REFLECTION: I Am Going To Be A Priest, by Thomas Merton


From The Seven Storey Mountain

When we went back to New York, in the middle of August, the world that I had helped to make was finally preparing to break the shell and put forth its evil head and devour another generation of men.

At Olean we never read any newspapers, and we kept away from radios on principle, and for my own part the one thing that occupied my mind was the publication of the new novel.  Having found an old copy of Fortune lying around Benjie’s premises, I had read an article in it on the publishing business: and on the basis of that article I had made what was perhaps the worst possible choice of a publisher – the kind of people who would readily reprint everything in the Saturday Evening Post in diamond letters on sheets of gold.  They were certainly not disposed to be sympathetic to the wild and rambling thing I had composed on the mountain.

And it was going to take them a good long time to get around to telling me about it.

For my own part, I was walking around New York in the incomparable agony of a new author waiting to hear the fate of his first book – an agony which is second to nothing except the torments of adolescent love.  And because of my anguish I was driven, naturally enough, to fervent though interested prayer.  But after all God does not care if our prayers are interested.  He wants them to be.  Ask and you shall receive.  It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs: for this is only another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God – acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him and dependents, by His will, on material things too.

So I knelt at the altar rail in the little Mexican church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Fourteenth Street, where I sometimes went to Communion, and asked with great intensity of desire for the publication of the book, if it should be for God’s glory.

The fact that I could even calmly assume that there was some possibility of the book giving glory to God shows the profound depths of my ignorance and spiritual blindness: but anyway, that was what I asked.  But now I realize that it was a very good thing that I made that prayer.

It is a matter of common belief among Catholics that when God promises to answer our prayers, He does not promise to give us exactly what we ask for.  But we can always be certain that if he does not give us that, it is because He has something much better to give us instead.  That is what is meant by Christ’s promise that we will receive all that we ask in His name.  Quodcumque petimus adversus utilitatem salutis, non petimus in nomine Salvatoris.

I think I prayed as well as I could, considering what I was, and with considerable confidence in God and in Our Lady, and I knew I would be answered.  I am only just beginning to realize how well I was answered.  In the first place the book was never published, and that was a good thing.  But in the second place God answered me by a favor which I had already refused and had practically ceased to desire.  He gave me back the vocation that I had half-consciously given up, and He opened to me again the doors that had fallen shut when I had not known what to make of my baptism and the grace of that First Communion.

But before He did this I had to go through some little darkness and suffering.

I think those days at the end of August 1939 were terrible for everyone.  They were grey days of great heat and sultriness and the weight of physical oppression by the weather added immeasurably to the burden of the news from Europe that got more ominous day by day.

Now it seemed that at last there really would be war in earnest.  Some sense of the craven and perverted esthetic excitement with which the Nazis were waiting for the thrill of this awful spectacle made itself felt negatively, and with hundredfold force, in the disgust and nausea with which the rest of the world expected the embrace of this colossal instrument of death.  It was a danger that had, added to it, an almost incalculable element of dishonor and insult and degradation and shame.  And the world faced not only destruction, but destruction with the greatest possible defilement: defilement of that which is most perfect in man, his reason and his will, his immortal soul.

All this was obscure to most people, and made itself felt only in a mixture of disgust and hopelessness and dread.  They did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of its individuals had made of their own souls.  We had given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled by sin, by hell itself: and now, for our inexorable instruction and reward, the whole thing was to take place all over again before our eyes, physically and morally, in the social order, so that some of us at least might have some conception of what he had done.

In those days, I realized it myself.  I remember one of the nights at the end of August when I was riding on the subway, and suddenly noticed that practically nobody in the car was reading the evening paper, although the wires were hot with news.  The tension had become so great that even this toughest of cities had had to turn aside and defend itself against the needles of such an agonizing stimulation.  For once everybody else was feeling what Lax and I and Gibney and Rice had been feeling for two years about newspapers and news.

There was something else in my own mind – the recognition: “I myself am responsible for this.  My sins have done this.  Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too. . . .” It was a very sobering thought, and yet its deep and probing light by its very truth eased my soul a little.  I made up my mind to go to confession and Communion on the first Friday of September.

The nights dragged by.  I remember one, when I was driving in from Long Island where I had been having dinner at Gibney’s house at Port Washington.  The man with whom I was riding had a radio in the car, and we were riding along the empty Parkway, listening to a quiet, tired voice from Berlin.  These commentators’ voices had lost all their pep.  There was none of that lusty and doctrinaire elation with which the news broadcasters usually convey the idea that they know all about everything.  This time you knew that nobody knew what was going to happen, and they all admitted it.  True, they were all agreed that the war was now going to break out.  But when?  Where?  They could not say.

