Sheila Briggs is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
IN the 1960s there came to its full flowering one of the major changes to have ever occurred in Christian theology, which reflected a major shift in how Christian perceived their presence in the world. This transformation in Christian self-understanding can be captured in the word “embodiment.” As I have already indicated, the turn to an embodied theology extended over a long period of time, not just over the decade of the sixties or the decades immediately before it, but had its origins in the beginning of modernity itself, in the age of Enlightenment. The first stage in this change was the end to a negative evaluation of the body. The body had been seen in premodern society as a hindrance to the soul, a view which had come to permeate culture through the predominant influence of Christianity. The monastic tradition, to which Thomas Merton belonged, had often emphasized the suppression of bodily existence, total abstinence from sex, severe restrictions on the enjoyment of food and sleep, the “custody of the senses” as the habit of constantly monitoring the bodily senses of sight, hearing, and touch. The body could be disciplined into an instrument of prayer and theological study, but detached from the strict control of the rational and devout mind it was subversive of the human being reaching out to God.
THE SOCIAL CONDITIONS FOR AN EMBODIED CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY
The subordination of body to soul was entwined with a social history among human beings. The monastic movement came to be identified with asocial as well as spiritual elite. Merton was a Trappist monk, that is, he belonged to the Cistercian order of the Strict Observance. The Cistercian order had begun in the high Middle Ages as a protest movement against the increasing worldliness and laxity of the Church, which had impinged on the monastic movement. Nonetheless, this was an aristocratic protest. These sons of the feudal elite literally fled the world by withdrawing to its most remote geographical areas. There they became great landowners farming huge tracts of land and, ironically, amassing considerable wealth. Within the Cistercian monastery the feudal class system pertained in the division between monks and conversi or lay brothers. In the medieval period the lay brothers were little more than monastic serfs; they performed most of the manual labor in the monastery. The Cistercians were among the slave-owners of the Middle Ages who in the newly colonized lands of north eastern Europe enslaved the non-Christian population. The Cistercian order found itself debating the same question which would worry later white slave-owners in the Americas: whether they were obliged to free their baptized slaves.
Above the lay brothers were the monks, who, although they engaged in some manual labor as prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict, devoted themselves to the accomplishment of the long and elaborate liturgy in the choir of the monastic church. They were also the ordained priests of the monastic community and they alone decided the affairs of the monastery through their meeting in chapter; thus the spiritual and social power of the monastic life was invested in them. During Merton’s time at the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani until the period of the Second Vatican Council, the distinction between choir monks and lay brothers persisted and continued to carry class overtones. Merton was involved in the discussions of combining the novitiates of the lay brothers and the choir monks to produce a more egalitarian community with a shared identity. He opposed a homogenization of the community by simply assimilating the lay brothers to the choir monks. What was necessary, he argued, was not more people spending more hours in choir carrying out liturgical duties but greater flexibility for every one in how they lived out their monastic vocation, and this included the recognition that the choice of physical labor was not that of a lesser spirituality.
Despite the fact that the monastic movement in the medieval period and into modern times retrenched the inner and outer hierarchies of body and soul and “body people” and “soul people,” its origins had been very different. Beginning in Egypt and Syria in the third century it had been a protest against an unjust and oppressive world. Of the ancient monks we know most about the educated upper class, especially those young men who sought to cement their friendship in the ascetic life. Yet we would be wrong to think that flight from the world and spiritual companionship were desires only of certain members of the social elite and that monasticism was nothing more than an attempt to fulfill the needs of this group. As usual in the recorded past of premodern societies, we learn of the experiences of those who had access to the skills, resources and leisure to write them down. Nonetheless, we can gain glimpses into the motivations of those less privileged and less able to preserve in writing their experiences. In doing so, we are confronted with the realization that a theology of embodiment and of this-worldliness is and cannot be under all social and historical circumstances liberating.
