I know it's presumptuous to compare myself to Thomas Merton in anything other than--there was a great man, spiritual teacher, saint, and here I am, a fumbling Christian dithering at the starting line. But think about it.
Thomas messed around a great deal when he was at Cambridge, England. I messed around too when at Oxford for a year, probably partying more than I should and drinking more sherry than was actually good for me. I didn't father an illegitimate child, but I theoretically could have. I was a hop, skip and a jump away from Cambridge, even though the time line was off.
I wasn't an orphan, thank God, so I can't claim kinship with Thomas about that. I never lived on Long Island nor did I attend Columbia. But I did convert first to Christianity and later to Catholicism. Here the comparison becomes tighter.
I used to think Christians were delusional. Yes, they wrote some great music, aka Bach and a bunch of other fellows whom I adored and whose music gave me goose bumps. But believe in Jesus? That cross thing and the deeply suspect Resurrection? You must be kidding. I imagine Thomas at a college party, inhaling smoke, blowing it out in a long stream, and thinking the very same thing--delusional.
But then my boyfriend and I listened to Bach's "St. John's Passion" in Oxford the summer of my twentieth year, and we emerged sobbing, shaken, and without any decision on our part--believers. It can happen that way. What once seemed a strange dream became real, palpable, and mine.
Much later, invited by friends to attend Mass with them, I found myself totally absorbed in the liturgy: the responses, kneeling, the Homily, and the Eucharist. I happily rose to follow my friends for communion but stepped back into the pew after one whispered that I couldn't. "No?" Really, I fumed, watching people take the Host reverentially either in their hands or their mouths, and my anger fell away as I was consumed with thirst, with hunger, wishing for the Body of Jesus the way an alcoholic might crave a drink, knowing it would put all things right and that I would finally be home.
Then I entered RCIA (after some doubts, again like Thomas: we tend to think his path towards the monastery was a straight one, but he went down many side roads before he got there.), and I came into the church the spring of 2002.
What makes me think I share a bond with Thomas is our mutual passion for faith, for God, and for prayer. In "The Seven Story Mountain" when he hears the Easter Liturgy at Gethsemani, he wrote something like, "I thought my heart would break." In other places his passionate words leap off the page. Faith was his life-blood, the liquid that ran in his veins; what got him up in the morning, what took him through his day, and what slid him into bed at night.
Clearly I have never entered a convent or taken vows. I married, had two children, and was overjoyed to have a family. I live in the world, write books, keep in touch with friends, try to help others on the margins, but what sings in my veins--what gets me up in the morning and slides me into bed at night--is my love for God. It is a humming, almost an electricity, a force.
When someone once asked Jane Fonda why she had converted to Christianity--asked with amused disbelief as if, How could you make such a stupid decision? she answered, "I felt a presence, a reverence humming within me."
Amen. I'm there too. Hey, maybe I'm more like Jane Fonda than Thomas Merton? Except for that life-long gorgeousness and shapeliness--nope, I'm sticking with Thomas. Thomas and me.