From The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo published for the Merton Legacy Trust by HarperSanFrancisco.
Responding to God’s Call
November 28, 1941
The one thing that appalls me is my own helplessness and stupidity: a helplessness and stupidity that come from a complete and total and uncompromising self-reliance that to the world appears to be a virtue in me and a great source of strength! What a lie and what a crazy deception that is — to be self-reliant is to be strong and smart; to be self-reliant will get you through all your problems without too much difficulty or anguish.
Ever since I was sixteen traveling all over Europe, some of it on foot by myself (always by preference alone), I have developed this terrific sense of geography, this habit of self-analysis, this knack of getting along with strangers and chance acquaintances — this complete independence and self-dependence, which turns out to be now not a strength but, in my big problem, a terrific weakness.
My instinct, when I have been faced by any such problem, has always been to go off and walk restlessly somewhere by myself until the problem turns itself over and over so many times that I get sick of it. Maybe a solution comes out later. Maybe the problem is not terribly tough — but this time it is a tough one.
At least I went first to the chapel — as I did when the Baroness asked me to come to Harlem. Last spring, I walked with the vocation problem in the woods. Two years ago — 1939 — I walked with the same problem, vocation to the priesthood, on the chicken dock in Greenwich Village.
In the chapel my heart was pounding so fast I couldn’t even see straight, and I could hardly make the words of the prayers. All I could think was that it was very bad to be that disturbed. Eventually I calmed down and prayed. Then the idea it would be a good notion to see Father Philotheus gradually crystallized out.
I left the chapel. I went first not to his room but to mine. Then said a couple more prayers. Looked at a book about the Trappists, all the time knowing I was being a fool: I had no reason for standing around. (When my heart had pounded so fast in the chapel, I was saying to myself: “You are crazy: wait! wait! wait!”)
When I got downstairs I went into the hall of the monastery and took two steps toward his door and rushed back out and walked up and down with ten conflicting ideas in my head — first, that I was being a fool — as disorganized as the French army was by the German fifth columns — second, that waiting was not relevant because it just protracted this confusion — third, that waiting was prudent — etc.
The next time I go in, I nearly get to his door, but then it is almost as if I were physically pushed away from it. The idea that pushed me away was “This is absurd! This huge big problem in this small, familiar room, thrown like a bomb in the middle of some routine piece of philosophical manuscript he is reading … disturb him … etc.” I rushed out again.
Finally I walked across the campus and back. When I got back he was out of his room — I could see the light was out.
So then the first impulse was to say, “Now, see, let it all go for a few more days.”
So I pray to St. Theresa in the grove.
While I am praying to her, the question becomes clear: all I want to know is, do I have a chance to be a priest after all? I don’t want him to argue for or against the Trappists. I know I want to be Trappist. I remember the terrific sense of holiness and peace I got when I first stepped inside Gethsemani, something more certain and more terrific than had ever hit me anywhere else and that stayed with me until I got mixed up about the vocation at the end of the week in that terrible impasse: I want to be a priest — but I am told there is an impediment. Therefore the desire is just an emotional luxury: I am kidding myself.
While I am praying to Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, it is like hearing the bells in the tower ringing for Matins in the middle of the night. I walk through the grove saying she will help me to be her Trappist — Theresa’s Trappist — at Gethsemani.
I come back. No light in Father Philotheus’s room. He is in the recreation room. I get him from there without any great fuss. I tell him my questions.
Instantly he says that in his opinion there is no canonical impediment in my case. He advises the thing that was so obvious I hadn’t thought of it: go to Gethsemani as soon as the Christmas vacation begins and tell the whole story to the Abbot. (I thought of writing. He said that would be bad.)
He also advises me to be very careful about deciding to be a Trappist. What about my vocation to be a writer?
That has absolutely no meaning any more as soon as he has said what he has said.
So I run upstairs bursting with “Te Deum laudamus — Te Dominum confitemur — Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur …” Then to the chapel and prayers and prayers and prayers.
I can’t go to bed, and when I do I can’t go to sleep.
I go through the grove again — my head full of a big double-talk mixture of Te Deum and good-bye to everything I don’t want.
In bed: suddenly I am amazed — in four weeks, with God’s grace, I may be sleeping on a board, and there will be no more future — not in the world, not in geography, not in travel, not in change, not in variety, conversations, new work, new problems in writing, new friends, none of that: only a far better progress, all interior and quiet!!! If God only would grant it! If it were only His will!
As to all this self-analysis on paper — it isn’t important either. If the twenty other things I have to say are important, I will find a chance to say them. That I waited this long to ask Father Philotheus this question about the vocation and to open the question again did no harm. All the waiting I have done, and possibly must still do, is all quite important and significant.
I earnestly pray to give myself entirely to God according to His will and no longer get in the way with my own stupid will — only He can help me out of my own clumsiness.