Asceticism was the response of early Christianity to the exploitation of the body. As such it was attractive to thousands of ordinary Christians, the women and slaves, who were so conspicuous among the first Christians and then later among the ascetic groups which became increasingly alienated from the orthodox Church. Admittedly, the physically exploited, women and slaves, were also prominent in those Christian groups, which tried to break free from all bodily inhibitions and which have been named by orthodox church historians “libertine.” Nevertheless, the ascetics and the “libertines” were trying to resolve the same dilemma, however sharply contrasting their solutions might have been. How does one live in a body which can be raped, tortured, and brutalized in every respect? A body which is subject to the most basic form of alienation through being the property of another? A female body, destined to be worn out by continual pregnancies and childbirth, seen by many as the degraded seat of the passions and as an imperfect body housing a flawed soul? What does salvation mean in such a body if not salvation from the body? Both the ascetics and the libertines perceived life in this world as embodied suffering and sought in their different ways to transcend this existence which they saw no way to change. Asceticism was strongest in those parts of the GrecoRoman world where people and cultures had been subjugated first of all by Hellenistic rulers and then later by the Roman Empire. Ascetic Christianity was a religion of the colonized of antiquity, who often spoke neither Latin nor Greek, whose escape from the world was an act of national resistance to domination. In Egypt and Syria monasticism grew out of a context of such ascetic movements and much of the literature of early asceticism and monasticism is written, not in Greek or Latin, but in Syriac and Coptic. It was on these populations that imperial taxation fell particularly heavily. The flight into the desert was not only a search for solitude, in which to experience God, but at the same time a refuge from the tax collector and from the physical torture to which those unable to pay their taxes were subjected.
Christian negative attitude toward the body were born out of a social reality of physical exploitation where to live within its boundaries placed one almost inevitably among the exploited or the exploiters. Our understanding of why Christianity became a body-negative religion has often been one-sided, partly because of the distance from our own experience, partly because we have looked at this past through the eyes of those who were actually or potentially the exploiters, namely the Greco-Roman male social elite. Their contempt for and fear of the body, especially women’s bodies, was the mirror response to the vulnerability and hurt which the oppressed felt in their bodies. It was the alternative to the pleasure which the dominant group obtained through their exploitation of others’ bodies. Hence, the renunciation of bodily pleasure was a means of avoiding the moral qualms, aroused by the physical exploitations of others. In the area of gender relations ascetic males, who loathed women as objects of pleasure, could establish friendship with female celibates, women removed from the domain of pleasure and exploitation. Pleasure was derived not only directly from others’ bodies through the abuse of their sensuality but also from the domination of their labor. Physical labor was associated with a servile and dominated humanity, leisure was the prerequisite for the pursuit of wisdom and spiritual insight. The alienation of the slave’s labor was therefore also a form of spiritual parasitism since it provided the master not only release from physical drudgery, but in doing so one essential for the spiritual life which by the same token the slave now lacked. The Rule of Benedict broke the connection of physical labor to spiritual inferiority by prescribing manual work for the monks. Yet, as I have already pointed out, this did not make the monastery a classless society.
The asceticism and monasticism of the dominant social elite failed to provide an adequate critique of the forms of physical exploitation in their society. The reasons for this failure lies partly in the habits and prejudices of this group which the monastic ideal found difficult to transform and instead often discovered itself accommodating to them. However, one must seek an explanation at levels other than simple selfinterest. There was undoubtedly an enormous projection of moral guilt at one’s ability to exploit the bodies of others, even when renounced, onto the bodies of the oppressed and on to the body in general. The monk or other ascetic lived apart from the world and, although this separation could and did in some cases imply a critique of the social arrangements of this world, it left them unaltered. Thus, the ascetic idea of transcendence, independent of its being deformed by a conservative social ideology, provided little room for a doctrine of social transformation. Even when one resisted the notion that the existing social order was God-given, one could hardly envisage an alternative in which bodies did not suffer. Thus, the choice was not between continuing or ending physical exploitation but between participating or not participating in the seemingly ineradicable domination of the bodies of others. Consequently, the monastic experience has had at its center the relinquishment of power. At least, this is the case if we concentrate on the lives of the educated and well-born men, along with some women from similar backgrounds, whose biographies have been preserved for us. Power is the ability to dominate, to transgress the boundaries of others and misuse them; it is not the ability to transform, to enhance the lives of others.
