Thomas Merton on the Corona Virus


Thomas Merton, one of the most influential religious writers and thinkers of the Twentieth Century, lived through the Spanish Flu. Born in January of 1915, Thomas was three years old and living in New York when the pandemic reached the shores of America in 1918. He was five by the time the plague burned across the world, killing an estimated fifty to one hundred million people, including over 675,000 Americas (three times the U.S. death toll to date). Merton was born in France, where it is believed that the first cases of the deadly flu appeared in the front lines and trenches of WWI. Soldiers returning home helped spread the virus. Having lived through a time akin to our current situation, what would Thomas Merton have thought about the way Americans have dealt with the pandemic?


(Makeshift hospital in Kansas for Spanish Flu victims)

First of all, although Merton was a priest, a Man of God, he was also a Man of Science. He knew all too well that the small-minded tribalism and corporate greed of humanity could cause severe and even irrevocable damage to the planet. Among other things, Merton was an environmentalist who would have been concerned about Climate Change and who would have advocated for changes to mitigate future disaster. He greatly admired Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, when it came out in 1962. He said as much to her in a letter. Over the years, Merton too had noticed a decrease in the bird population around the monastery’s 2,000 acres. He accepted science. He acknowledged the evidence of observation, measurement, and hypothesis. He understood that our ever-increasing population and our toxic industrial practices had the potential to devastate every living thing on Earth. He recognized that God wasn’t going to perform some miracle to get rid of all the poisons and pesticides that human beings were dumping onto our lands and into the atmosphere and our seas and into our bodies. We people had to act. Merton was also a staunch advocate against nuclear proliferation. How many times over must we be able to destroy the entire planet? How many bombs are enough? Accepting that as a follower of Jesus there can be no such thing as a just war, Merton publicly protested the war in Vietnam. In that respect, he was very much in the minority of Christians, most of which embraced—and still embrace—the unholy marriage of patriotism, military, and religion.

As a man of faith—one of the most insightful religious thinkers of his generation—Thomas Merton would be appalled by the way half of all America refuses to wear a mask in an effort to save the lives of others. He would remind us of how Jesus told us that there is no greater act of love and compassion than to save the lives of others. He would rail against the number of infections and deaths caused by social inequalities like race and by the way low-income earners are disproportionately affected. How is it that millions of Christians willingly spread an invisible disease that has killed 250,000 Americans in only eight months and is now increasing at a rate of over 150,000 new cases every single day (CDC and NIH, November 13, 2020)? Statistically, something like 80% of all Americans report that they are religious. By extension of logic, that implies that 80% of those 250,000 dead were religious and most likely prayed to God to save them from inevitable death while alone on a respirator in some over-crowded hospital. And yet no miracle came for them as our president promised. The virus continued to spread and to kill. Thomas Merton understood that viruses don’t care about your politics or religion. He would have told us to show our love for Jesus by wearing face masks to protect the lives of others, even strangers.


(Mt. Redoubt eruption, 1989)

I have lived most of my life in Alaska, divided equally between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Many times, Alaskans have adorned face masks during the forest fire season when fires the size of small states rage across the state, making the air unbreathable. The southern coastal regions of Alaska are part of the enormous Pacific “Ring of Fire.” I was earning my master’s degree in Anchorage in 1989 when, 110 miles away, Mt. Redoubt erupted, blanketing volcanic ash over 7,700 square miles of the state and spewing ash 45,000 feet into the atmosphere, causing airplanes to detour. We Alaskans wore face masks to avoid inhaling the toxic particles. Sometimes, when temperatures fell to minus fifty or sixty below zero, air pollution around Fairbanks was so bad that citizens were warned to stay indoors. But those events were liminal in nature. They existed only for a brief time, weeks at the most. And more importantly, the debilitating effects could not be spread from person to person the way a contagious virus can.


(Photo: Smoke from forest fires near Fairbanks, Alaska)

Merton would say that science can predict and measure the effects of forest fires and volcanic eruptions (in fact, the Mt. Redoubt eruption was the very first eruption scientifically predicted by volcanologists.) He would tell us to listen to science; to do what the doctors say, not to a politician so hell-bent on his own re-election that he acknowledged that he “down-played the danger of the pandemic” to the public after an advisor told him that it could cost him the upcoming election. Other world leaders have followed suit, ostensibly for the same reason: putting their re-election above the lives of their constituents. In the end, the president was not re-elected. A quarter million people died needlessly. Many more will perish in the dismal months ahead. Thomas Merton would have been horrified that a quarter million Americans so far have died because so many people—many who claim to be religious—have refused to do the simple act of wearing a face mask in public. They tout how Jesus instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, and yet they are unwilling to allow a simple piece of protective cloth to grace their cheek in order to show compassion and concern for others.


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Dr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, and peace. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in the spring of 2015.

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