Desirous of Starting Over Your Faith Journey? Seek Out the "Permanent Catechumen," Thomas Merton, As Your Sponsor
This is the time in the Church Year when we see announcements and invitations in Church bulletins for those seeking to join the Catholic Church through Baptism [or a Profession of Faith if baptized in another Christian Church.] I remember very well from my years as a pastor how many of my flock would ask me why they could not be “born again” as their neighbors were doing in other Christian churches. Catholic doctrine teaches that we are baptized once in a lifetime, an unrepeatable event. For those of us baptized as infants, we have no experience of that event to draw from. And while we believe, doctrinally, that this baptism is a definitive saving event, we know experientially that we still wrestle with our reality of one foot in heaven and one foot in hell.
For nearly a half-century now since Vatican II, anyone joining the Church as an adult has been routed through the R.C.I.A., the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I could not help but notice that America Magazine this month reprinted a 1989 essay by Father Andrew Greeley, “The Case Against R.C.I.A.” Father Greeley contests the idea that one size or one model of conversion fits all, and he is quite heated on the point:
Everyone is unique. The Holy Spirit still blows whither She wills. The uniqueness, that which is most special about each person who comes to the rectory, is precisely the message, to those who preside over the rectory, of the Spirit of Variety and Pluralism. We have no right to try to arrange Her schedule, budget Her time, routinize Her grace. No one’s spiritual pilgrimage fits a formula. No one can be run through an automatic process. No one can be forced to jump through a series of hoops that have been designed a priori by liturgists and religious educators.
Whatever one thinks of his critique, Greeley makes a vital point in emphasizing the unique nature of each person’s search for encounter with the living God, an encounter that must precede and proceed liturgical formulation. Put another way, we know that baptism does not guarantee heaven, and that the best catechetical preparation in the world does not inoculate us against sin, confusion, and doubt. Moreover, the mystery of initiation into the full life of God is a lifelong process. As I meditate now in my 75th year of life, I am floored by the complexity of my own history. I hardly know how to reconcile the eager young 21-year-old redhead taking simple vows in the Franciscan Order in 1969 with the bald man who today can hardly imagine his life without his wonderful wife of nearly twenty-five years. More to the point, this senior citizen still feels like a catechumen, standing at the threshold of a deeper conversion that at times is quite frightening.
Thomas Merton once remarked that “the more I know about spirituality, I realize I know nothing about spirituality.” I can resonate with that. I sense that much work of the Spirit remains for me if I would get out of the way and allow God to shape me like the potter’s clay. Ironically, my hunger to “begin again” on the baptismal journey is stronger than at any time previously in my life, or so it seems. I suspect this is true for many of us regardless of when we were baptized. It was that realization which led me this summer to pick up, again, probably the greatest description of catechumenal seeking in print, the extraordinary autobiography of young Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain. 
Can a Catholic start all over again as a catechumen and be “born again?” The answer is no and yes. The negative answer is this: we have been baptized, confirmed, and eucharized, and whether we appreciate the fact or not, our sense of sin and inadequacy before God is a hearty symptom that one’s Confirmation “took”—the Spirit is enlightening us and prompting us with insight into who we are and where we ought to be. Unrest is a gift to move on to something better. So, to repeat these initiation sacraments because we are spiritually shipwrecked would be to deny their power within us at work. Moreover, the “tools” of our rebirth come from the Church—our Creed, the Scripture, the wisdom of two millennia of holy men and women, including those in the present day who minister to us and break bread with us in the Eucharist.
On the other hand, can a Catholic persona be “born again?” Absolutely, so long as we understand that this birth is the fruit of a lifelong labor. There is nothing that says we cannot take our souls back to the drawing board by way of an autobiographical examination of our lives to date. In fact, it is hard to imagine a Christian life which does not engage in a regular self-examination or examination of conscience. As I say, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain this summer, and it occurred to me that Merton—despite his Catholic conversion, his lifelong commitment to the Trappist Order, and his ordination to the priesthood—lived his entire life as a catechumen of sorts, and his ministry to the Church remains his written narrative of conversion from childhood to his tragic death while engaged in dialogue with Buddhist seekers of God.