A spiritual re-definition of power masks its locus in social relations. The mentality of the oppressor cannot be maintained in the encounter of God. After all, as traditional theology has stressed, God has no body, a God who is beyond human need and lack as well as exploitation and manipulation by others. One surrenders one’s power in the face of the incomparable might of God. Indeed, one assumes the role of the oppressed in relationship to God, including the endurance of physical abuse. This has occurred on the level of the language in which one described one’s religious experience, the imagery of being pierced, beaten down by a God demanding control of one’s existence. It is also evident in the treatment of the body, in the deprivations which imitate the hunger and lack of rest of the socially poor and in the flagellations which belonged to the penitential practices of many monastic orders and which were analogous to the physical chastisement meted out to servants and slaves by their masters. One approached physical suffering through the image of the crucified Christ. Christ’s suffering was held to exceed any and all sufferings that human beings endured and in some sense to subsume them in his own. Dwelling on the suffering of Christ one could simultaneously acknowledge human suffering and one’s responsibility for it and withhold recognition of its social roots and the complicity of one’s social class in it. In this manner Christ’s crucified body substituted for the suffering bodies of the oppressed and guilt towards the poor and disadvantaged could be suppressed in the indebtedness of the sinner to God.
I am not suggesting that in the monastic tradition the self-sacrifice of the privileged vitiated any authentic compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged or that a conception of the power of God excluded a sense of the love of God. The fact of the matter was that the monastic movement fell prey to the contradiction of trying to be a redeemed community in an unredeemed world because it elected to transcend the physical conditions of this world rather than to struggle for their transformation. Merton’s own life displays both the contradictions and the attempt to overcome it. Merton entered the abbey of Gethsemani very much the modern counterpart of an Augustine or a Jerome. He felt terrible remorse because as a nineteen-year old student at Cambridge he had got a young working woman pregnant. He maintained no contact with the woman or his son, but continued to be concerned about what his action might reveal about himself. His decision to become a Trappist monk was motivated by a desire to flee from a worthless self, to expiate his sin and overcome his sense of humiliation. It was much later in his monastic vocation that Merton became released from his burden of guilt as well as from his concern for a faultless self, and became free to turn once again to the world and see in it not a threat to his moral goodness but the beginnings of what Martin Luther King, Jr., would call the beloved community.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Westerners began to repudiate the body-negative attitudes which had permeated the Christian societies of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. There was an increasing feeling of being at home in this world, a sense of well-being that was buttressed by growth in economic prosperity and control over the natural environment through scientific advance. We often view the history of emancipation as starting with the struggle for religious freedom. However, the fight for religious freedom was as much a proclaiming of the inviolability of the human body as a setting free of the soul from external constraints. One could be whipped, tortured and executed, imprisoned, or sold into slavery for one’s religious beliefs. The passing of the stature Habeas Corpus marks the foundation and first achievement of emancipation in the modern world. For, without control over one’s body the pursuit of happiness is meaningless and there is no basis for the exercise of other rights. The Enlightenment’s fervor in asserting the claims of humanity was twinned with its commitment to expanding social well-being as the proper destiny of the human race. One wanted to create a world in which no one could be exposed to moral anguish on account of physically exploiting an other person. Therefore, one protested the inflicting of savage physical punishments and the intrusions on the bodily freedom of serfs and slaves. Admittedly, behind the call for a more humane world there evolved new, more subtle, and disguised forms of inhumanity. Premodern patterns of exploitation had often placed oppressor and oppressed in close physical proximity to one another. The master knew how long his servants or slaves labored, how much or how little food and rest they were given; the rich saw the beggars in front of their homes. In our modern world physical exploitation occurs at ever greater distances from those who want to perceive themselves as human persons.
