Until recent years, the sound of rain has always filled me with a sense of blessing. Rain drumming on the tin roof of a Tennessee farmhouse, my first home. Rain pattering on the canopy of oak and maple forests in Ohio, on forests of pine in Maine and Vermont, on reeds and rushes in Louisiana bayous, on spongy nurse logs in Oregon, on tundra and stone in Alaska. From earliest childhood, I would tingle with anticipation at the rumble of an oncoming storm. I would shiver with pleasure as rain tapped on windows and gurgled through gutters, and I would dash outside to rejoice in the thrum of rain on my umbrella or on the hood of my slicker. I heard in these sounds a promise of green grass, sweet corn, flowing creeks. It was the music of abundance. When preachers in the rural Methodist churches I attended as a boy spoke of grace, I thought of rain.
This enchantment helps explain why I was captivated by an essay called “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” which I read for the first time as a junior in college. I knew nothing of the author, Thomas Merton. I gathered from the opening page that he was a monk, for he mentioned having come from a monastery to a cabin in the woods. More intriguingly, he spoke of hearing in rain, as I did, a voice that sent a shiver up the spine—a voice older and grander than the human prattle of markets and gadgets and games.
“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money,” the essay begins. “The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.” The word gratuity rang true for me, because back then I thought of rain as a pure gift, like sunshine, like consciousness, like life itself. Calling rain meaningless also seemed apt, for in those days I believed that rain was immune to our designs and desires. Later on, as I continued my study of science, I would come to recognize that precipitation patterns—along with climate and biodiversity and other essentials of nature—are subject to our disruption if not to our control.
The blurry photocopy of “Rain and the Rhinoceros” was given to me by a college chaplain, whom I had gone to consult about my troubled conscience. It was the spring of 1966. I was twenty years old. Like many young men of draft age, I was struggling to decide whether, if called to serve, I would fight in Vietnam, where nearly 200,000 US military personnel were already deployed. Could I join the effort to kill strangers in a poor country on the far side of the world simply because my government had declared them to be enemies? I was also debating whether I should give up the study of physics, which had fascinated me since childhood. Could I devote my life to a science that was heavily funded by the Pentagon, as a source of knowledge useful for devising ever more lethal weapons? I don’t recall what advice the chaplain gave me, except that I should read Merton’s essay, which might help me distinguish between the loud voices outside me and the quiet voice within.
During our talk a rainstorm had blown in, so after I left the office I took shelter under an archway, where I sat on a bench and began reading. When I finished, I felt as though I had spent a long evening with this renegade monk, as he said Vespers in his cabin, cooked oatmeal on a camp stove, toasted bread on a log fire, and as he studied the writings of the sixth-century hermit Philoxenos by the light of a Coleman lantern, whose maker bragged that it “stretches days to give more hours of fun.” I fretted along with him as a Strategic Air Command bomber passed over his head, its “red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods and stretch our hours of fun into eternities.” All the while, Merton listened to the rain, and I listened with him, hearing, as in stereo, his rain in the Kentucky woods and mine under the grand elms of a college green in Rhode Island. All the while, I shared his pleasure in solitude, which ordered a refuge from the pressures of a society obsessed with buying stuff, having fun, and waging war.
My upbringing had instilled in me contradictory views of war. During my early school years, in the 1950s, my family lived on a military base, where bombers flew training runs, tanks roared about on maneuvers, and soldiers cruised the roads in olive-drab Jeeps. I read war comics, watched war movies, and played for hours on end with miniature plastic GIs. My father had worked in a munitions plant during World War II, and my uncles had flown bombing missions over the Pacific. The president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, was a military hero honored for commanding the forces of good that triumphed over the forces of evil. All of these influences led me to imagine that wearing the uniform of my nation and fighting our enemies was an exciting, courageous, and righteous calling.
On the other hand, I had been taught the Ten Commandments in Sunday school, including the stern warning, “Thou shalt not kill.” As a Bible-reading youth, I had also memorized passages from the New Testament in which Jesus praises peacemakers and instructs his followers to practice forgiveness and shun violence. Merton’s essay brought to mind several of these passages, such as the emphatic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Recalling those lines in the midst of a spring shower, I was pleased to think of rain as a symbol of universal benevolence, nurturing all life without distinction between just and unjust, good and evil, friend and enemy. Without distinction, in fact, between humans and trees and toads and the rest of thirsty nature. My dismay about our assaults on nature developed more slowly than my dismay about our assaults on fellow humans, but it arose from the same moral insight.
