THE END OF UNBELIEF
A New Approach
to the Question of God
Boy in a Storm
[Note: This is a memoir in fictional form. It tells how a fiercely ardent Catholic faith caused a crisis in my life at seventeen – a near renunciation of family, friends, hope of a career, love, marriage, children -- and how it was resolved. The influence of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and author, was central to the conflict. I include a sketch of the man and our meeting in the story. A few excerpts appear below. An elipsis (******) indicates that material -- often a number of pages -- has been deleted from this sampling.]
I am not a religious man. Yet I am a staunch Catholic. Staunch rather than devout. That’s because it’s my nature to be staunch but not my nature to be devout. And one must accept one’s nature. Not everyone concedes this. You have on the one hand Catholics who accept their nature and on the other Catholics who don’t. The distinction is not simple.
Before I become too metaphysical let me step back in time, over half a century, and introduce Larry O’Toole, since this is his story. A high-school senior, age seventeen, he has convinced himself that he wants to become a Trappist monk. Yes, a Trappist – the ones who commit to perpetual silence, live in extreme poverty, do hard manual labor, and vow never to leave the monastery. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, arguing with his mother. At the moment her cheeks are flushed with vexation. Her brilliant son is making another incontrovertible point.
“It’s a matter of simple logic,” he was saying. (He was always being logical. That was his most unpleasant trait.) “’God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.’ That’s my whole case in a nutshell. It’s an exact quote from the Baltimore Catechism and you gave it to me when I was six.”
“I did not,” she protested.
“Well, you sent me to the nuns and the nuns gave it to me. The Christian Brothers and priests have confirmed it all through high school. It’s quite simple: The world is a place of suffering, trial, and purification. Happiness isn’t meant to be our lot here. It’s a reward for earthly suffering. We should struggle through our time here as best we can. If a bit of happiness falls our way, it’s a preview. An earnest of things to come. Not a lasting part of our natural state.”
“Your eloquence is boring,” she said.
“You talk like a book.”
“I am a book,” he replied, “and I plan to have a happy ending. But it’s a long way off and I have a lot of pages to turn before I get there. Look, happiness is the thing we want most. I concede that. But there, not here, is the place to find it.”
“Where?” his father interposed, having quietly entered the room. Larry looked up at Matt O’Toole and nodded a greeting.
“In heaven, where God is.”
“God is everywhere,” Matt observed.
Larry ignored him. “The question is how to get there as safely and directly as possible. God made me and I’m living for him. Well, then, let me live for him. If he’s the prime purpose of my existence, then let me live each day… as if this were the only fact.”
“There are lots of other facts,” his mother pointed out.
“Yes, but they’re minor and they all add up to this one: We should live for God. How shall I do this and where shall I go?” He held up his hand. “Please don’t interrupt. That was a rhetorical question. The best thing is to look around, find someone who’s doing it well and follow him. Looking around, I see that not many are doing it well. Not many seem to be trying. Not many even care. This puzzles me, because the people I have in mind are Catholics, who share my premises. Why don’t they reach the obvious conclusion and live for God alone, if he’s the chief purpose of their existence? Why doesn’t it even occur to them?”
“Because they’re not fanatics,” Matt replied.
“It’s not fanaticism, it’s rationality.”
“Same thing,” his mother said. “Listening to you it sounds like the same thing.”
Matt agreed. “Your whole stand is too extreme,” he said.
Larry had an answer ready: “Every conclusion is the extreme end of a syllogism. You shouldn’t go around giving kids premises if you don’t want them to draw conclusions.”
That sounded right. But something was wrong.
Matt tried a different tack. “All your friends went to the same Catholic schools you did. They had the same nuns, Christian Brothers, and priests. They got the same… premises, as you put it. But they don’t have your radical – upside down – view of life. The want to have a good time, go to college. Drink and party a little. Get a good job, make a living. Date, marry, and have kids. Catholic teaching doesn’t keep them from doing any of that. Why are you and your Catholic friends so different? There are 750 guys in your class at West. How many are going to run off to a monastery?”
Larry shrugged. “Just one, that I know of.”
“Is he the only sane one or the only nut?”
Larry sighed. He thought of some things he wanted to say, but preferred not to say them in front of his mother. He asked if he could talk to his father alone. His mother was offended, at first. Perceiving that, he said, “Mom, we need some man talk that wouldn’t be quite right in front of a lady.” She seemed mollified and left the room, looking more hurt than angry.
When the door was closed Larry said, “Dad, I don’t want to knock my friends. I know I’m an oddball in the way I think. They’re good guys. God bless ‘em, I love ‘em. But they don’t follow religious premises to their logical conclusions. Religion is a little compartment in their mind. Like a drawer. They put all the religious stuff in there. It means something to them. They value it, in a way. But then they close the drawer and don’t open it till Saturday afternoon, when they have to tell their sins in confession. And when they leave Mass on Sunday they close the drawer for another week and don’t think about it.
