Spiritual joy: William F. Roberts

William F. Roberts was born to Episcopalian missionaries in China where he lived for thirteen years. In the spring of 1942 when he was required by law to register for the draft he was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Yale University. He of course weighed his decision carefully, but in the end “there was no internal struggle or agony of decision; I realized, almost as a matter of course, that I must follow the path of a conscientious objector.”

Like John Griffith, William felt compelled by conscience to resist war by refusing to register for the draft. After he was sentenced and put in prison he struggled with the question of whether he should cooperate with the prison system, in part because it functioned in effect as the enforcement arm of the conscription system. He writes: “Internally, there was always the unresolved (and unresolvable) tension between the merits of working within the system despite its evils and of refusing to accept those evils. I could not look to logic for a solution to the dilemma, for perfect consistency in noncooperation with the evils of the system meant refusing to eat or to be more than a limp rag doll, and I rebelled against that extreme. My reaction to the dilemma was like a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, never achieving a stable resolution of the tension. As I wrote in April 1943 from Ashland [Penitentiary]: ‘My desire to act with complete honesty toward my feelings at the time, regardless of the act’s consistency with the past, has led me a merry chase trying to keep up with myself’.”

Rather than trying to rely on reason alone to guide his course of action, William increasingly surrendered to what his heart led him to do. In a letter to his mother he described his reaction to harsh criticism directed at him by a man who had been a close family friend: “six months ago, I would have given him a very confident, lofty-sounding answer in terms of absolute principles to any question he would have asked. In the ensuing months my answers have sunk from the intellectual, theological plane to the depths of feelings.” These words are reminiscent of a verse from the Tao Te Ching which portrays a person who has achieved a degree of mastery of spiritual practice. An excerpt from the verse goes:

The master gives up
To whatever the moment brings…
He doesn’t think about his actions,
They flow from the core of his being.

After serving one year of his three-year prison sentence, William was unexpectedly released on parole to work in a Boston hospital. Although he was content with his work situation, he struggled with whether he could in good conscience cooperate in this way with the prison system; he felt uneasy in part because he had left behind in prison other war resisters who had become close friends and were continuing to bear witness to their opposition to war as prisoners. In a letter to a friend in prison he wrote: “I think it will make you happy to hear, Larry, that the longer I am out here the more strongly do I know that I shall not compromise at all with Selective Service to stay out of jail. It is not on as idealistic a plane as it was before prison, but it is lots deeper and more a part of me.” In a subsequent letter he said “things are happening inside me—maybe I’ll see you soon.” And finally he wrote to say: “Congratulate me, Larry—I am a free man! I sent, a few days ago, a letter to the parole board saying that I no longer consider myself on parole, that the obligations and implications of parole are no longer tolerable. This is no sudden decision—nor can I point to a moment in which the decision was made. I never decided—I have known within myself that this thing was inevitable for many weeks—and suddenly it was natural and right to go ahead with it, which I have . . . What I have found out during these seven months [on parole] is that a real life requires the ingredient of a basic honesty—in the same way that human life requires food. And now I feel freer than I have ever been.”

In response to his letter to the parole board, William was rearrested by the FBI and taken to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to serve the remainder of his sentence (with no credit for the seven months he served on parole). A year or two after his release from prison William became a Trappist monk.

[Source: William P. Roberts, Jr. “Prison and Butterfly Wings,” in A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories, Larry Gara & Lenna Mae Gara, eds. (Kent State University Press, 1999) pp. 152-173.]


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