The principle of Habeas Corpus was limited in to whom it applied. White, especially property-holding, males had rights to their bodies. The slaves of African descent imported into the Americas had no rights to their bodies. Women even of the dominant race and class were restricted in rights to their own bodies. White males had entitlement not only to control their own bodies but also the bodies of others. The claim to physical integrity and self-determination was framed according to property rights: one held one’s body as inalienable property. But what of those who were not property-holders but the property of others? How did this apply to those who in the normal course of their lives as daughters and wives could not be entitled to their own property? The new American Republic excluded the black slaves and women from its definition of Habeas Corpus and hence from the community of citizens and the constitutional freedoms that they enjoyed. The formal extension of equality and full citizenship to blacks and women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was constantly undermined in practice by the fact that blacks and women were not acknowledged as possessing the same claim to physical integrity and self-determination as white males.
THE BODY LIBERATES THE SOUL — THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
As a child growing up in England in the early ’60s, I watched the television reports of the civil rights movement and was struck by the physical nature of the protest. Of course, the television camera emphasizes the physical image; it can capture actions in ways that the newspaper or the radio cannot and allows us not only to read or hear the words said but also see the bodily features and gestures of the speaker. There was, however, something more to the pictures of the civil rights movement which distinguished them from the harrowing scenes of Vietnamese children burning with napalm to be shown later in the decade on our television screens. The television images of burning Vietnamese children were a continuation albeit in a more powerful medium of the traditional depiction of human suffering and of the concomitant traditional view of the body as that in which human beings suffer. In contrast, the television camera recorded the civil rights movement not as human beings suffering in their bodies but as bodies liberating human beings. There was undeniably suffering in the civil rights movement, for example, when the Freedom Riders were severely beaten by a white mob a the Montgomery bus station in May, 1961, and when four black teenage girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church in September 1963. Yet, even the culmination of racist violence against the civil rights movement in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. could not alter the sheer physical impact of the movement as bodies victorious, as bodies transforming the conditions under which they existed.
I remember a remark which I heard John Lewis make several years ago. He was a member of the group of students and other young people around James Lawson in Nashville who formed the nucleus of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and he was one of the organizers and first participants in the Freedom Rides. He was commenting on the concentration of the civil rights movement prior to 1965 on political rights and civil liberties rather than on issues of social welfare. It has often been said that the civil rights movement achieved access to restaurants previously for whites only but did not win incomes for the mass of black people so that they could afford to pay the bill. Although such criticism points to an ongoing concern of black activism, it is an inadequate judgment of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. John Lewis said that he and others in the Civil Rights struggle knew that ordinary Southern blacks were frequently without decent housing, poorly fed, and ill-clothed. But these people who lacked basic social goods had their bodies. To press for social welfare as the top priority of these blacks would have been to make them objects of charity from a white racist society. To ask these ordinary black folk, who had nothing, to put their bodies on the line was to make them aware of their human dignity, that they were literally some-body. King himself called upon blacks to embody their dreams of social transfor- mation in physical protest. In May, 1961, he addressed a large crowd in Montgomery church with the resolve:
We will seek to mobilize thousands of people, committed to the method of non-violence, who will physically identify themselves with the struggle to end segregation in Alabama. We will present our physical bodies as instruments to defeat the unjust system.