All the trains to the German frontier had been stopped.  All air service had been discontinued.  The streets were empty.  You got the feeling that things were being cleared for the first great air-raid, the one that everyone had been wondering about, that H. G. Wells and all the other people had written about, the one that would wipe our London in one night.

The Thursday night before the first Friday of September I went to confession at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then, with characteristic stupidity, stopped in at Dillon’s, which was a bar where we went all the time, across the street from the stage-door of the Center Theater.  Gibney and I used to sit there waiting for the show to end, and we would hang around until one or two in the morning with several girls we knew who had bits to play in it.  This evening, before the show was out, I ran into Jinny Burton, who was not in the show, but could have been in many better shows than that, and she said she was going home to Richmond over Labor Day.  She invited me to come with her.  We arranged to meet in Pennsylvania Station the following morning.

When it was morning, I woke up early and heard the radios.  I could not quite make out what they were saying, but the voices were not tired any more: there was much metallic shouting which meant something had really happened.

On my way to Mass, I found out what it was.  They had bombed Warsaw, and the war had finally begun.

In the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, near the Pennsylvania Station, there was a High Mass.  The priest stood at the altar under the domed mosaic of the apse and his voice rose in the solemn cadences of the Preface of the Mass – those ancient and splendid and holy words of the immortal church.  Vere dignum et justum est aequum et salutare nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipoens, aeterne Deus.

It was the voice of the church, the bride of Christ who is in the world yet not of it, whose life transcends and outlives wars and persecutions and revolutions and all the wickedness and cruelty and rapacity and injustice of men.  It is truly meet and just always and in all things to give Thee thanks, Holy Lord, omnipotent Father, Eternal God: a tremendous prayer that reduces all wars to their real smallness and insignificance in the face of eternity.  It is a prayer that opens the door to eternity, that springs from eternity and goes again into eternity, taking our minds with it in its deep and peaceful wisdom.  Always and in all things to give Thee thanks, omnipotent Father.  Was it thus that she was singing, this church, this one body, who had already begun to suffer and to bleed again in another war?

She was thanking Him in the war, in her suffering: not for the war and for the suffering, but for His love which she knew was protecting her, and us, in this new crisis.  And raising up her eyes to Him, she saw the eternal God alone through all these things, was interested in His action alone, not in the bungling cruelty of secondary causes, but only in His love, His wisdom.  And to Him the church, His bride, gave praise through Christ, through whom all the angelic hierarchies praise Him.

I knelt at the altar rail and on this the first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the host, the same Christ who was being nailed agin to the cross by the effect of my sins, and the sin of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

There was no special joy in that weekend in Virginia.  On the Saturday afternoon when we started out from Richmond to go to Urbanna, where Jinny’s family had a boat they were going to sail in a regatta, we got the news about the sinking of the Athenia, and then, that evening, I suddenly developed a pain in an impacted wisdom tooth.  It raged all night and the next day I staggered off to the regatta, worn out with sleeplessness and holding a jay full of pain.

Down at the dock where there was a gas-pump for the motor boats and a red tank full of Coca-Cola on ice, we stood out of the sun in the doorway of a big shed smelling of ropes and pitch, and listened to a man talking on the radio from London.

His voice was reassuring.  The city had not yet been bombed.

We started out of the cove, and passed through the mouth into the open estuary of the Rappahannock, blazing with sun, and everybody was joking about the Bremen.  The big German liner had sailed out of New York without warning and had disappeared.  Every once in a while some high drawling Southern female voice would cry:

“There’s the Bremen.

I had a bottle of medicine in my pocket, and with a match and a bit of cotton I swabbed the furious impacted tooth.

Nevertheless, when I got back to New York, it turned out that the war was not going to be so ruthless after all – at least so it seemed.  The fighting was fierce in Poland, but in the west there was nothing doing.  And now that the awful tension was over, people were quieter and more confident than they had been before the fighting had started.

I went to a dentist who hammered and chipped at my jaw until he got the wisdom tooth out of my head, and then I went back to Perry Street and lay on my bed and played some ancient records of Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman’s trumpet player, and swabbed my bleeding mouth with purple disinfectant until the whole place reeked of it.

I have five stitches in my jaw.

