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Father Muench Says...

Considering conversion with Merton

October 25, 2023

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

Recently, I was prompted to read a book – a book I have read again and again – because this book has had a profound effect on me. I read this book for the first time when I was in high school. I am talking about Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain.” I learn something new each time I read it.

You will remember this book; I have mentioned it often here. It is an autobiography of a Trappist monk who is looking back on his conversion to the Catholic Church. He discovers a desire to be a Catholic priest, and he is called to enter a Trappist Monastery, where he is ordained a priest.

Today, I was reading again the section in which Merton writes about his conversion. I am sure this will be interesting to the people in our RCIA program. At this time in Merton’s life, he was 23 years old. It was 1939, and he was a student at Columbia University.

I was reading about Merton’s thoughts on the day that he was seriously considering his joining the Catholic Church. He describes his vacillation that day. He felt ready to visit a priest but would then become hesitant. Finally, he makes up his mind and heads down to Corpus Christi Church, a nearby parish. He stops at the rectory but learns that Father Ford is out. Then as he begins to head home, Father Ford comes along heading home. Merton meets him and immediately tells him, “I would like to become a Catholic.”

This reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a pastor. On a Saturday morning several years ago, a man rang the doorbell early that morning. I answered the door. This man said to me, “I want to join up.” His name was Jim, and he became a very dedicated convert to the Catholic Church and a very active member of our parish. He made it clear to me that he was so happy as a Catholic.

Back to Merton. He became well prepared by the priests of Corpus Christi for baptism. His entrance into the Church will result into his finding the Monastery and becoming a priest. He remembers well that on the day of his baptism, he was accompanied by four of his college friends. These are friends that will continue to be a part of his life as a monk and priest. One of them, Ed Rice, was to be his godfather, as he was the only Catholic in the group.

Remember that this is Thomas Merton, now a Trappist Monk and a popular spiritual writer and a priest, writing so insightfully about his baptism. The moment was a huge change in his life. In the early chapters, we have learned that he had lived a rather raucous life. At the beginning of the ritual, Merton is asked to make his Baptismal promise. He rejects Satan and all his works, and then he publicly proclaims his belief in God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He writes about this: “what mountains were falling from my shoulders! What scales of dark night were peeling off my intellect, to let in the inward vision of God and His truth!”

Merton then describes the rite of exorcism, which was part of the ritual at that time. He writes, “I did not see them leaving, but there must have been more than seven of them. I had never been able to count them.”

After the baptism with water, Merton remembers his first Confession. And then he participates in a Mass and receives his First Communion. Merton writes: “This was a reminder of the singleness with which this Christ, hidden in a small host, was giving himself for me, and to me and with Himself, the entire Godhead Trinity, a great increase of the power and grasp of their indwelling that had begun only a few minutes before at the font.”

This event in the life of Thomas Merton continues to be a perfect opportunity for me to unite myself with his spirit and wisdom. It also becomes a good message for me to share with others.

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