An extract from “Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton” by Jim Forest:
... All the internal contradictions of the society in which Merton lived were converging within him. He could see that "my likes or dislikes, beliefs or disbeliefs meant absolutely nothing in the external, political order. I was just an individual, and the individual had ceased to count.... I would probably soon become a number on the list of those to be drafted. I would get a piece of metal with my number on it ... so as to help out the circulation of red-tape that would necessarily follow the disposal of my remains."Here is a link to the Writer's Almanac Entry today about Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In the midst of such dark thoughts another important book landed in Merton's life, G.F. Leahy's biography of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism who later became a Jesuit priest. Merton was studying Hopkins for a doctoral thesis he never completed. Sitting in his room on West 114th Street on a wet fall day, Merton started reading a chapter that described Hopkins's journey to Catholicism while a student at Oxford in 1866.
"All of a sudden," Merton recalled, "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 your impulses,' I thought. ‘This is crazy. This is not rational. Read your book.'"
He tried to press on with Hopkins's life, but the inner voice only renewed its appeal: "It's useless to hesitate any longer. Why don't you get up and go?" He read another few sentences about Hopkins's conversion, and then came his own moment of consent. "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 gray wooden fence, towards Broadway, in the light rain. And then everything inside me began to sing."
Nine blocks away was Corpus Christi and its presbytery. As it happened, its pastor, Father Ford, was just returning.
"Father," Merton asked, "may I speak to you about something?"
"Yes, sure, come into the house."
They sat in the parlor.
"Father, I want to become a Catholic."
Father Ford gave him three books to read and arranged for Merton to return for instruction two evenings a week.
The news of his impending baptism (officially a "provisional baptism," as Merton had been baptized in a Protestant church near Prades when he was an infant) was broken to Bob Lax with a frisbee-like toss of his hat. "I remember the moment," said Lax, "because he'd never before, and never since, thrown a hat in my direction." On November 18, 1938, Merton was baptized.
"What do you ask from God's Church," Merton was asked. "Faith!" "What does faith bring you?" "Life everlasting."
Witnessing the rite of passage were four friends, three of them Jews: Bob Lax, Sy Freedgood, and Bob Gerdy. Only his godfather, Ed Rice, was Catholic.
Merton entered a confessional for the first time, worried that the young priest sitting on the other side of the partition might be shocked to hear some of the events and habits that were about to be recounted. "But one by one, species by species, as best I could, I tore out all those sins by their roots, like teeth. Some of them were hard."
Baptized and absolved, for the first time he was not only present at Mass but was able to receive communion. "Now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God ... goodness without end.... He called out to me from His own immense depths."