As a boy, I had not been forced to choose between my infatuation with war and my admiration for Jesus. But when I spoke with the chaplain in the spring of 1966—a year prior to graduation, when I would become subject to the draft—I could no longer ignore the choice. By then I had put away my toy soldiers and lost my taste for war movies. Night after night, watching the news, I had been sickened by the carnage in Vietnam. I had listened to speeches and sermons by Martin Luther King Jr., had read Gandhi’s autobiography and essays by Tolstoy and Thoreau, all advocating nonviolence. Yet I was reluctant to declare myself a conscientious objector. What held me back? The answer came to me, as the chaplain no doubt hoped it would, from reading “Rain and the Rhinoceros.”
Among the few plays I had seen in live performance before starting college was the one alluded to in Merton’s title—French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Written in 1959, it tells the story of a village in which all except one of the citizens succumb to “rhinoceritis,” turning into belligerent beasts that rush about recklessly, following the herd. The lone holdout is a man named Berenger, who refuses to become a rhinoceros despite urging from his best friend, who rejects the “moral standards” of society in favor of “the law of the jungle.” There is nothing heroic about Berenger—indeed, he is a drunkard and ne’er-do-well—yet he is brave enough to defend “the human individual” against the violent mob. By the end of the play, his is the only face on stage not hidden behind a rhinoceros mask.
Watching Rhinoceros as a high school senior, in the winter of 1963, I took it to be a satire on fascism, communism, and other mass delusions that only afflicted other nations. Three years later, when Merton’s essay reminded me of the play, I knew better. I knew that Americans could succumb to mass aggression as readily as people anywhere. I had read about our history of genocide against native tribes, about the hostility directed at each new wave of immigrants, about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, about the anticommunist hysteria of McCarthyism, about our history of slavery and the enduring scourge of racism.
In “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Merton invoked Ionesco’s play as a caution not merely against totalitarianism but against all forms of “collective thinking,” especially those that derive their power from channeling contempt toward people defined as Other. “Collectivity needs not only to absorb everyone it can,” he wrote, “but also implicitly to hate and destroy whoever cannot be absorbed. Paradoxically, one of the needs of collectivity is to reject certain classes, or races, or groups, in order to strengthen its own self-awareness by hating them instead of absorbing them.”
The moral response to collective aggression, Ionesco implies, is to refuse to join the herd, even if in doing so one risks being ostracized or attacked. “The problem of Berenger,” Merton wrote, “is the problem of the human person stranded and alone in what threatens to become a society of monsters.” Berenger is indeed alone at the end of the play, scorned by his former friends, and liable to be crushed if he stands in the path of the stampede. For Merton, he exemplified the “isolated conscience” defying the “mass mind.” It’s hard to hear one’s conscience in the midst of a stampede. That was why early Christians often withdrew from the hubbub of cities and villages to the silence of the desert—as did the sixth-century hermit whose writings Merton was studying. The need for solitude was also why this renegade monk had retreated from his monastery to a cabin in the woods. “Yet even here the earth shakes,” he conceded in the final paragraph. “Over at Fort Knox the Rhinoceros is having fun.”
By the time I read those wry closing sentences, there under the archway amid the music of rain, I understood why the chaplain had thought the essay might help me choose my path. Unlike Berenger, I was not “stranded and alone,” since by the spring of 1966, opposition to the Vietnam War had begun to swell. But I had grown up in the rural Midwest, among people who considered military service to be the duty of every red-blooded American male. When the nation was at war, only cowards refused to take up arms. Veterans were highly honored, especially those who had fought in Europe or Korea. Two of my high school classmates had already died in Vietnam. No one I knew had refused to serve in the armed forces on moral grounds. What held me back from declaring myself a conscientious objector was fear—fear of disappointing, even angering, family and friends; fear of being blacklisted by potential employers; fear of going into prison or exile if my application was turned down; and fear, above all, of being judged a coward. If Berenger had been depicted as a heroic figure, I could not have embraced him as a guide for the choice I faced. But a drunkard and ne’er-do-well, a man given to laziness and procrastination, was a figure humble enough for me to emulate in his determination to resist the crowd.
I tucked the essay inside my jacket, pulled up my hood, and set out walking. My shoes and pants legs were soon soaked. Eventually, the rain let up, its patter fading like the dying away of applause after a concert, and then it ceased. I continued on through puddled streets gleaming with late afternoon light until I reached my favorite spot for brooding, a small park on a bluff overlooking the railroad yards and office towers of Providence. One of the park’s attractions for me was a giant statue of Roger Williams, gazing out over the city, his arm uplifted in benediction. The man it commemorated had fled in the 1630s from the Massachusetts Bay Colony after being threatened with imprisonment for questioning Puritan dogma, and had founded Rhode Island as a haven for others seeking freedom of conscience. I drew close to the statue, leaned against a steel fence at the edge of the bluff, and watched streetlights begin to glitter, block by block, across the city.
