The Environmentalist Monk Who Inspired Pope Francis

The Environmentalist Monk Who Inspired Pope Francis

Why you should care

Because if the pope thinks he’s all right…

Browsing through a New York City bookstore in early 1941, influential editor Robert Giroux bumped into Thomas Merton, an old college pal from his days on The Columbia Review. Merton told Giroux that The New Yorker wanted him to write a piece about Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he had “made a retreat.”

“This revelation stunned me,” Giroux recounted, because Merton had never been particularly religious. When Columbia professor Mark Van Doren heard that Merton had joined the monastery, he feared the young man’s literary career was over. “He’s leaving the world,” Van Doren remarked. “I don’t believe we’ll ever hear another word from him.”

We are in the world and part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves.…

But he needn’t have worried. Merton went on to become a prolific poet and author, famous in the 1950s for his probing thoughts on social justice and pacifism. The Catholic monk traveled the globe, exploring Zen Buddhism in Sri Lanka and even meeting with the Dalai Llama in India. Despite adopting the cowl, it turned out that Merton didn’t leave the world at all — and was in fact very worldly with his environmental views long before others.

Merton’s most enduring work, a 1948 autobiography entitled The Seven Storey Mountain, won critical acclaim for making contemplative life enticing. But today his writings are being reexamined for their forward-thinking look at climate change. Last September, his work even got a papal plug: Pope Francis, in urging U.S. lawmakers to join other nations in solving global warming, described Merton as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time.”

Merton was a monk for two decades before channeling his inner tree-hugger. It was the early 1960s, with Vietnam, the Cold War and civil rights very much on everyone’s mind. But climate change, a term yet to be coined, was not.

In reading Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, which told the stirring story of how pesticide abuse was killing off birds and poisoning soil, Merton was mortified. The same book was later credited by Jimmy Carter and Al Gore for ushering in our modern conservation consciousness. “Someone will say: you worry about birds: why not worry about people?” Merton wrote in his journal. “I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves.…”

It proved “an epiphanic event,” writes Monica Weis, author of The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton, and the cloistered clergy member responded by doing what he did best — writing — first with a congratulatory letter to Carson, and second through poetry. “I have become light/Bird and wind/My leaves sing/I am earth, earth,” he wrote.

Merton’s first public discussion of nonviolence to the environment was fairly controversial in a faith where mass — not frolicking in the woods — is seen as the highest form of worship. But Weis argues that Merton’s love of nature started earlier. Born in France to an American Quaker artist mother and a landscape-painting father from New Zealand, Merton grew up agnostic, once telling a Catholic couple that all religions “lead to God, only in different ways.” Though he later converted and discovered his priestly calling as a 24-year-old doctoral student, he maintained an inherent compassion for alternative ways of thinking.

A firm opponent of nuclear warfare, Merton believed the use of outsize weaponry to exterminate garden pests stemmed from the same sin as the outsize decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki — even if the side effects hurt innocent bystanders, or ourselves. “To make this seem ‘reasonable’ we go to some lengths to produce arguments that our steps are really ‘harmless,’ ” he concluded. Merton’s fusion of devout conservatism and environmentalism may seem odd, given the long-standing political debate over climate change, but the supposed conflict of faith and reason is misleading, suggests Sophia Newman, a former environmental fellow at the International Thomas Merton Society. “The right wing elsewhere is not [denying global warming], and neither are religious people, really,” she says. “It’s a uniquely American phenomenon.”

In 1965, Merton wrote “this is wonderful!” in his journal, making note that a guest to the monastery mentioned new eco-friendly protections in the Hebrides. “In some ways, he may seem naive,” Thomas Merton Center Director Paul Pearson says, and yet “from the walls of an enclosed monastery, he had this amazing awareness of what was going on.”

In an essay that same year — five years before the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and three years before his own death — Merton wrote: “The silence of the forest is my bride,” and yet, “There is also the non-ecology, the destructive unbalance, poisoned … by fallout, by exploitation.”

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