Merton [1915-1968] is an ideal companion for anyone wishing to “start again.” I love Thomas Merton for many reasons, possibly not least the fact that he applied to the same branch of the Franciscan Order that I entered, though his application in his 20’s was rejected because of his relatively recent conversion to Catholicism and several moral complications from his college years, including fathering a child in England. [I entered Franciscan life at 14 and had no such complications, aside from immaturity!] As a convert to Catholicism, he desired priesthood and was despondent for a time when he believed that all doors to the sacerdotal were closed. However, he became aware of the Trappist Order of monks, specifically the monastery of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Monasteries, historically, have been more sympathetic to men with “pasts.” Monastic life dates to the third century, originally as a way of doing penance for sinful lives. Like other religious orders, the Trappist vows are commitments to an intensification of living the baptismal promises. [The vows of religious orders are distinct from the Sacrament of Orders.] A vowed religious remains a lay person unless there is a special need or call to ordination. Merton was received into the Gethsemane community at age 26 in 1941. He would live in this community for the remainder of his life, and he was ordained to the priesthood in the Trappist Order in 1949.
Thomas Merton is one of the most remarkable religious figures of the twentieth century and beyond, and his fame and influence in the Church are a continuing thorn in the side to many bishops who find his lifelong spiritual journey too honest and too “undomesticated.” In 2004 Merton was omitted from the final draft of the U. S. edition of the Catholic Catechism for Adults; by way of explanation Cardinal Donald Wuerl uttered a shameful dissembling: ““The generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was...only secondarily did we take into consideration that we don’t know all the details of the searching at the end of his life.” Wrong. Merton’s autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain currently sits in the top 2% of Amazon book sales [August 31, 2022] and his other devotional writings, such as Seeds of Contemplation, are in wide use today. There is simply no other convert to Catholicism who has left us such a paper trail as Thomas Merton—before and after his initiation into the Church—nor one who has dared to write about his need for God’s grace and his detours in attaining that grace and maintaining the course throughout his adult life in such magnificent prose.
Seven Story Mountain is Merton’s 500-page recollection of his life up to age 30. A detailed personal journal that he maintained throughout his life was made public in seven volumes in 1998, thirty years after his death, and there are multiple volumes of his letters to the famous and the anonymous available for purchase or borrowing today. Thus, although SSM take’s Merton’s life up to profession with the Trappists in 1944, there is an excess of autobiographical riches from Merton’s entire life, up to and including the day of his death, in all sorts of formats, including his journals, letters, spiritual books, and poetry. Merton, who had written poetry and attempted novels before entering religious life, assumed that when he took the habit, he would no longer be able to write. However, his abbot encouraged him to do so, including an exhortation to describe his journey to Gethsemane, which would become Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton’s autobiography appeared on the market in the years immediately after World War II, when thousands of veterans were attempting to make sense of their wartime experience. It is no exaggeration to say that the war had produced a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress syndrome as many impressionable men and women had come face to face with evil, the likes of which they could hardly have imagined. It is a happy accident that Seven Storey Mountain was released on the heels of the Hollywood blockbuster film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which chronicles the difficulties facing returning GIs to American society. Merton never served in World War II; he was received into Gethsemane just ahead of his draft notice. But his description of male unrest and thirst for religious meaning resonated with thousands of readers, not a few of whom sought the meaningful life of the religious cowl. There were 250 monks living in Gethsemane during Merton’s early years as a monk.
Moreover, Merton’s autobiography and other books began appearing in bookstores as thousands of young Catholic men were taking advantage of the GI Bill and attending college. [My former employer, Siena College, built Quonset huts to handle the overflow of postwar students.] Catholic colleges naturally required theology courses as part of the basic curriculum, meaning that into the 1950’s and 1960’s Catholic life in the United States was infused by better educated Catholic laity hungry for intellectual and spiritual stimulation.
