned from Merton in his brief Conclusion in “three simple lessons” (179): “Claim Your True Self as the Beloved Son or Daughter of the God of Peace” – discovering an identity of intimacy with God that transcends culture or nation through regular practice of simple contemplative forms of prayer; “Live Every Day in Peace with the God of Peace, All Humanity, and All Creation” – letting this awareness of who one is find expression in what one does – an affirmation of communion with God and all God has made and a refusal to assent to anything that denies or undermines this communion; “Go Forth into the World of War as a Peacemaker” – a life of solidarity and resistance, a prophetic life that announces the good news of the coming of the reign of God and that serves as a sign of contradiction to the forces that oppose God’s reign, “war, systemic injustice, nuclear weapons, poverty, corporate greed, hunger, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction” (179-82). It is this holistic vision that Dear finds at the heart of all Merton’s writings, and at the center of his life as monk, Christian, peacemaker and authentic human being. This is a vision that the author has clearly striven to put into practice in his own life, which give his words an authority and power that make him not simply an interpreter of Merton but a powerful and challenging “voice crying in the wilderness” of contemporary racial unrest, drone warfare and the threat of ecological catastrophe, a voice not of superficial optimism but of sober, mature, Christ-centered hope.