Contemplation And Resistance

A key figure in the spiritual renewal of these years was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who died in 1968. Merton was a transitional figure, bridging various worlds: the world of the nuclear arsenals and that of the counter— culture, the world of Tridentine Catholicism and that of the new liberating vision of Vatican 2, the world of Western Christianity and that of the Asian mystical traditions, the world of middle America and that of the emerging Christian radicalism. Merton died as that explosive and seminal year, 1968, drew to its close. His death occurred as liberation theology, the mystical wing of the counter-culture, the charismatic renewal, and the beginnings of modern feminism were emerging. His own journey was a microcosm of the spiritual currents of the age, reflecting the strivings and struggles, the dilemmas and upheavals of an entire generation.

During the 1960s Merton wrote over twenty books, over half of them on social and political issues. The years from 1963 to 1968, when he was most prolific, were the years of his matured political consciousness. Behind the nuclear build-up, the war in Vietnam, and the racial rebellions in Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities, he saw a threat to the very nature of humanity. He believed that the integrity and freedom of the human person were under attack, and the defence of human integrity was central to his spirituality. In articulating his thoughts, he found that he was engaging with the minds of people far removed from him, and he became a prophetic guide and interpreter to many of those involved in the social and political struggles of the period. In the reflections of this solitary monk, many of those who were searching for a more human and more engaged spirituality found a solidarity in struggle, a sensitivity to the alienation and confusion of men and women in the modern world, and a clear analysis of, and commentary on, the violence and racism in Western culture.

Merton's message for activists was simple and direct. He believed that solitude was essential to any true experience of communion, and that activists needed the discipline of silence and contemplative prayer. He saw that they could easily succumb to a form of violence, expressed in hyper-activism and overwork, as they became carried away by too many demands and projects. Their frenzy neutralized their work for peace, for it destroyed its fruitfulness and killed the root of inner wisdom within them. For many Christian activists of these years, Merton was a source of inspiration and spiritual strength. He played a crucial role in the integration of contemplation and resistance.

Merton's vision was pluralist, ever open to new insights, open to the wisdom of the East, particularly of the Zen tradition, and of the insights of other faith traditions. He saw the main role of the monk in the modern world to be that of listening profoundly to the neglected voices of the world (Merton 1973a: 35). The monk, in his view, was a marginal figure, a person outside all establishments, one who withdrew to the margins in order to deepen fundamental human experience (Merton 1973b: 305). The monk's central task was one of continual scrutiny, watchfulness and interrogation. But, most of all, he was concerned to confront and unmask illusion and falsehood within religious and irreligious life, and it is here that Merton was a source of illumination, critical support and inspiration for so many.

For some years there had been a growing movement of Christian resistance to the evils of modern war, racism and injustice. It was inevitable that this movement would seek to discover spiritual roots and a theological basis for its activity. The year 1973 seems to have been a turning point. In January of that year a conference took place in Huddersfield on the theme 'Seeds of Liberation'. It was concerned with the spiritual roots of political struggle, and it brought together some of the key figures in the new radical spiritual quest—Daniel Berrigan, Colin Winter, and Jim Forest, among others. One commentator wrote: 'A new term has entered the vocabulary of politically radical Christians in Britain—spirituality' (Kee 1973:3). The task which these young Christians saw was not a cerebral critique of theology and politics so much as a flesh and blood discovery of spiritual roots.

It was the coming together in these years of Christian faith and the experience of structural injustice, particularly of modern war and racism, which led many Christians to see the need to work out their quest for holiness within the arena of political struggle. But at the practical and experiential level, many of the activists of the 1960s were moving to a deeper appreciation of the place of contemplative spirituality within the active life of discipleship, a development which was seen clearly in the career of the American theologian Harvey Cox. Many were realizing that terms such as 'activist' and 'spiritual', which in the 1960s were rarely found together in the same sentence, in fact belonged together. If people were to avoid exhaustion and 'burnout', a concern for one's inner resources was essential (Woodard 1983). Some drew on older traditions, such as that associated with the Catholic anarchist, Dorothy Day, whose Catholic Worker movement had set up houses of hospitality in the run-down urban areas of America since the 1930s. The Catholic Worker was a pioneering movement both in the creation of a Catholic radicalism and in the integration of liturgy and justice (Piehl 1982). By the 1970s its witness was having a powerful effect among young evangelicals.

As awareness of the nuclear, racial and ecological crises deepened, many Christians came to value the material world and human dignity with a renewed seriousness, and sought to nurture a spirituality which would support such concern. Out of these turbulent years came black theology, feminist theology, a new evangelical radicalism, and liberation theology, each of them movements which sought to grapple with concrete forms of oppression in the light of the Christian tradition.

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