My own rereading of Merton’s early years was a refreshing experience of religious introspection. I had read this work many years ago, but I was a different man then. I was motivated by curiosity as much as anything. But this time around I was taken by the nuances of Merton’s journey—the places he lived with his itinerant artist father, the books he read, the ideologies he toyed with, the religious prejudices he overcame, his time with the Quakers and the Communist Party, his volunteering in Harlem, his social excesses and squandered time. It is interesting that Catholic church buildings were among Merton’s first favorable experiences with Catholic life. [Having recently returned from Europe—particularly Venice and Florence—I can resonate with that.]
Even though all of Merton’s publishing underwent scrupulous examination by Trappist censors, it is amazing to see how God’s grace was able to flourish side by side with Merton’s imperfect humanity. While SSM outlines his youthful sins and trials to age 29, it is his journals [seven volumes in print] and his correspondence [about six volumes released, I believe] where we see more of Merton’s mature graces and vices. He wrestled back and forth with his belief that he needed to depend totally on God’s will, but he was a willful man whose tug of war with his abbot of twenty years, Dom James Fox, is legendary. [When Margaret and I visited Merton’s grave at Gethsemane in 1999, we discovered that the two men are buried side by side…death makes for strange bedfellows.]
Merton never quite reconciled the silent, structured life of the monastery with his own considerable energies, a problem that only got worse as he aged. His letters are filled with promises to correspondents and friends to read this and examine that. In SSM we see him as a young adult devouring volumes of books on philosophy and the arts, and then on to theology in his religious search. As a 50-something monk he continued this pattern—it is plain in his letters—and one wonders where he found the time to do all this. Late in his tenure he received permission to build a “hermitage” to find more silence and prayerful isolation. He joined the main abbey for Mass and one meal per day. But he hosted many guests and small groups at the “hermitage” or in the retreat center [Martin Luther King had a retreat scheduled at Gethsemane when he was killed in Memphis.] It is fair to say that he never totally “left the world,” and his 1960’s writings against the war in Viet Nam and racism in the United States raised the ire of those who felt a cloistered monk had no business engaging in these controversies.
The blessing of Thomas Merton is his recognition that his soul is always in need of reform, semper reformanda. For the Catholic who picks up Merton for the first time in 2022, it is a bit of a shock to read a man who has much in common with St. Augustine, with his distrust of man’s natural state and his utter dependence upon God’s grace. Merton’s college and young adult years had taught him what a life without God was really like. We are not used to hearing this language in the era of Vatican II, which tends to speak of the human species much more optimistically. The irony, of course, is that John XXIII convoked Vatican II precisely because of the moral collapse manifested in two World Wars and the Holocaust. Merton appreciated this fact and never got carried too far from his mea culpas.
Merton loved the sacraments; his description of Eucharistic encounter brings out his poetic best. He had strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, to the liturgical calendar, and the Divine Office. In SSM he reflects the times in his traditional disparagement of Protestant ideas and practices, but in middle age his deeper sense of the provenance of God steered him into a more ecumenical stance, and by the end of his life to the Eastern theologies of meditation. It can be said, I think, that the title “perpetual catechumen” can be applied to him in the sense that he never considered his divine conversion a “done deal” but a life-long search.
I believe that this is what Father Greeley was trying to say in the paragraph cited above: because we go through the rites of initiation does not mean that we stop initiating, whatever our age. And for this reason, I recommend that if you are feeling a need to get to the root of your spiritual unrest, or even if you feel that your initiation is somehow dead to you, pick up Merton. I recommend the Seven Storey Mountain, but if you prefer to begin with a third-person biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  by Michael Mott is dated but a very good narrative. Possibly Merton’s most famous spiritual writing is New Seeds of Contemplation [revised, 2007]. The first volume of his journals is Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation/The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941. If you would like to sample his letters, start with The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends .
A catechumen—first time or repeater—needs a sponsor. Merton is there for you. He has done the heavy lifting.
On My Mind