As I understand it, what occurred in the physical participation of blacks in Civil Rights protests was a reversal of black enslavement. In slavery, blacks through the ownership of their body had become the property of another, stripped of all rights. In the marches, blacks experienced their bodies as their own; irrespective of how little property or education they possessed they had their bodies, and because they had their bodies they had rights. In the civil rights movement, blacks made Habeas Corpus apply to them. In a racist society, black bodies have been despised, they have been exposed to aesthetic and moral censure: they have been seen as ugly and promiscuous, the bodies of menials and prostitutes. The involvement of blacks in physical protest challenged these cultural stereotypes when black bodies expressed dignity, solidarity, forbearance, resolution, courage, hope. This was less a case of the body mirroring the soul than of the body reshaping the soul. Physical participation in Civil Rights protests imprinted new patterns of behavior. During the Montgomery bus boycott it was first noted that black-on-black violence declined, that such actions as Saturday night brawling and husbands beating their wives decreased. Black physical violence is fostered by the internalization of the racist cultural images of black bodies as brutish and sub-human. The civil rights movement gave blacks a radically different experience of their own bodies as able to create meaning, as able to signify what it would be like to live in the beloved community. The Civil Rights campaigns of the early sixties were about placing black bodies where Jim Crow had said they had no right to be. The prohibitions of blacks sitting next to whites on the bus, using the same lunch counter or drinking fountain conveyed to blacks everyday that whites found something wrong with their bodies. Black bodies were seen as somehow dirty and any physical contact with blacks, however indirect, in some way sullied whites.
White attitudes to blacks not only degraded them mentally but made their daily living more arduous. When on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white man and was arrested, she was not engaged in a planned assault on the segregation laws. She was an active member of the local NAACP, but her action was motivated by the fact that she was tired. As she later explained, “I had not thought about it and I had taken no previous resolution until it happened, and then I simply decided that I would not get up. I was tired, but I was usually tired at the end of the day, and I was not feeling well, but then there had been many days when I had not felt well. I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so.”(1)
Rosa Parks worked as a tailor’s assistant in a Montgomery department store. Blacks were employed in the lower-paid and more physically demanding jobs and their work left them excessively weary and exacted a high toll on their health. Thus, segregation was physically burdensome and galling to them because whites were not expected to inconvenience themselves to maintain the color line. The Montgomery bus boycott drew such strong support from the blacks in that city because they were ready to refuse not only the humiliation but also the weariness which segregated buses imposed upon them. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave this portrait of one:
One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, was an elderly woman whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard. Although poverty-stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement. After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested. “(2)
Blacks were willing to take on the physical risks and demands of the civil rights movement because their tiredness from the marches and meetings was of a different quality than the weariness that weighed on them from their drudgery for and accommodation to whites. Their tired feet, their bodies at times beaten and drenched by hoses promised a transformed world where their dignity would be respected and they would find physical relief.
Today King is generally regarded as the greatest Afro-American of our century, and perhaps in the entire history of the United States. The current adulation of King in the black church is in sharp contrast to the coolness with which many black ministers reacted to him at the beginning of the civil rights movement. King was sorely disappointed with most of the black pastors he found in Montgomery because they believed it their task to get their congregations to heaven, not change conditions for them here on earth. Apathy was widespread in the black community and educated middle-class blacks were often obsequious to whites. The black church has undergone a transformation in the last three decades. There is indeed a long tradition of black Christian resistance to racial oppression, represented by such figures as David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. Yet, the names of these leaders and the causes for which they fought did not echo in many black churches in the ’50s and were often unknown to their pastors. The retrieval of the black radical Christian tradition, which has been undertaken by Black Theology, itself is the result of the change in black consciousness ushered in by the civil rights movement.
There has surely been a redefinition of the black religious tradition which has de-emphasized its other-worldly aspects. James Cone’s analysis of the meaning of heaven in the black spirituals has been influential on much Black Theology and the insight that the spirituals and other black religious expressions “tell us about the black movement for historical liberation” are certainly correct 3 Nevertheless, what Cone calls the historicity of black eschatology should not make us overlook that the Afro-American slaves, just as much as the slaves in the ancient world longed for a release from their bodies and from the historical realm of their suffering. We need to look with greater understanding at those black Christians who eschewed involvement in the civil rights movement. Their attitudes might have betrayed complacency and blindness, in some cases even personal jealousy toward King. But to a good measure they were also the response of the oppressed to the memory of historical defeats, such as the bloody suppression of the nineteenth-century slave revolts and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan from the end of Reconstruction onwards.
