Merton was turning his attention away from himself and from communism toward philosophy when, almost by accident, he purchased a book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, a Catholic book, which influenced him greatly. He was almost angry at first because he bought it from Scribner's bookstore in New York without knowing it was a Catholic book. The book, however, went far in helping remove some of his fear of Catholicism which had heretofore seemed mysterious and secretive to him.
It promoted a concept called aseitas; that is, the character of God that is being himself. Since God is not created, only he has the power to exist absolutely in virtue of himself. This was part of the new concept of God which Merton learned from the book that gave him a deeper respect for Catholic philosophy.
Feeling the need to explore some religiosity, Merton started attending Zion Church where his father had once played the organ. He found the pastor there more concerned with discussing modern literature and politics than religion and God, however. Indeed, this is one of the many errors with which Merton charges Protestants throughout the book.
At Columbia, Merton met Bob Lax in another Mark Van Doren class, this one on Shakespeare. Merton called it the best course he ever had at college. Lax would become a lasting friend and would eventually even follow him into the Catholic faith.
Since that talk with Aunt Maude on the way to Ripley Court, Merton had enjoyed writing and had it in mind to write novels, possibly writing for newspapers until he could successfully publish fiction. However, after he received his diploma from Columbia (from the registrar's window), he immediately applied for graduate school in English which he described as a "first remote step of a retreat from the fight for money and fame". He now had his sights on a career in teaching.
Merton spends several pages telling about a Hindu monk that he and his friends came to know called Bramachari (which actually isn't a name at all but an Indian word for monk.) The Bramachari story has little impact on Merton's life except to broaden his religious experience.
It also serves as an opportunity for Merton to point out more errors of Protestants; namely, the way their missionaries lived too comfortably instead of in poverty with those they served. Also, surprisingly, Bramachari recommended that Merton read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ.
Merton worked on his thesis, "Nature and Art in William Blake". During this time, he attended his first mass at the Church of Corpus Christi in New York. He was twenty-four years old, had been to Rome and lived in Europe for years, but had never been to mass. He went to the Church of Corpus Christi on 121st Street in New York and was amazed at what he found. "What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another. . . I walked in a new world. Even the ugly buildings of Columbia were transfigured in it, and everywhere was peace in these streets designed for violence and noise".
After that experience, Merton's desire for religious things seemed set on an accelerated course. He wanted to be baptized and to enter "into the supernatural life of the Church". On November 16, 1939, Merton was baptized and received his first communion from Father Moore at Corpus Christi. His friends Bob Lax, Seymour Freedgood, Bob Gerdy, and Ed Rice were in attendance. He then went to his first confession and, seeing Father McGough through the screen, thought the priest "looked so innocent to me that I wondered how he was going to identify and understand the things I was about to tell him.
"But one by one, that is, species by species, as best I could, I tore out all those sins by their roots, like teeth . . . ever since that day, I have loved confessionals".
Then, or actually, even before then, Merton started to entertain thoughts of joining the priesthood.
Merton's literary life and his spiritual life are forever intertwined. As his conversion to Catholicism neared, he writes that his reading "became more and more Catholic". What he reads inextricably effects what he does and believes—even with those authors with whom he was already familiar. Merton writes that he better understood Blake after his eyes had been opened to the inner life, though he wasn't sure of the state of Blake's soul, he knew that the poet understood more of the inward life than Merton.
He also says of Blake, "I hope that I will see him in heaven". This sentiment is often repeated by Merton for people he knew who had died, Catholic or otherwise.