My “Lightbulb” moment
When was the “lightbulb” moment that prompted you to take seriously issues around war and peace? And was it a painting, a poem, a play, a film or a photograph that inspired you? Although it isn’t sufficiently acknowledged, one’s cultural life can often provide the inspiration needed to lead to an interest in and even a personal commitment to work for peace and justice.
In my case it was a book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton and the early protest songs of Bob Dylan. There were, of course, other influences over the years, but these were certainly among the first.
It was a Sunday in the summer of 1970 and I was a seminarian hitching a lift (as one did back then) from Maynooth College to my aunt’s home in the Irish midlands. It so happened that the tourist who stopped for me was a Catholic from Massachusetts and interested in the writings of Thomas Merton. He agreed to send me one of Merton’s books when he returned home and I still treasure the copy of Conjectures he sent. This book, a collection of reflections on some of the most urgent moral issues of the decade, led me to Merton’s other books on nonviolence, peace and justice.
Through Merton, I later became aware of the non-violent direct actions, the marches and demonstrations of the Berrigan brothers, along with the witness of the Catholic Worker movement. All this began to form the bedrock of my thinking on peace issues and helped me make sense of the social and political turmoil I experienced in my parish in north Belfast during the 1970’s – the worst decade of the Troubles. I even hold Merton responsible for getting me interested in the work of Pax Christi, for after five years in that Belfast parish, I left Ireland to work as its national chaplain!
However, long before I discovered Merton, the early protest songs of Bob Dylan had been the soundtrack to my adolescence. It was easy to see how songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War and The Times They Are a Changing, chimed with Merton’s views on race, violence and the changes taking place in American society in the late 1960’s. Although they never met, Merton became interested in Dylan in the final years of his life and, in 1966, even managed to get some of his records smuggled into the monastery for regular listening! Sadly, both Merton’s writings and Dylan’s lyrics are as timely today as they were then.
In many ways I’ve come a long way since those heady days, read more books and listened to other music, but it was Merton and Dylan who, in their different ways, made me less of a Guilty Bystander and prepared me to meet that Slow Train Coming!
(Reprinted with permission of PAX CHRISTI, the Catholic peace movement, from its newsletter, JUSTPEACE – February-March, 2022)