The other-worldliness of black Christians sprang from the same questioning as had perturbed the oppressed among the early Christians: how does one live in a body which can be raped, tortured and brutalized in every respect? It was only with the civil rights movement that blacks became fully convinced of the alternative to the flight from embodied, this-worldly existence. Yet, this alternative had been maturing throughout Afro-American history. In all slave societies the image of the happy slave has been a self-serving myth of the slave-owning class; slaves have always desired their freedom. Despite the yearning for one’s own freedom, often slaves have not fundamentally rejected the institution of slavery but have seen it as part of a natural social order. The black slaves did reject the institution of slavery and not only their own enslavement. This breakthrough in the slaves’ consciousness of their oppression was without doubt facilitated by the contradiction of being enslaved in a self-proclaimed Age of Enlightenment and in a country where the first democratic revolution has supposedly taken place. It would, however, be mistaken to see black slave consciousness as merely shaped by the trends of Western society and culture. Although the modern West had denaturalized social institutions, including slavery, it had nevertheless given them powerful underpinnings through its advances in science and technology as well as in economic management and social control.
Blacks could easily have succumbed to fatalism in the face of the social and material might of their oppressors. Instead, they chose in slavery and afterwards to believe that their future could be in a socially transformed world rather than in one of ever more perfected forms of oppression. This process of belief in and hope for a better future in this world was a slow one, and blacks often felt the mental pressure to locate their happiness in a heaven outside of the control of the masters of this world. They could not take recourse to the social optimism that characterized the dominant race and the American ethos. Distinct forms of black worship developed which expressed the ambivalence of blacks to life in this world. A black’s whole body was embraced in worship, in the shouting, the hand clapping, in jumping up to testify, in falling down as a penitent; it was as if she or he wished physically to move into the other world.
The physically ecstatic forms of worship were of great embarrassment to middle-class black Christians, wanting to assimilate to white society. King gave a portrait of these two types of black church:
One burns with emotionalism, and the other freezes with classism. The former, reducing worship to entertainment, places spirituality with muscularity. The danger in such a church is that the members may have more religion in their hands and feet than in their hearts and souls. At n-idnight this type of church has neither the vitality nor the relevant gospel to feed hungry souls.
The other type of Negro church that feeds no midnight traveller has developed a class system and boasts of its dignity, its membership of professional people, and its exclusiveness. In such a church the worship service is cold and meaningless, the music dull and uninspiring, and the sermon little more than a homily on current events. If the pastor says too much about Jesus Christ, the members feel that he is robbing the pulpit of dignity. If the choir sings a Negro spiritual, the members claim an affront to their class status. This type of church tragically fails to recognize that worship at its best is a social experience in which people from all levels of life come together to affirm their oneness and unity under God.(4)
It was the religion in the hands and feet of the black poor that the civi: rights movement transferred from the pews to the streets. The physica: spirituality of the black churches of the disadvantaged became political ly and socially transformative.
MONASTIC RENEWAL IN A TIME OF HOPE FOR EMBODIED FREEDOM
By the early ’60s, Merton’s view of the monastic vocation in the modern world had involved in ways parallel to the transformation of black consciousness through the civil rights movement. The young novice of The Seven Storey Mountain, who had embraced the monastery in heroic disdain for the world, had been replaced by a monk deeply in love with the world. Merton was able to now look on the world with compassion and delight. He saw its stupidity and agony but believed that the world, and not the monastery alone as set apart from the world, could be an effective sign of God’s presence. The monk as a Christian had to choose the world:
In “turning to the world” the contemporary church is first of all admitting that the world can once again become an object of choice. Not only can it be chosen, but in fact it must be chosen …. To choose the world is not then a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and vocation in the world, in history, in time. In my time, which is the present. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother, to make the world better, more free, more just, more livable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic “rejection” of the world and “contempt for the world” is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice. The man who pretends that he can turn his back on Auschwitz or Viet Nam and act if they were not there is simply bluffing. (5)