The days went by.  The city was quiet and confident.  It even began to get gay again.  Whatever happened, it was evident that America was not going to get into the war right away, and a lot of people were saying that it would just go on like this for years, a sort of state of armed waiting and sniping, with the big armies lined up in their impregnable fortified areas.  It was as if the world were entering upon a strange new era in which the pretense of peace had defined itself out into what it was, a state of permanent hostility that was nevertheless not quite ready to fight.  And some people thought we were just going to stay that way for twenty years.
For my own part, I did not think anything about it, except that the grim humor of Russia’s position in the war could not help but strike me; for now, after a loud outcry and a great storm of crocodile tears over Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia the year before, the Reds were comfortably allied with Germany and blessing, with a benign smile, the annihilation of Poland, ready themselves to put into effect some small designs of their own regarding the Finns.

The party line had evolved indeed, and turned itself into many knots since the days of the 1935 Peace Strike and the Oxford Pledge.  We had once been led to believe that all wars were wars of aggression and wars of aggression were the direct product of capitalism, masking behind Fascism and all the other movements with colored shirts, and therefore no one should fight at all.  It now turned out that the thing to do was support the aggressive war of the Soviets against Finland and approve the Russian support of German aggression in Poland.

The September days went by, and the first signs of fall were beginning to be seen in the clearing of the bright air.  The days of heat were done.  It was getting on toward that season of new beginnings, when I would get back to work on my Ph.D., and when I hoped possibly to get some kind of job as an instructor at Columbia, in the college or in extension.

These were the things I was thinking about when one night Rice and Bob Gerdy and I were in Nick’s on Sheridan Square, sitting at the curved bar while the room rocked with jazz.  Presently Gibney came in with Peggy Wells, who was one of the girls in that show at the Center Theater, the name of which I have forgotten.  We all sat together at a table and talked and drank.  It was just like all the other nights we spent in those places.  It was more or less uninteresting but we couldn’t think of anything else to do and there seemed to be no point in going to bed.

After Rice and Gerdy went home, Gibney and Peggy and I still sat there.  Finally it got to be about four o’clock in the morning.  Gibney did not want to go out on Long Island, and Peggy lived uptown in the Eighties.

They came to Perry Street, which was just around the corner.

It was nothing unusual for me to sleep on the floor, or in a chair, or on a couch too narrow and too short for comfort – that was the way we lived, and the way thousands of other people like us lived.  One stayed up all night, and finally went to sleep wherever there happened to be room for one man to put his tired carcass.

It is a strange thing that we should have thought nothing of it, when if anyone had suggested sleeping on the floor as a penance, for the love of God, we would have felt that he was trying to insult our intelligence and dignity as men!  What a barbarous notion!  Making yourself uncomfortable as a penance!  And yet we somehow seemed to think it quite logical to sleep that way as part of an evening dedicated to pleasure.  It shows how far the wisdom of the world will go in contradicting itself.  “From him that hath not, it shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

I suppose I got some five or six hours of fitful sleep, and at about eleven we were all awake, sitting around disheveled and half stupefied, talking and smoking and playing records.  The thin, ancient, somewhat elegiac cadences of the long dead Beiderbecke sang in the room.  From where I sat, on the floor, I could see beyond the roofs to a patch of clear fall sky.

At about one o’clock in the afternoon I went out to get some breakfast, returning with scrambled eggs and toast and coffee in an armful of cardboard containers, different shapes and sizes, and pockets full of new packs of cigarettes.  But I did not feel like smoking.  We ate and talked, and finally cleared up all the mess and someone had the idea of going for a walk to the Chicken Dock.  So we got ready to go.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, an idea had come to me, an idea that was startling enough and momentous enough by itself, but much more astonishing in the context.  Perhaps many people will not believe what I am saying.

While we were sitting there on the floor playing records and eating this breakfast the idea came to me: “I am going to be a priest.”

I cannot say what caused it: it was not a reaction of especially strong disgust at being so tired and so uninterested in this life I was still leading in spite of its futility.  It was not the music, not the fall air, for this conviction that had suddenly been planted in me full grown was not the sick and haunting sort of a thing that an emotional urge always is.  It was not a thing of passion or of fancy.  It was a strong and sweet and deep and insistent attraction that suddenly made itself felt, but not as movement of appetite towards any sensible good.  It was something in the order of conscience, a new and profound and clear sense that this was what I really ought to do.

How long the idea was in my mind before I mentioned it, I cannot say.  But presently I said casually:

“You know, I think I ought to go and enter a monastery and become a priest.”

