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Gathering observes Merton’s baptism and continual conversions

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

From the day of his baptism into the Catholic church 60 years ago, the life of Thomas Merton was marked by continual conversions, participants at a mid-November conference here were told.

As keynote speaker Anthony Padovano told the gathering commemorating Merton’s baptism in 1938, the young man who longed to turn the world into a monastery went through many transformations, becoming less obedient and pious, better able to embrace the more comprehensive church that calls itself the People of God. Moving ever deeper into mysticism, he went on to explore the “outer limits of incarnation,” recognizing the abundance of grace in other religions as well as the untapped resources of his own.

“The Conversions of Thomas Merton” was the theme of the conference, attended by more than 240 people from across the country. The conference, organized by the Iona Spirituality Institute, was held at the little jewel-box Church of Corpus Christi, near the Columbia University campus. Merton first visited the church in August 1938, a day he described as “my first sober Sunday in New York.” Merton was a student at Columbia and lived in a rooming house nearby.

He asked the pastor for religious instruction soon after and was baptized Nov. 16 at the font near the entrance of the church, which a steady stream of conference participants stood in line to admire.

Merton scholar Padovano began his keynote address with a quotation from one of Merton’s spiritual mentors, Cardinal John Henry Newman: “Faith that is ready to believe what it is told is faith of no substance.”

If Merton had been able to envision the life ahead of him at his baptism, Padovano said, he would have rejected it. But he learned through his many conversions to live, not only for himself, but for all of us. Fully accepting one transformation after another, he became not only a son of the church, but a brother to us all.

Sister of Charity Regina Bechtle of the College of Mount St. Vincent, Riverdale, N.Y., added that a personal conversion requires a stripping of illusions about ourselves, others and God, and is not genuine unless it leads to a transformation of society. The outer work and the inner journey must converge.

Bechtle said Merton had no illusions about either his religious community or the church itself: He knew both to be composed of bumbling, dull, imperfect people. Nevertheless, he recognized that a community was a safe place for transformation to take place. “Every day love corners me somewhere,” he wrote. We, too, are being cornered, she said, by a love that holds on for dear life and will not let us go.

Mysterious connection

Jonathan Montaldo, editor of Volume II of Merton’s journals, said that the crowd gathered at the conference had come to celebrate not Merton’s baptism but our own mysterious connection to that singular, mysterious event. Merton’s story, like the story of everyone at the gathering, was a chronicle of yearning, where rhythms of complaint were punctuated by praise, rhythms of obstinacy by obedience. God speaks to all of us as God spoke to Merton, Montaldo said: We must learn how to listen.

For Christine Bochen, editor of Volume IV of Merton’s letters and Volume VI of his journals, Merton’s conversions were less a climb up a ladder than a dance.

Bochen, a founding member of the International Thomas Merton Society, was slated to moderate a panel in Louisville, Ky., commemorating the 30th anniversary of Merton’s death. The Dec. 10 event, sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center Foundation, was to feature five women who knew Merton through friendship or professional association.

Bochen told the New York conference that reflecting on the changes Merton underwent, we must remember the experience of others, sometimes of many others. The important thing, she said, was to identify our own conversions and the places where we still require conversion, as we continue our progress through that mysterious “hidden ground of love.”

Editor Robert Giroux, who has worked with some of the 20th century’s greatest writers, introduced himself as the only one at the conference who had known Merton before his baptism. A Catholic student at Columbia at a time when the university regarded Catholics as second-class citizens, Giroux became editor of the Columbia Review, where he incurred Merton’s displeasure by heavily revising one of his poems. They became close friends years later, when he edited The Seven Storey Mountain. Giroux noted that Merton developed more over the years than any other writer he ever worked with.

Giroux recalled a postcard he had printed up as a response to the many letters of complaint he got demanding why this Trappist, dedicated to a life of silence, published so many books. It read simply “Writing is a form of contemplation.”

Prophetic, not pragmatic

Another of the speakers was Eileen Egan, introduced as “the mother of conscientious objection,” who counted Merton among her friends. Discussing Merton’s radical Catholicism, she reminisced about a time when pacifism was regarded by the church as a near-heresy. When his order forbade Merton to publish his thoughts on pacifism in books, he mimeographed them to send to friends like herself. She passed around a yellowing sample with a prefatory note in Merton’s own hand.

Merton, she stressed, was prophetic, not pragmatic. He complained that the language of nonviolence too frequently turned into the language of power and preferred conversion over revolution. For Merton, the slogan was never “We shall overcome,” she said, but rather, “He shall overcome.”

Recalling his friendship with Merton, Fr. Daniel Berrigan said, “It seemed almost scandalous of God to take that great friend from our world.” Berrigan said that Merton and he had often cast each other lifelines, though it was not always certain who was on shore and who in the surf. During one dark period, Berrigan said, it was Merton’s reassurance that kept him from abandoning the priesthood.

Berrigan ended his reflections with a series of Merton’s axioms: “Look deeper. Keep your third eye open. Listen and be willing to grow. Don’t play God, be human: It’s a much more difficult enterprise.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998