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"One evening, he went to a church service, feeling that he was called there to answer a question and that his whole life depended on his decision. Thus, he answered in prayer: 'Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest.' He wrote about these prayers in his autobiography: 'When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision'"




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Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Thomas Merton

Seeds of Contemplation




In the summer of 1927, he met Monsieur and Madame Privat, who were the people with whom he and his father boarded in Murat, France. Merton's description of them from The Seven Storey Mountain is that "they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine-but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity." The Privats were deeply concerned at young Merton's lack of faith. Although he was only 12, he argued with them that it was a matter of individual conscience, and they did not contend with him. Later, he wrote that he owed much to them because of their silent and patient prayers for him.

Thomas, with his father and his brother, went to England in 1929. His father got very sick and had to be hospitalized, seeing little of his boys in the months which preceded his death in 1931. Thomas suffered very much those years and it was hard for him to recover from such a loss. He was then quite alone in the world, a young man left on his own. As a result, his freshman year, spent at Cambridge, was a dizzy and boisterous one. He felt the only thing of value that he got out of Cambridge was an acquaintance with Dante's works.

He returned to his maternal grandparents in Long Island and went to Columbia in the winter of 1935. Merton had been attracted at this time by the Socialists who were on campus. He relished the idea of a classless society. His course selection the next year reflected this intellectual social-political concern. One day, thinking he was in the room where the first meeting of his history course was to be held, he found that it was actually a course on Shakespeare and he started to leave. But, just by chance, he reconsidered, and ended up taking the course. It was this "coincidence" that led to his friendship with Professor Van Doren. Merton was immediately impressed with the "heroic humility" of his English professor. Van Doren was one of several people at Columbia who influenced him in the direction of using the mind to penetrate the meaning of things through perfect honesty and objectivity. From Van Doren, Merton was weaned from the narrow perspective of philosophy and economics through studying Shakespeare, which dealt with human drama in the fundamental realms of life, death, sorrow and eternity. It was also in this class that Merton became acquainted with Bob Lax, who became his good friend and was to have a pivotal influence on his life.

Merton describes Lax as being born a great contemplative. He had a deep spirituality but, lacking practicality, he followed Merton's lead in activities. It was Bob Lax who inspired Merton with the desire to read Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means. In the entry for November 27, 1941, The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, Merton declares, "until I read this book, Ends and Means, four years ago, I had never much heard of the word mysticism. The part he played in my conversion, by that book, was very great." The main thrust of the book was that evil means will not accomplish good ends. One needs detachment in order to act with conscious will rather than be subject to the inferior material and animal forces of one's nature. Asceticism and prayer are the means to freedom.

For Merton this was revolutionary. Yet he was not ready to end his wild, playboy ways. Indeed, as a result of being so busy with his various forms of socializing, he became seriously ill.

It was also through his friendship with Bob Lax that he encountered a shy little man with a huge smile, a yellow turban with Hindu prayers written all over it in red, and on his feet, sneakers. Bramachari was his name, and he earned Merton's respect quickly by his good humor and his inability to criticize in a judgmental way, even when making statements about the hypocrisy of most western sects. When Merton told Bramachari of his difficulty in relating to the eastern mysticism he had studied as a result of Huxley's book, Bramachari referred him to the beautiful Christian mystical tradition. He specifically told Merton he should read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ by St. Ignatius. Aside from putting Merton in touch with the western mystical tradition, Bramachari left an impression on him that contributed to Merton's openness to all kinds of spirituality, resulting in his later works bridging eastern and western mysticism.

Merton felt the call to a spiritual vocation with increasing intensity in his last year as an undergraduate. He was drawn to the Catholic Mass and had an intimate feeling for the mystical body of the Church. He had just suffered a personal life crisis, and all his activities drained him to the point of exhaustion. At one point in his reading of Lahey's Gerard Manley Hopkins, the questions in the text asking the reason for Hopkins' hesitation about converting to Catholicism seemed to be a movement within himself. Merton felt a voice moving him to take the decision he knew he must. He went to the church where he had obtained some books and told the priest he wanted to become a Catholic. Yet a few months after his baptism, he realized that he was living in the same manner as he had before. He pleased himself before all else, all his acts interfering with the work of grace in his soul. His "conversion" consisted in an intellectual change only.

The state of the world at the end of the 1930s, no less than the state of his own soul, led Merton to a vocational crisis. As he and Lax were walking down the street arguing about something, Lax asked Tom what he wanted to be anyway. Thomas responded not that he wanted to be a well-known book reviewer for the New York Times, or a successful businessman, or some such profession, but he said that he wanted to be a good Catholic. Unable to explain what he meant by that, he was told by Lax that what he should say is that he wanted to be a saint. Merton protested, asking how it would be possible for him to be a saint. Lax, who was not a Catholic, remarked that all that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.

By September of that year, Merton was thinking, "I am going to be a priest." One evening, he went to a church service, feeling that he was called there to answer a question and that his whole life depended on his decision. Thus, he answered in prayer: "Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest." He wrote about these prayers in his autobiography: "When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision."

However, it was a few years before his decision was actualized. He talked to people about his vocation and investigated several religious orders in the Catholic Church. He decided upon the Franciscan Order, for he did not believe he was capable enough to follow the rules of a strict order like the Cistercian. Within a few weeks of entering the novitiate, he was beset with many anguished doubts. He spoke with the superior, expressing his concern that his past life made him unworthy. His superior suggested that he withdraw his application. Confused and feeling miserable, he went to a church for confession. He wasn't able to explain himself and the priest got his story all mixed up. The priest was very hard with Merton, telling him in very strong terms that he certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less in the priesthood. When Thomas went out of that church, he felt completely broken in pieces. The only thing he knew was that he shouldn't consider the vocation to the cloister as a possibility.


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