Alone except for the imagined company of Roger Williams, Thomas Merton, and the fictional Frenchman Berenger, I listened for the inner voice that the chaplain had spoken of. What I eventually heard, as my mind cleared, were the voices of my upbringing—the words of parents and teachers, Bible verses and favorite books. But I also heard a voice that seemed to arise from a source older than my private history, deeper than my own small self. Call it conscience, call it nature, call it God. Whatever the source, it was compelling. I made my decision. I would forsake my first academic love, and turn from physics to history, philosophy, literature, or some other field that attracted no funding from the Pentagon. After graduation, if called by the Selective Service, I would volunteer for civilian work—as a tutor in an elementary school, perhaps, or an orderly in a hospital, whatever job they chose for me—but I would not wear the uniform of my nation’s armed forces, not even in a noncombat role.
Since that first encounter with Merton’s writing I have gone on to read more than a dozen of his books, mostly from the final decade of his life, 1958 to 1968, years that coincided with my time in high school and college, when I was awakening to concerns about racism, militarism, poverty, pollution, and the nuclear arms race. Merton fervently addressed all of these matters in his writing from that period, condemning them as forms of violence, while insisting that “non-violence comes very close to the heart of the Gospel ethic.” His essays on social issues were so impassioned, in fact, that his monastic superiors and church officials in Rome directed him to keep silent about them, especially about war and atomic weapons, and urged him to confine his writing to the safe subjects that had filled most of his earlier books—monasticism, contemplation, prayer, the lives of saints, and his own spiritual autobiography. But he would not limit himself to what he called “books of piety,” declaring that “social responsibility is the keystone of the Christian life.” He continued writing about violence, injustice, and environmental desecration, circulating his work in letters and mimeographed sheets when it could not pass the censors.
In Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), the collection of essays that opens with “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Merton drew parallels between our nation’s methodical preparation for mass slaughter and the rational planning and implementation of genocide by the Nazis. Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of that genocide, was judged to be sane by the psychiatrist who examined him before his trial. “The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing,” Merton wrote. “We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.” In America during the Cold War, he saw madness masquerading as sanity: “Those who invented and developed atomic bombs, thermonuclear bombs, missiles; who have planned the strategy of the next war; who have evaluated the various possibilities of using bacterial and chemical agents: these are not the crazy people, they are the sane people. The ones who coolly estimate how many millions of victims can be considered expendable in a nuclear war. . . .”
Most people of faith in America seemed content to acquiesce in a culture defined by military and industrial and racial violence. This conformity appalled Merton: “The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be ‘sane’ like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society. That we must be ‘realistic’ about it,” he wrote. “We must develop a sane Christianity: and there have been plenty of sane Christians in the past. Torture is nothing new, is it? We ought to be able to rationalize a little brainwashing, and genocide, and find a place for nuclear war, or at least for napalm bombs, in our moral theology.” One can see why such passages might upset his superiors in the hierarchy of a church whose moral theology had, in the past, countenanced not only torture but also crusades against infidels and wars against rival Christian sects.
In journals from the last decade of his life, Merton revealed increasing distress about the pressures for conformity within his own religious community: “In the monastery, or at any rate in choir,” he lamented, “I have been forgetting how to think, and only in the past few days have I woke up to the fact that this is very dangerous! I mean the constant, habitual passivity we get into. No matter how honest the surroundings and how clean the doctrine believed in them, no man can afford to be passive and to restrict his thinking to a new rehearsal, in his own mind, of what is being repeated all around him.” His determination to escape that passivity, to think for himself, inspired his move to the cabin in the woods, where he could listen to rain and birdsong, to the written words of other hermits, and to his own conscience. “There is no question for me,” he wrote in his journal in the spring of 1965, “that my one job as a monk is to love the hermit life in simple direct contact with nature, primitively, quietly, doing some writing, maintaining such contacts as are willed by God, and bearing witness to the value and goodness of simple things and ways, and loving God in it all.”
Of all Merton’s works, none has had a greater impact on me than the essay I encountered first. “Rain and the Rhinoceros” offered me guidance at a time when I felt lost. It emboldened me to think critically about dominant beliefs and behaviors in American society, and to challenge those that violated my own ethics and affections. Merton himself must have experienced such an awakening from something he had read, for in The Sign of Jonas (1953) he remarked: “There are times when ten pages of some book fall under your eye just at the moment when your very life, it seems, depends on your reading those ten pages. You recognize in them immediately the answer to all your most pressing questions. They open a new road.”
