Monasteries of the Heart

Five Minutes with Joan Chittister, Monks in Our Midst: Judith Valente on No One is an Island

St. Benedict famously called the monastery a "workshop and a school for God’s service." It was a place to grow closer to God, to build a community founded on mercy and compassion. "Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else,he writes in “The Tools for Good Works.” And elsewhere: "Let peace be your quest and aim."

            A great deal of saber-rattling is occurring in our country. As of this writing, the current administration has sent additional troops and military equipment to the Middle East in an escalating war of words with Iran. Will we provoke Iran, or will some Gulf of Tonkin-like incident be used as the pretext for provoking us? Add to this the continuing chaos and tension over North Korea’s efforts to build nuclear warheads.

            I have spent the past few weeks reading the many essays of Thomas Merton on peace and nonviolence. These essays written in the Fifties and Sixties remain remarkably relevant and prescient still today. Here is Merton warning of the danger of blindly following leaders who would drive us into war: 

“The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean they speak the truth.”

 Remind you of the run up to the Iraq War, or the current rhetoric over Iran?

Merton’s prose poem “Original Child Bomb” is a poignant reminder of the absurdity of war. The Japanese, who endured the ultimate suffering of the atomic age, dubbed the atomic bomb the “Original Child.” They recognized that humankind had birthed something uniquely new and demonic. The A-bomb’s makers called it “baby boy.”

The bomb dropped over Hiroshima spread a fireball 18,000 feet wide and had a temperature at its center of 100 million degrees. It killed 70,000 people either instantly or within a few hours. Merton concluded that the concept of a “just war” in the atomic age was a fallacy.

As I write, conventional bombs continue to fall on the people of Syria and Yemen. Explosives erupt in Iraq, Afghanistan, site of America’s longest war, and in many other hot spots across the world. There is continued evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. It can all seem far off to so many of us, sitting in our backyards, enjoying our neat lawns, or sipping a glass of Merlot at dinner. Merton’s words from his preface to the Vietnamese edition of No Man Is An Island call us to a deeper reality:

“A purely individualistic inner life unconcerned for the suffering of others is unreal. Therefore, my meditation on love and peace must be realistically and intimately related to the fury of war, bloodshed, burning, destruction [and] killing that takes place on the other side of the world. This raises the great question of responsibility in a world which has now become a vast unity, and in which everyone is involved in the lives and joys and sorrows of everyone else.”

Merton points out that it is easy to sit quietly in a monastery and meditate on love, humility, mercy and peace. Much harder to practice peace, to work for peaceful co-existence in our families, our communities, our nation, and ultimately our world. We are fortunate to have great role models in many of our Benedictine sisters, including those who founded Benedictines for Peace, who courageously protested the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, and who continue to oppose inhumane (and un-Christian) policies affecting asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees.

At this writing, six children have died since September 2018 while being held in detention centers on the southern border. Some 22 people – most under the age of 45 - have died in detention centers across the country over the past two years (the count is as of January 2019).

The poet John Donne famously warned, "never send to know/for whom the bell tolls;/ it tolls for thee." Merton wrote that when a person attempts to live for himself or herself alone, that person “becomes a little ‘island’ of hate, greed, suspicion, fear, desire." One’s entire outlook becomes affected.

“In order to recover the true perspective, which is that of love and compassion,” Merton adds, “[one] must again learn, in simplicity and trust and peace that ‘no man is an island.’”

A great bell is tolling across our nation. It tolls for us. Will we who try to live by Benedictine values sit idly by? Or will we choose to work for peace, however and wherever we can?

Judith Valente is the author of four spirituality books, most recently How To Live: What The Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community"and The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed. She is a former staff writer for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and covered religion for many years as a contributing correspondent to "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" on national PBS-TV. She gives frequent talks and leads retreats on Benedictine spirituality in daily life.

Make the questions personal and answer them for yourself: Will I who try to live by Benedictine values or sit idly by? Or will I choose to work for peace, however and wherever I can?  Explain.

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