Part 3: Chapter 1, Magnetic NorthWhen Merton finally found the courage to start to tell people that he wanted to be a priest, he went to talk to Dan Walsh about it. Walsh was another professor who Merton respected. They discussed several orders and decided that the Franciscans may be the most suitable for Merton (partly because of the ease of their order).
But Walsh mentioned, off-hand, that he had made a pilgrimage to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky called Our Lady of Gethsemani. "What I needed was solitude," Merton wrote. "I needed a Rule that was almost entirely aimed at detaching me from the world and uniting me with God".
By now, Merton was taking communion daily and God had become the central focus of his thoughts. He applied to the novitiate at the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street. Dan Walsh was friends with Father Edmund there.
Merton was told that it would be several months before he could enter the novitiate. Merton was impatient, but waited. In the meantime, he got appendicitis and had to have surgery, then went to Cuba where he was supernaturally rescued from all those temptations which might entangle a young man in Cuba.
Merton returned and was eagerly awaiting his chance to enter the cloister when, he writes, "I suddenly remembered who I was, who I had been". His inward life had changed so much that he applied to the monastery almost as a new man and had neglected to tell the abbot, Father Edmund, about the sins of his past. When he did so, Father Edmund suggested that he write to the Provincial, where his application was being considered, and withdraw his application.
Feeling discouraged, he went to confession soon after that and was berated by the priest there for making a mockery of the order when he clearly had no vocation for the priesthood.
When Merton first spoke with Father Edmund about applying to the order, it was September 1939. Father Edmund's first response was the Merton should return and apply the following August. This seemed too long to wait for Merton and he cajoled the Father into exploring the possibility of admitting him sooner.
This pattern is repeated from the time of Merton's baptism when, after struggling so long to make the decision, he then had to wait for the actual event.
He seems content to spend weeks, even months pouring over these decisions but then is impatient for their consummation once he commits, as if it's okay for God to wait on him, but he'll have no part of waiting on God.
Part 3: Chapter 2, True NorthThe events of being made to withdraw his application to the Franciscans, followed by his berating in the confessional, sent Merton into a fitful and frustrating holding pattern. He was unhappy as a layman, but had been told that he had no calling to the priesthood. He still yearned to be a monk and a priest, but refused to tell anyone that.
He got a job teaching at St. Bonaventure and he started to follow the liturgical office and keep a schedule and lifestyle like that of a monk. He decided that if he wouldn't be allowed to live as a monk in a monastery, he would try his best to live as a monk in the world.
He received a draft notice but failed the physical because of his teeth. He made a retreat to Our Lady of Gethsemani during Easter. "The only question was not which Order attracted me more, but which one tortured me the more with a solitude and silence and contemplation that could never be mine", he wrote. It's interesting that Merton registered his draft papers as a noncombatant, not because he was morally opposed to war, but because he was opposed to the methods of warfare.
He wrote that he could not argue that there is no war that is just. But he was uncomfortable with the details—bombing raids and death of innocents. As a religious with plans to enter a monastery, he could have easily filed as a conscientious objector.
This chapter includes a long narrative of Merton describing a scene the way he imagines the cloisters of monasteries to be. He paints the brothers in the rosiest of lights—all pious and devoted. Merton does this often throughout the book—providing the reader with these little, or sometimes rather long, reveries into his imagination.
Part 3: Chapter 3, The Sleeping VolcanoHe started volunteering at a place called Friendship House, helping the poor residents of Harlem. It was run by woman called the Baroness. Her name was Catherine de Hueck and her work among the poor inspired Merton. He went to Friendship House often. "I needed this support, this nearness of those who really loved Christ so much that they seemed to see Him.
I needed to be with people whose every action told me something of the country that was my home". In the end, though, he decided that writing and teaching were his first calling. Work such as that done at Friendship House would have to be subordinate to those two.
