Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Gerard Manley Hopkins Connection

I got this passage about Merton's conversion to Catholicism in an email today from Jim Forest.  Today is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I thought it was interesting, but deleted it after I read it.  Then I kept musing about it throughout the day.  Merton's conversion to Catholicism is amazing (almost miraculous) - it was while reading a biography of Hopkins that it became absolutely clear to Merton he must become a Catholic. I decided that I wanted this insight into Merton's conversion to be part of the louie collection.

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."

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."
Here is a link to the Writer's Almanac Entry today about Gerard Manley Hopkins.


  1. Thanks for putting this back in. well worth the read.

    Br. William

  2. I thought it was significant, too, Br. William. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Beth -

    This an amazing story. Ten years ago I took a course in the faith at my home parish. We were blessed to have a wonderful priest for three years, a military man - graduate of West point, a Ranger - now a chaplain in Afghanistan. The last day of the course Father had us read Matt.25 "what you have done for the least of my brothers, you did it to me." He said to be a Christian, you must serve the poor. After a few months I too heard the call in my ears - "get up - you know what to do." So one Sat morning, I got out of bed, drove to the Missionary of Charity mission in Newark NJ. Sr. Elizabeth Seton, MC. answered the door - I said I wanted to serve Jesus in the poorest of the poor. Sister sent me to the sink and I washed pots and pans every Sat for two years - then I began to do more- teaching,..preaching....ten years have gone by - a changed life!

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

  4. THanks for recounting your experience, Brian. It seems that we really do have that voice within, urging us on, daring us to give ourselves. I believe that the chaplain is right, you must serve the poor. My favorite priest-friend was a chaplain in Vietnam, and now preaches a very radical Gospel. This "Christian" stuff is pretty daring ...

  5. one of the salient moments of the "7" that one can't forget - singing inside - yeah -that's what it's like when you listen to that voice sometimes

    old gerard, once in danger of becoming deified, reclaimed in his humanness by recent bio that exhumed his homosexual tendencies. this upset the old english lady book propietor at the used book store i used to frequent in gloucester :"i wish they would leave him alone" she said to me when i told her about it.

  6. That's right. He was the one who insisted on being buried with (or next to) his lover, right?

  7. That is probably John Henry Cardinal Newman, about to be beatified. He insisted on being buried with his longtime companion/friend/?. There was a big to-do about this when the Oratorians decided to exhume his remains and his alone to transfer them to one of their churches in preparation for the beatification. Oh irony of ironies!

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    1. Translation:

      Four years have passed since the publication of this article. there a few years ago, I found on a garage sale in the Provence ibn copy table which pleased me a lot, a portrait, that of a man of the 19th century, English, a Lord may be in a beautiful setting . This does not deserve to be told, but this portrait, successful, WAS ON me the LOOK of CHARACTER following me. I 'learned later that e in a good portrait gaze follows you. But what is the connection with the present article? It is HOPKINS. This name comes from ironing my head. It would be a non PAINTER 19th but more contemporary. The author of the table makes me travel but it is not but Hobkins Hodgkin ... (gs?). There is one more letter. Today when I was photographing fragments of a small painting done, I found, the retrouvai comptemporain painter whose name m is uncertain but I will find
      Here is a contemplative site. J 'y stumbles. Thomas Merton is mentioned, I do not know. In the margin, right, I read a sentence that resonates and tilt. It is not irrelevant to the painting:
      "Elias becomes his own wild bird, with God in the center."
      I do not know who is Elias. Google would say. Elias as aliases.

    2. Elias is an Old Testament Prophet, Anatolie.



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