Merton’s turn to the world did not take place in a vacuum. He had become convinced that the world was capable of transformation by the unfolding of events around him. He was deeply affected by the civil rights movement because in its striving to create a beloved community within contemporary society it both symbolized and realized what he saw as the vocation of the monk and every Christian. Before the 1960s Merton had been aware of black suffering. He records in The Seven Storey Mountain his impressions of the terrible waste of human life in Harlem while he was working at Friendship House in the early ’40s. Merton also laid the blame for this misery squarely at the door of a white racist society, but this indictment remained one more proof of why the world was utterly corrupt and had to be rejected. The civil rights movement made Merton aware that people like those whom he had seen suffering in Harlem were not inevitable victims of a vicious world but moral and political agents who could change it. In an essay on “Cargo Theology” about the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific, Merton writes, “In Black Power, as in Cargo, the Negro is seeking to establish first of all his identity as one capable of getting equality for and by himself, rather than waiting to receive it as a benevolent gift on the white man’s terms…” Merton places this in a global context of “a common drive towards identification, realization of one’s dignity and assertion of one’s rights as a human being.”(6)
Merton had felt dejected that he was not able to take part in the Selma march in 1965. The then-abbot of Gethsemani, Dom James Fox, was obsessive in his insistence that Merton not leave the abbey. However, Merton often experienced a protection from the many demands on him in his abbot’s blank refusal to let him leave the monastery. These were also the years in which he was fulfilling his long-felt calling to the solitude of a hermit’s life. His desire to participate physically in the civil rights movement was genuine and strong, and not unconnected from his vocation to solitude. One of the discoveries that Merton had made in the strict discipline of a Trappist monastery was of the natural environment and of the physical connection of the human body to it. As his solitude deepened so did the awareness of his embodied existence, and solitude became a means for him of embracing the world in its physical and social dimensions.
Merton wrote extensively on the identity crisis of the contemporary monk. He criticized the “overcontrol” of the monk’s life and saw the monk as often deprived of meaningful activity. The contemplative needed to contain solitude (the denial of which he had experienced at first hand) not as an alternative to action in the world but as a complement to it. The monk needed meaningful work both within and outside the monastery walls. Merton valued the role of manual labor in monastic life and was very disturbed by the mechanization of labor that came about at Gethsemani during this period. The monastery’s cheese and fruitcake business was sacrificing the human goals of labor for commercial profit. Merton had come to a simultaneously sober and hopeful assessment of the monastic life, no longer viewing it as a world apart but as a microcosm of the larger human society with all its ills and potentials.
The problems of power were not solved by monastic vows, as Merton learned in his conflicts with his abbot and the censoring of his writings on peace for patently political reasons by his Cistercian superiors. The monastic “opus dei” (its liturgical practice) did not automatically lead to a solution of the organization of human labor but frequently stood in its way. Merton did not advocate a leaving of the monastery and a return to the world because the monk had never left the world. The monk was a mere human being in this world. On the day he died Merton gave a lecture at a conference in Bangkok of monastic men and women from the Western and Eastern religious traditions. Its title was “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.” In it he found a resemblance between the monk and the Marxist: “The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures.”(7) In the age of the civil rights movement Christian theology could fully affirm the embodied character of human existence and a monasticism could emerge which was not body-negating. The exploitation of the body could be resisted in this world, and the monk could be a critic of and not a refugee from ordinary society.
One of Merton’s novices and correspondents was Ernesto Cardenal. Merton repeatedly requested that he be sent by his order to Chile, which was refused him. It is in the Christian base communities in Latin America and elsewhere that the dream of those oppressed early Christians, who were the first ascetics and monastics, are being fulfilled, but in the belief and hope that not only humiliation and suffering befall on the body but that it is a vehicle for liberation and joy in a world that is being transformed. The civil rights movement gave the first testimony of the body liberating the soul.
- Quoted in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1986), p. 12.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 125.
- James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues. An Interpretation (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 86-107.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (“A Knock at Midnight”), p. 62f.
- Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p. 164f.
- Quoted in Edward Rice, The Man in the Sycamore Tree. An Entertainment (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 110f.
- The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, ed. by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 329.