While “Rain and the Rhinoceros” did not answer all of my most pressing questions, it did give me the courage to face them. It opened a road that led from the self-preoccupation of youth to an adult concern for the well-being of other persons and other species, and for the health of our living planet. It spoke to my dismay about the contradictions between the teachings of the Gospel, as I understood them, and the conduct of those self-professed Christians who embrace racism, militarism, and consumerism, who scorn refugees, neglect the poor, and show little concern for the devastation of Earth. Merton’s work affirmed my reverence for nature, my sense that wildness is the divine creative energy owing through every atom and cell and star.
Today, half a century after first reading the essay, I feel less sanguine about rain. I still recognize that wind and clouds and precipitation obey the laws of physics, not our wishes, but I no longer imagine that rain is impervious to our actions. Sulfur and nitrous oxide released from coal-fired power plants turn rain acidic, poisoning lakes and vegetation. Radioactive particles spewed into the air from accidents at nuclear power plants—such as those at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—descend in raindrops. By burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, plowing up carbon-rich soils, and raising methane-generating livestock, we have altered the chemistry of the atmosphere in a way that traps more heat. A warming atmosphere produces more extended droughts and more violent downpours, turning arable regions into deserts and forests into tinder for wild fires, burying villages in mudslides, displacing more and more of the world’s poorest people by rising sea levels and floods.
Merton did not live to witness how thoroughly we have tainted the rain. He died in 1968, just as scientists were beginning to document the damage from acid rain, and as the average global temperature—which had crept upward since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—was beginning to rise more steeply. Well before his death, however, he noticed other ways in which humans were despoiling our planetary home. He saw evidence of the damage in Kentucky hillsides stripped of trees, heard it in the roar of chainsaws and tractors clearing more of the monastery’s land. He learned with dismay that pesticides were poisoning birds. He agonized over the ravaging of the Vietnamese people and countryside by American bombs. Most alarming of all, he perceived in the escalating arms race a threat to all life on Earth.
The military jets that Merton heard cruising overhead signified more than preparation for war; they signified the industrial order, with its scorn for natural limits, its assault on land and sea and sky, its harnessing of technology to serve human appetites. “[P]erhaps our scientific and technological mentality makes us war-minded,” he suggested in Faith and Violence. “We believe that any end can be achieved from the moment one possesses the right instruments, the right machines, the right technique.” The hubris that has led us to devastate our home planet now prompts us to imagine we can continue our plundering and pollution by employing even more grandiose technology—by dumping powdered limestone in the oceans to counter acidification, by covering deserts and glaciers with reflective plastic sheets, by orbiting giant mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays, by mining asteroids or colonizing Mars.
Soon after the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, Merton wrote in his journal: “I have been shocked at a notice of a new book by Rachel Carson on what is happening to birds as a result of the indiscriminate use of poisons. . . . Someone will say: you worry about birds. Why not worry about people? 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 spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.”
In his writings from the 1960s, Merton traced this sickness to our false sense of separation from nature and our unchecked appetite for power and possessions. His diagnosis was grounded in the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, with their stern warnings against greed and the piling up of material wealth; it drew on the Christian monastic tradition, with its devotion to poverty and simplicity; and it was informed in his later years by Asian philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. Beginning with “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” his work has helped me understand that our ecological crisis is, at root, a spiritual crisis. We abuse and exploit Earth for the same reason we abuse and exploit one another: because we have lost a sense of kinship with our fellow human beings, with other species, and with our planetary home.
Merton felt this kinship keenly. “Here I am not alien,” he wrote from his cabin in the woods. “The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.” His experience as well as his faith convinced him that the waters and woods and fields and their myriad creatures, human and nonhuman, all arise from the same divine source. “[T]he whole world is charged with the glory of God,” he exulted in The Sign of Jonas, “and I feel fire and music in the earth under my feet.” We are sparks of that primordial fire, notes of that music, each of us, all of us, along with birds and butterflies, maples and monkeys, frogs and ferns. Whatever power gave rise to the cosmos, to life, to consciousness, still infuses and sustains all things. What we call nature is simply this grand, evolving flow, which brings each of us into existence, bears us along, and eventually reclaims us. Knowing this vividly, as Merton did, how can we desecrate Earth? How can we keep from crying out in wonder and praise?
This article was made possible through a partnership with the Myrin Institute.
This series of photographs is from the book The Big Cloud, by photographer Camille Seaman (Princeton Architectural Press, May 2018). In The Big Cloud, Seaman stands in front of tornados, at the edges of lightning storms, and in pelting hail under pitch-black skies to capture supercells and mammatus clouds in their often sublime and terrifying splendor. Purchase the book here.