Last week an extraordinary thing happened. An excerpt from a 1960 essay by Thomas Merton, a marginal monk from an obscure Trappist monastery in the hills of Kentucky, went mainstream. Who could have imagined such a thing? In the waning weeks of 2018, and one month before the 50th anniversary of his death, Thomas Merton, Fr. Louis, OCSO, went viral.
How? And more to the point, why?
A brief recap. About six days ago, a good friend from Toronto sent me a passage from Merton’s essay, “Christianity and Totalitarianism,” from the book Disputed Questions. I posted it to my Facebook page, just as many others from the global Merton community, it seems, were sharing it on theirs. The passage went viral. Within a few days, my post had reached 25K readers, while postings by Orthodox author and peace activist Jim Forest and the International Thomas Merton Society generated similar responses. And then, almost unbelievably, the passage was cited almost in its entirety, on air, by CNN’s Chris Cuomo. (Link to video below.)
Why? Take a moment to ponder Merton’s words for yourself.
A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations.
The member of a mass movement, afraid of his own isolation, and his own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within himself the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, he seeks a movement that will protect his weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify his acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not “ours.” This must be brought into line – or destroyed.
Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and which makes man the living image of God.
It is not accidental that Merton’s words have struck a collective nerve just days before the mid-term elections in the United States, amid the feverish, scorched-earth war by the “powers and principalities” for our hearts and minds in America.
But what struck my Canadian friend is not only how powerfully Merton’s words still speak to our current political climate, but also, and no less powerfully, how Merton urges us to remember the latent capacity for love, patience, and creative, generative silence that dwells in each of us. The spirit of love can resist and overcome the spirit of “totalitarianism”—a spirit of violent “othering,” I would hasten to add, that can infect mass movements on the left just as totally and absolutely as it seems to have overtaken the political right in our times.
Without denying the toxic power of hatred and vitriol that seems to have won the day in public society, Merton calls us back to ourselves, our deepest capacity as persons, for love. What seems to be weak in the face of hatred and violence is, in truth, our greatest power and strength, but it must be chosen and labored for “with inexhaustible patience.”
In short, there is a power that beckons to us from beyond left and right because it beckons silently yet fiercely from within every human heart: the capacity for love, which, when we listen and say yes, makes each of us into the living image of God.
May God help us this day, in our solitude and in every encounter, to listen for the call of love, and to say yes.