By DAVID A. KING , Ph.D | Published October 17, 2019
I took a pilgrimage of sorts last month.
My birthday happened to fall on a Monday when my family and I were in New York City for our annual fall visit. I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my birthday. I wanted to go to Patsy’s, and Serendipity 3, and I wanted to ride the Roosevelt Island tram back and forth on a clear, bright night.
Most of all, I wanted to go to Columbia University, and I wanted to go to Corpus Christi Church, both places integral to the life and pilgrimage of Thomas Merton.
It was at Columbia that Merton made the decision to become a Catholic. This decision would change his life, and the lives of thousands of others, including myself.
Merton writes in “The Seven Storey Mountain” that at Columbia, “on this big factory of a campus, the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light.”
Under the influence of friends such as Ed Rice and gifted teachers such as Mark Van Doren, Merton became gradually “filled with a growing desire to stay in the city and go to some kind of a church.” The church he eventually chose was Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, at 529 West 121st Street in Manhattan.
“God made it a very beautiful Sunday … The sun was blazing bright … It served very well for the eleven o’clock Mass at the little brick Church of Corpus Christi, hidden behind Teacher’s College on 121st Street. How bright the little building seemed. Indeed, it was quite new. The sun shone on the clean bricks, and people were going in the wide open door.”
The door. That was really all I needed to see of the church. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Christ in the book of Revelation. “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he preaches in the Sermon on the Mount.
My family and I took the subway to 116th street, and emerged right at the entry to Columbia. As we walked the short five blocks to the church, I could feel within me a nervous, excited joy. Twenty-nine years ago at the door of Sacred Heart Church in downtown Atlanta, I had felt the same anxiety, the same excitement that Merton felt when he entered Corpus Christi.
Like Merton, I was afraid. I did not know what to do, or what to say. But like Merton, when I left the church, I knew I had been in the right place. “All I know is that 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. Sitting outside the gloomy little Childs restaurant at 111th Street, behind the dirty, boxed bushes, and eating breakfast, was like sitting in the Elysian fields.”
When we rounded the corner of 121st Street, the church was the first thing we saw. It looked exactly as I knew it from Paul Wilkes’ and Audrey L. Glynn’s “Merton: A Film Biography.” I knew how the church would look; I could not have anticipated how it made me feel.
I knew that the church would be locked, but I did not really need to see inside. I know how the church looks from visiting the parish’s wonderful website, and I know from Merton’s own description that it has a clean, colonial style marked by a uniquely Catholic simplicity. I know that it is beautiful, and that it inspired a now decades-long cycle of beauty, conversion and renewal.
I ran my hands over the door, the hardware, the knobs, even the railings along the stairs. I embraced my wife and children, none of whom would have been with me if not for Merton. I did cry, just a bit, tears of quiet and grateful joy. “Merton stood right here,” I said. “He stood right here and he went in that door and everything changed forever.”
Full of conviction
Merton went back to Corpus Christi not long after his first visit. He went to the rectory at night, full of the conviction that he was meant to be a Catholic, that he could not fight the calling. He walked nine blocks in the night and rang the bell of the rectory. A maid answered. The priest was not home. The maid closed the door, and Merton turned to leave. As he walked away, down the street, he saw the priest, Father Ford, coming toward the rectory. Merton approached him: “‘Father, may I speak to you about something?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, looking up, surprised. ‘Yes, sure, come into the house.’ We sat in the little parlor by the door. And I said: ‘Father, I want to become a Catholic.’”
I was certain at my visit that Merton was with me. I knew it as surely as I knew my family were with me. So when we went next door to the rectory, and a maid was visible through the window, running a vacuum cleaner, I wasn’t really surprised; I was pleased. I could see the little parlor, too. And I ran my hands all over the door of the rectory, while the maid, in headphones, never even knew I was there.
Merton took instruction from Father Ford, and not long after on Nov. 16, 1938, he was baptized and received first communion, marveling that God had “called out to me from His own immense depths.”
Merton wrote occasionally about Corpus Christi, praising its approach to liturgy and music, and indeed the church is noteworthy for its tradition of liturgical renewal. Corpus Christi was among the first American parishes to encourage congregational responses to the liturgy, and today it is deeply respected for its beautiful music and its understanding of liturgical dignity and purpose. In 1964, while on a short visit to New York City, Merton returned to Corpus Christi to celebrate Mass.
In 1990, when I was terminated from a job and risked losing my means to pay for graduate school tuition and books at my own “big factory of a campus,” my professor Victor Kramer just so happened to need a research assistant for his work on Thomas Merton. I nodded and smiled in the interview, hardly saying a word. I had never heard of Thomas Merton. When Professor Kramer offered me the job, I accepted and immediately went to the library. I borrowed “The Seven Storey Mountain.” I read it in three days. I knew instantly where I belonged. As quickly as it happened to Merton, I found myself reading Catholic books, finally gathering the courage to enter a Catholic church, and then visiting a priest for instructions. I was received into the Church the day before Ash Wednesday, at the little chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel at Georgia State University. Professor Kramer and Professor Bill Sessions were my sponsors.
When Thomas Merton entered the doors of Corpus Christi, and knocked at the rectory in the darkness over 80 years ago, he had no idea what lay ahead of him. Yet as Merton wrote in his famous prayer, “though I have no idea where I am going … I know that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”
Further, Merton could not have known how profoundly the fruits of his conversion would spread throughout the world, affecting me and thousands of others, simply because he was willing to seek, and be sought; simply because he stood at the door.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.