“When [Thomas] Merton registered with the Selective Service, it was as a conscientious objector, though one prepared for noncombatant service on the battlefield as an unarmed medic. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he considered this “a far greater honor to God than killing men.”[i] Writing his autobiography less than seven years later, he expanded on his decision in a text which startled many readers, appearing as it did in the early days of the Cold War:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”[ii]
When he took his army physical, it turned out he was unsuitable for military service of any kind, with or without a gun. Soldiers had to have a certain number of teeth. Merton’s encounters with dentists had left him short. He was classified 1B. Only those classified 1A were being drafted.
No room in the seminary: his student sins and their consequences too enduring. No room on the battlefield: too many morals, too few teeth.
With his images of the future abruptly altered, Merton found himself thinking about a battlefield of a different sort, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. This would be a good place, he decided, to spend the Easter recess. He reached the abbey on the eve of Palm Sunday, April 5, 1941.” [He formally entered that monastery on December 10, 1941.]
[i] Saint Bonaventure Journal, March 4, 1941.
[ii] The Seven Storey Mountain, 311-12.
Excerpt from Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (revised edition), Jim Forest, Orbis Books (2008).
How long, O lord, how long?