Gibney had heard that before, and thought I was fooling.  The statement aroused no argument or comment, and anyway, it was not one to which Gibney was essentially unsympathetic.  As far as he was concerned, any life made sense except that of a business man.

“As we went out the door of the house I was thinking:

“I am going to be a priest.”

When we were on the Chicken Dock, my mind was full of the same idea.  Around three or four in the afternoon Gibney left and went home to Port Washington.  Piggy and I sat looking at the dirty river for a while longer.  Then I walked with her to the subway.  In the shadows under the elevated drive over Tenth Avenue I said:

“Peggy, I mean it, I am going to enter a monastery and be a priest.”

She didn’t know me very well and anyway, she had no special ideas about being a priest. There wasn’t much she could say.  Anyway, what did I expect her to say?

I was glad, at last, to be alone.  On that big wide street that is a continuation of Eighth Avenue, where the trucks run down very fast and loud – I forget its name – there was a little Catholic library and a German bakery where I often ate my meals.  Before going to the bakery to get dinner and supper in one, I went to the Catholic library, St. Veronica’s.  The only book about religious orders they seemed to have was a little green book about the Jesuits, but I took it and read it while I ate in the bakery.

Now that I was alone, the idea assumed a different and more cogent form.  Very well: I had accepted the possibility of the priesthood as real and fitting for me.  It remained for me to make it, in some sense, more decisive.

What did that mean?  What was required?  My mind groped for some sort of an answer.  What was I supposed to do, here and now?

I must have been a long time over the little book and these thoughts.  When I came out into the street again, it was dusk.  The side streets, in fact, were already quite dark.  I suppose it was around seven o’clock.

Some kind of an instinct prompted me to go to Sixteenth Street, to the Jesuit Church of St. Francis Xavier.  I had never been there.  I don’t know what I was looking for: perhaps I was thinking primarily of talking to some one of the Fathers there – I don’t know.

When I got to Sixteenth Street, the whole building seemed dark and empty, and as a matter of fact the doors of the church were locked.  Even the street was empty.  I was about to go away disappointed, when I noticed a door to some kind of a basement under the church.

Ordinarily I would never have noticed such a door.  You went down a couple of steps, and there is was, half hidden under the stairs that led up to the main door of the church.  There was no sign that the door was anything but locked and bolted fast.

But something prompted me: “Try that door.”

I went down the two steps, put my hand on the heavy iron handle.  The door yielded and I found myself in a lower church, and the church was full of lights and people and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a monstrance on the altar, and at last I realized what I was supposed to do, and why I had been brought here.

It was some kind of a novena service, maybe a Holy Hour, I don’t know: but it was nearly ending.  Just as I found a place and fell on my knees, they began singing the Tantum Ergo.  All these people, workmen, poor women, students, clerks, singing the Latin hymn to the Blessed Sacrament written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

I fixed my eyes on the monstrance, on the white host.

And then it suddenly became clear to me that my whole life was at a crisis.  Far more than I could imagine or understand or conceive was now handing upon a word – a decision of mine.

I had not shaped my life to this situation: I had not been building up to this.  Nothing had been further from my mind.  There was, therefore, an added solemnity in the fact that I had been called in here abruptly to answer a question that had been preparing, not in my mind, but in the infinite depths of an eternal providence.

I did not clearly see it then, but I think now that it might have been something in the nature of a last chance.  If I had hesitated or refused at that moment – what would have become of me?

But the way into the new land, the promised land, the land that was not like the Egypt where I persisted in living, was now thrown open again: and I instinctively sensed that it was only for a moment.

It was a moment of crisis, yet of interrogation: a moment of searching, but it was a moment of joy.  It took me about a minute to collect my thoughts about the grace that had been suddenly planted in my soul, and to adjust the weak eyes of my spirit to its unaccustomed light, and during that moment my whole life remained suspended on the edge of an abyss: but this time, the abyss was an abyss of love and peace, the abyss was God.

It would be in some sense a blind, irrevocable act to throw myself over.  But if I failed to do that. . . .  I did not even have to turn and look behind me at what I would be leaving.  Wasn’t I tired enough of all that?

So now the question faced me:

“Do you really want to be a priest?  If you do say so. . . .”

The hymn was ending.  The priest collected the ends of the homeral veil over his hands that held the base of the monstrance, and slowly lifted it off the altar, and turned to bless the people.

I looked straight at the host, and I knew, now, who it was that I was looking at, and I said:

“Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it.  If it is your will, make me a priest – make me a priest.”

When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what a union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision.

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