The Baroness confirmed this, in a way, when she wrote to him, "Go on. You are on the right path. Keep writing. Love God, pray to Him more. . . You have arisen and started on the journey that seeks Him. You have begun to travel the road that will lead you to sell all and buy the pearl of great price". During this time, Merton got interested in St. Thérése of Lisieux or, as she's also called, the Little Flower. He liked her very much and he prayed to her to watch after John Paul who had now joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
It was Mark Van Buren who eventually pushed Merton out of his fearful holding pattern. They had lunch at the Columbia Faculty Club and Van Buren suggested that since Merton hadn't resisted when first denied entry into a monastic order, then perhaps that, in itself, was a sign that he had no vocation for it. Suddenly, Merton feared that his inaction was putting him forever out of reach of his dream. He spoke to a priest he knew who encouraged him to reapply to the priesthood, this time at Gethsemani.
Merton wrote to ask the Abbot there for permission to return during Christmastime to make a retreat, but he never planned on returning, hoping instead to apply to the order once his foot was, literally, in the door. But before Christmas arrived, two things happened.
First, Merton received another notice from the Draft Board. Apparently, his teeth were no longer a concern. Secondly, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Merton wrote to the Draft Board and got permission to delay his draft until he could see whether the Kentucky Trappists would have him. Then the book recounts how he wrote letters, sold or gave away possessions, and prepared himself for poverty. He boarded a train and, he wrote, "my last tie with the world I had known snapped and broke . . . I was free.
I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself; and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrow that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it". In this chapter and throughout the book, one of the virtues which Merton most extols is simplicity. Simplicity of purpose, of heart, of mission, and of worldly possessions were important to him—both before and after his entrance to a religious order. It's these traits that he has admired in his father, his mother, the Privats, Mark Van Buren, Bob Lax, and others.
Part 3: Chapter 4, The Sweet Savor of LibertyOnce inside Gethsemani, Merton still had to confess his dark past to the Master of Novices, but it had now been three years since his baptism and Abbot Dom Frederic accepted him into the community. He was given the name Frater Louis.
When Merton received the habit, he did so with a Carmelite, a man he had met on his first retreat to Gethsemani. The Carmelite told the Master of Novices, "Father, here is a man who was converted to the faith by reading James Joyce".
Though he knew many who gave up and left the monastery, Merton said he never seriously considered it. A life of simplicity, prayer, and contemplation is what he was made for. Following his entrance to the monastery, the book starts to wind down.
There is no more conflict, no drama, until a final significant event takes place that deals with John Paul. Word came that he was being shipped overseas to fly bombing raids in Europe. Before he left, he came to Gethsemani and asked to be baptized. There was a four-day crash course in which Merton told his brother "everything I knew" about the faith. John Paul was baptized and received communion, then went off to war.
Merton writes, "In those last four days the work of eighteen or twenty years of my bad example had been washed away and made good by God's love". There is a poignant scene—possibly the most moving of the entire book—in which John Paul is waving good-bye to his brother from the back seat of a car leaving Gethsemani and Merton's mind flashes to their childhood days and he sees his brother standing apart from him, unhappy and longing to be with him.
And Merton realizes that it's the last time he will ever see John Paul. The following spring, April of 1943, John Paul died when his plane went down during combat in the North Sea. Merton's motif of placing or at least remembering minor friends at major events in his life continues in this chapter.
He enters the cloister with a "fat kid from Buffalo" that occupies hardly any space in the story and later leaves the order. He receives the habit with the Carmelite—another minor player.
The scene in which Merton says good-bye to John Paul is an example of the excellent writing in this book in which every tale and every detail, though often seemingly pointless at first blush, carries some weight and moves the story along.
Reading about John Paul and those childhood forts in the first chapter, the reader has no idea how moving that imagery will be four hundred pages later when the two part for the last time.
This one scene—and the sort-of bookended stories of John Paul from Merton's childhood and just before John Paul's death, form possibly the most appealing literary exhibit of the book.