On this date in 1968, the world lost one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton. From his monastery in Kentucky, he was a prolific writer. He commented, of course, on so-called “spiritual” topics, but he also had great insights into art, culture, social issues, and politics. In his final years, he made major strides into interfaith dialogue, especially with Buddhism and Zen. In fact, he was at a conference in Thailand pursuing those aims when, going back to his room, he was electrocuted by a faulty fan.
Merton had a keen understanding of something we seem to have regressed on: torture. The report on CIA torture that was finally released is testimony to that. How sadly appropriate this comes as we observe Human Rights Day.
In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he speaks of torture as a struggle of the individual against a bankrupt process. (Forgive the gender-exclusive language!)
“He who is tortured is reduced to a condition in which nature speaks instead of freedom, instead of conscience. Pain speaks, not the person. Torture is the instrument of those who fear personality, fear responsibility, and wish to convince themselves again and again that personality does not really exist. That freedom is weaker than natural necessity. That the person can be silenced by the demands of nature.
“In the calculated use of torture there is also a special evil. The person is pitted against the process in such a way that the process infallibly wins. From the inmost sanctuary of the individual person there is extracted, by means of torture, not the voice of the person, but the voice of the process. The tortured one does not merely echo the process, but he finally utters, from his own inmost self, the ‘confession of faith’ which bears witness to the reality of the process, and to the abdication of his own spiritual freedom.”