Merton has an epiphany . . .
I had my thesis to type out, and a lot of books to read, and I was thinking of preparing an article on Crashaw which perhaps I would send to T. S. Eliot for his Criterion. I did not know that Criterion had printed its last issue, and that Eliot’s reaction to the situation that so depressed me was to fold up his magazine.
The days went on and the radios returned to their separate and individual murmuring, not to be regimented back into their appalling shout for yet another year. September, as I think, must have been more than half gone.
I borrowed Father Leahy’s life of Hopkins from the library. It was a rainy day. I had been working in the library in the morning. I had gone to buy a thirty-five-cent lunch at one of those little pious kitchens on Broadway— the one where Professor Gerig, of the graduate school of French, sat daily in silence with his ancient, ailing mother, over a very small table, eating his Brussels sprouts. Later in the afternoon, perhaps about four, I would have to go down to Central Park West and give a Latin lesson to a youth who was sick in bed, and who ordinarily came to the tutoring school run by my landlord, on the ground floor of the house where I lived.
I walked back to my room. The rain was falling gently on the empty tennis courts across the street, and the huge old domed library stood entrenched in its own dreary greyness, arching a cyclops eyebrow at South Field.
I took up the book about Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chapter told of Hopkins at Balliol, at Oxford. He was thinking of becoming a Catholic. He was writing letters to Cardinal Newman (not yet a cardinal) about becoming a Catholic.
All of a sudden, something began to stir within me, something began to push me, to prompt me. It was a movement that spoke like a voice.
"What are you waiting for?” it said. “Why are you sitting here? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do? Why don’t you do it?”
I stirred in the chair, I lit a cigarette, looked out the window at the rain, tried to shut the voice up. “Don’t act on impulses,” I thought. “This is crazy. This is not rational. Read your book.”
Hopkins was writing to Newman, at Birmingham, about his indecision.
“What are you waiting for?” said the voice within me again. “Why are you sitting there? It is useless to hesitate any longer. Why don’t you get up and go?”
I got up and walked restlessly around the room. “It’s absurd,” I thought. “Anyway, Father Ford would not be there at this time of day. I would only be wasting time.”
Hopkins had written to Newman, and Newman had replied to him, telling him to come and see him at Birmingham.
Suddenly, I could bear it no longer. I put down the book, and got into my raincoat, and started down the stairs. I went out into the street. I crossed over, and walked along by the grey wooden fence, towards Broadway, in the light rain.
And then everything inside me began to sing—to sing with peace, to sing with strength, and to sing with conviction.
I had nine blocks to walk. Then I turned the corner of 121st Street, and the brick church and presbytery were before me. I stood in the doorway and rang the bell and waited.
When the maid opened the door, I said:
“May I see Father Ford, please?”
“But Father Ford is out.”
I thought: well, it is not a waste of time, anyway. And I asked when she expected him back. I would come back later, I thought.
The maid closed the door. I stepped back into the street. And then I saw Father Ford coming around the corner from Broadway. He approached, with his head down, in a rapid, thoughtful walk. I went to meet him and said:
“Father, may I speak to you about something?”
“Yes,” he said, looking up, surprised. “Yes, sure, come into the house.”
We sat in the little parlor by the door. And I said: “Father, I want to become a Catholic.”
It's a profound moment of revelation for Merton. Everyone experiences times like this in their lives--where the fog lifts and the road forward becomes clear. While Merton has been toying with the notion of conversion for quite a while, he has never given voice to it--confessed it--before. He does so now to a Catholic priest. Even if he backslides, he can never unspeak these words. He will never be the same again.
It is New Years Eve. An evening that invites reflection and resolution. People take stock of the previous 365 days. Think about failures and successes, losses and joys. This year has been rife with struggles for everyone across the globe. Unless you are a resident of Antarctica, you have been somehow affected by COVID-19, directly or indirectly. Nobody on the planet will ever be the same again.
For the first seven months of this year, I worked in healthcare. I sat at hospital entrances, taking names and temperatures. Screening patients for symptoms. Answering phone calls from frightened family members. Worrying on a daily basis about carrying coronavirus home to my family.
Since March, my social circle has pretty much been limited to about three or four people--my wife, daughter, son, and daughter's boyfriend. That's it. My interaction with family members outside my household has been pretty much limited to six-foot distant conversations from doorways. An outside barbecue or two. One small birthday gathering.
Meanwhile, the citizens of my country were dealing with a leader who was becoming increasingly unhinged. Who claimed the pandemic was nothing worse than a normal flu season, and that the virus would simply vanish in warm weather. He criticized scientists and medical doctors, and encouraged people to defy the most basic of safety measures--facemasks and social distancing. The result? 344,000 deaths in the United States.
In addition, racial tensions spilled into the streets, and politics edged toward fascism and dictatorship.
And, for the last month of the year, I have been in quarantine with my family, with both of my kids contracting COVID-19. Tonight, on this night of looking forward and back, I give thanks that my daughter and son have recovered, and my wife and I tested negative.
During this month of isolation, I have been blessed so many times by the kindness of friends. Some dropped off groceries. Others brought dog treats. Dinners. Snacks. Cards in the mail. Text messages. It has been a lesson, for me, in the inherent goodness of people.
So, I sit here at the brink of 2021, counting some of the blessings of 2020:
- I started a new job that pays me to organize poetry readings and concerts and theatricals and fundraisers. This isn't work for me. It's earning money for dreaming.
- I got a beautiful new puppy that fills my house with love and laughter every day.
- My beautiful wife got a new job, as well.
- My beautiful daughter was promoted to a supervisor.
- My beautiful mother fell out of bed and broke her hip She had hip replacement and is currently a resident at a nursing home. She contracted COVID, but her symptoms remained mild, and she never lost her appetite or smile.
- My beautiful sister, Rose, who has Down Syndrome, ended up in the ICU with heart issues. She's on medication now, doing physical therapy. Home.
- I published some poems and started a podcast.
- I reconnected with a beautiful friend who lives downstate, and we have become writing buddies. Just last night, we Zoomed and drank and wrote. And drank some more.