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  • Writer's pictureTim Burns

Thomas Merton in a Year of War

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

The writings of Thomas Merton spoke to me when I was in college. I borrowed the Seven Story Mountain from the library and kept it for a year. When I returned it, it had been a companion in dark times, and his autobiography about how he transformed from an aimless student to a Trappist monk affected me deeply. The overdue fines cost me over $100, and I repaid them by reshelving books. Best non-$100 I've ever spent.

Today I received a gift of the "Selected Poems of Thomas Merton" from my wife as an early Valentine's present. We spent a lovely date sipping cappuccino at Riff Raff books in Olneyville and reading poetry. It was a good day after a rough couple of weeks and a sign that there is always a light in the darkness.

The first poem is "Lent in a Year of War," published in 1942. The first line is, "One of you is a major, made of cord and catskin, But never dreams his eyes may come to life and thread The needle-light of famine in waterglass."

He wrote "Lent in a Time of War" sometime in 1941 while teaching at St. Bonaventure College in upstate New York. He had been baptized into the Catholic faith in 1938. Later that year, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he left the academic world and started his life as a monk at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane.

Lent begins on February 22nd, a little before the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. After a year of watching that horrific war from a distance, I find myself between cheering the bravery and tenacity of Ukraine and feeling guilty as an American for not being able to help. I can imagine my feelings are similar to Americans during 1941, watching the horror of the Nazi war machine roll over Europe, not unlike the Russian war machine that grinds the sovereign territory of Ukraine.

As a person so far away, sometimes I feel helpless watching the stream of destruction on Twitter and on the news. I like this quote most of all from The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation.

Contemplation in the age of Auschwitz and Dachau, Solovky and Karaganda is something darker and more fearsome than contemplation in the age of the Church Fathers. For that very reason, the urge to seek a path of spiritual light can be a subtle temptation to sin. It certainly is sin if it means a frank rejection of the burden of our age, an escape into unreality and spiritual illusion, so as not to share the misery of other men.

And yet, contemplation can be the source of our power. He says, "Action is the stream, and contemplation is the spring."

We cannot "reject the burden of our age." Words I needed to read, I read. In this time before Lent, I find myself turning to study Merton once again.

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