Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest: Merton, Berrigan, Yoder, and Muste at the Gethsemani Abbey Peacemakers Retreat by Gordon OyerPursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest: Merton, Berrigan, Yoder, and Muste at the Gethsemani Abbey Peacemakers Retreat by Gordon Oyer

Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest re-creates three days in November 1964. Fourteen individuals, steeped in the peace movement of that time, gathered in retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky to think together about three topics: (1) nonviolence and conscientious objection to war, (2) the social impact of technology, and (3) by what right do we protest? (xiv).

Drawing largely from contemporaneous letters, diaries and personal journals, notes taken in preparation for and during the retreat, and interviews with surviving participants, Oyer has done the seemingly impossible: vividly rendered an event that was planned to have no plan, eschewed formal presentations, was not recorded, and was only minimally reported on in media accounts of the time. Oyer manages the feat with the patience of an archeologist on a dig, searching for, sifting through, and piecing together minutiae that slowly reveal a clearer picture of a 50-year old legend.

Quickly and deftly, Oyer draws his readers into the zeitgeist of the early 1960s. He sketches a U.S. society pulsat[ing]with change and uncertainty, (21) providing both backdrop and impetus for the retreat. Even readers who lived through these times will be stunned by Oyer’s litany, and its eerie preview of early 21st Century social upheaval and trauma: the 1960 sit-ins at Southern lunch counters; the U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; the first Freedom Rides; the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail; the first Vietnamese Buddhist monk self-immolation to protest the war; Medgar Evers’ murder; the Partial Test Ban Treaty; King’s I have a dream speech at the March on Washington; the murder of four little girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church; President Kennedy’s assassination; the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer; the murder of civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney; the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize; China’s first atomic bomb; the first nation-wide mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War….

Recognizing in this cauldron an incipient movement torn loose from cultures, feeding off pragmatic bits of political analysis, and justifiably anti-church without being antireligious, retreat organizers felt a great urgency to gather at Gethsemani a small group who could grapple with the why and what of protest and political analysis, locating spiritual roots for a nascent peace movement. (8)

The fourteen men who gathered November 18-20, 1964—and they were all men; the Abbey would not accommodate women overnight for another 25 years—were mostly religious, radical pacifists. Oyer details their impressive peace movement resumés, though the exhaustive recounting of the personal and organizational networks which connected them is a bit tedious. What emerges, however, is a vibrant picture of thoughtful and committed peacemakers, a few of whom—A.J. Muste, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, John Howard Yoder, and Thomas Merton—were or would become stars among movement theoreticians and activists. (According to Oyer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin would certainly have attended (234) except that Dr. King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and they were preparing for King’s trip to Norway.)

The retreat was built around a series of conversations. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was host and hub (19) of the retreat, wanted to make the convocation purposeless and freewheeling and a vacation for all…. (39) But he also wanted participants to reflect on common grounds for religious dissent and commitment in the face of the injustice and disorder of a world in which total war seems at times inevitable, in which few seek any but violent solutions to economic and social problems more critical and more vast than man has ever known before. (98) For Merton, protest wasn’t simply a right, it was a terribly dangerous calling that, if it lacked sufficient spiritual maturity, could contribute to making things worse. (196)

Oyer’s re-construction of the retreat’s presentations and discussions is thorough and insightful. For the reader, he creates an uncanny sense of sitting in on a lively seminar of deeply-engaged sages. Wednesday afternoon Merton addressed The Monastic Protest—the voice in the wilderness, (109) drawing heavily on the works of Louis Massignon and Jacques Ellul. Thursday opened with Daniel Berrigan (a Jesuit priest in the Catholic Worker and Catholic Peace Fellowship traditions) speaking on The Risen Christ and the Church of Protest, (135) a synthesis of his study of, among others, Teilhard de Chardin and Gordon Zahn on the martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter. John Howard Yoder (a newly-minted Mennonite theologian) led the Thursday afternoon session on The Incarnate Christ as Our Warrant for Protest, reviewing the retreat’s conversations from the protestant stance, (146) seen through the lens of Yoder’s writings as well as those of Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof. Friday morning wrapped with commentary by A.J. Muste (an octogenarian Quaker with deep ties to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Congress of Racial Equality, and War Resisters League), filtering the previous days’ discussions through his decades of experience in the peace movement.

The feel of the retreat is made even more tangible by details Oyer shares about such mundanities as attire (some wore full clerical attire, others jacket and ties, still others sweaters and shirtsleeves), seating (four participants scrunched on a fireplace bench [109], others on backless stools), weather (Muste struggling up a mile-long muddy hike to Merton’s cement-block hermitage), and free time (one Berrigan brother going off into the woods for confession while the other went for two cases of beer stowed in his trunk). And what apparently proved most memorable, even decades after the retreat, was Thursday’s private Mass.

In 1964, open communion within any denomination was problematic and rare. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Merton’s abbot directed him to preclude Protestants from the Eucharist. No one was comfortable with this limitation, but they were guests. Daniel Berrigan—charged with leading the Mass—made the best of it by offering the liturgy in English (a novelty in pre-Vatican II days), asking a Presbyterian to read the Gospel, a Quaker to read the epistle, and a Methodist to give the homily. Merton knew, of course, that there would just be hell to pay if the homily came from anyone other than a Catholic (130), so he gave it instead. Berrigan began the rite of Communion with his brother Philip, who apparently was unaware of the abbot’s edict and spontaneously passed bread and wine to all. Everyone accepted both, and thus the problem was solved. Remarkably, this unorthodox service was the only time all were present for worship during the retreat and, [i]n retrospect, the moment seemed almost divinely orchestrated. (132)

The aim of the retreat was to draw upon spiritual roots together, (128) in order to understand the unique element that Christianity brings to the mystery of the pursuit of peace and justice in a world ruled by perverse power. (197) Was the effort successful? Oyer concludes that, for the participants, the retreat was substantively more of a reference point than a fork in the road. In tangible and mystical ways, however, time-worn interfaith barriers faded for the tiny fellowship, and lasting friendships emerged. (205)

For the rest of us, Oyer measures the legacy of the Gethsemani gathering by its lingering themes (203): the value of retreat and contemplation in a life of protest; the impact of marginalization, both on the powerless and also on those more fortunate but living in varying degrees of tension with church and state; the need for mutual respect and fellowship among those with a common commitment to Christ’s spirit of resistance to domination (205); the challenge of understanding the principalities and powers (205), especially the power of technology; and a spiritual awareness that the ultimate success of our acts, resistance, and protests rests in greater hands than ours alone. (207)

Framed this way, Oyer’s book is welcome encouragement for anyone struggling to find peaceful and just solutions to 21st Century violence and injustice. It grants a seat within the circle of these esteemed companions, as they consult one another regarding the spiritual implications of protesting the powers of domination,… [and remind] us of a fundamental call to dig deeply and tap into spiritual roots that will set our priorities, sustain our vision, and navigate our pilgrimage…. (186)