“I can’t do that. I carry it with me… everywhere. I believe in God, and heaven, and hell. That’s what life is really about. It’s about whether we get to heaven or we don’t. Our religion course, every year, teaches about mortal sin. A mortal sin puts you in hell for eternity if you die with it on your soul. Dad, I commit a lot of mortal sins. From impure thoughts to… talks on the corner about sex… to stuff I do with girls in drive-ins. Most of my life I walk around with mortal sins on my soul. Saturday afternoon I go to confession, and I leave in a state of grace. But by nine or ten that night I’m in a drive-in necking with a girl.
“We don’t do much. I’m still a virgin. But if I French kiss her, that’s a mortal sin. If I touch her breast, that’s a mortal sin. If I just go on hugging and kissing once I get passionate, even if I don’t do anything else, that’s a mortal sin. This is church teaching and all the guys hear it. My friend Dan jokes that there’s only one way we’ll get to heaven. If we walk out of confession at five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and get hit by a car before we get to the drive-in four hours later. If we die during that four hour period, we go to heaven. The rest of the week we’re cooked.” He smiled faintly.
Matt shook his head and chuckled.
“Yeah, we laugh,” Larry said. “But what are we laughing at? Is Church teaching a joke? Is it a bunch of crap? Or are we taking it too lightly? If it’s true, we’re taking it too lightly. If hell is real, it’s horrible – fire and agony -- and it never ends. Should we spend ninety-eight percent of every week bound for hell? Is that any way to live? Is that a rational way to live?”
With a dismissive wave Matt said, “No one thinks of it that way. A mortal sin is hard to commit.”
“Not for me and Nick it’s not. Not for our friends and classmates. It’s not just Church teaching, it’s in the Bible. Jesus said if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart you commit adultery. Dad, we look at girls with lust in our heart every day. We joke about mortal sin, but we’re in it all the time. It’s hard for you to commit a mortal sin because you’re married. Sex is allowed. Sure, I could have sinless sex if I married. Do you want me to get married?”
“Not at seventeen, with no college and no job.”
“When would it make sense for me to marry?”
“When you’re out of college and start making a living.”
“Dad, that’s four years away. Most of that four years I’d be in mortal sin. Think of the risk – if the Church is right and hell is real. Do you see the logic of my concern? Where’s the flaw in my logic?”
“By your logic every one of those 750 guys in your class should run off to a monastery to hide from temptation. Does that make sense? Does the Church say they should? The monasteries couldn’t hold them!”
Larry looked perplexed. “Dad, I don’t know what makes sense for them. They have to figure out their own lives. I only know what makes sense for me. I don’t even know that, but I’m trying hard to think clearly and reach logical conclusions. Maybe my logic only works for people who have a vocation. I think I have one. I’m not sure, but I think so.
“And fear of hell isn’t the only thing. I love God too. I don’t just fear him. I love God. I love Christ. Nothing matters more than being close to God. Nothing would be worse than losing him. And losing heaven. I want to live a life that puts those values first. Above everything. Thomas Merton has done that. The other Trappist monks have done that. They’re leading great lives. Saintly lives. The nuns and priests are leading good lives too. But I want to live a great spiritual life, like Merton. I want to be a Trappist.”
The upshot of all this verbalizing was Matt’s agreement to help him visit a Trappist monastery so he could talk to them about entering. Matt said he’d make a call the next day.
That night, around midnight, he burst into Larry’s room and startled him.
“Why are you kneeling there pounding your chest?” he demanded.
Larry looked up at him in great annoyance. Matt was afraid he’d say something rude. But he restrained himself.
“Because I read in a book that you should kneel down and pound your chest, that’s why I’m doing it. Don’t you knock before entering?”
“Your chest is all red. I could hear you across the hall.”
“I know it’s red. I’m sorry about the noise.”
Larry was kneeling there, waiting for Matt to go.
“Well, why in God’s name are you doing it?” Matt asked, exasperated.
Larry raised his eyes to the ceiling and summoned all his patience. Forcing a caustic smile he said, “So I’ll get a higher place in heaven. Now will you leave me the hell alone?”
WHEN HE WAS FIFTEEN his parents read a best-selling book by a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. They spoke of Merton being a “deep” thinker and said the book was intellectually challenging. His curiosity stirred, Larry sampled the book, found it wasn’t beyond him, read it, and was profoundly impressed by Merton’s evolution from worldly intellectual to contemplative monk. The term “contemplative monk” is an abstraction that conveys little of the rigor and austerity of Trappist life.
The formal name of the monastic group Merton joined is The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The order took the name “Trappist” from La Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France, where it began as a reform movement in 1664 to tighten the relaxed practices that had crept into many Cistercian monasteries. Cistercian, or Trappist, monks commit themselves to poverty, celibacy, obedience, stability (never to leave the monastery), and a strict rule of silence. These excerpts from the Catholic Encyclopedia give some sense of extreme Trappist austerity:
The hour for rising is at 2 a.m. on weekdays, 1:30 on Sundays, and 1 on the more solemn feasts ; whilst the hour for retiring is at 7 p.m. in winter, and 8 in summer; … so that the religious have seven hours' sleeping in the course of the day; about seven hours also are devoted to the Divine Office and Mass, one hour to meals, four hours to study and private prayers and five hours to manual labour…. [Note that there is not an hour, not a minute, set apart for socializing; and meals though taken together must be eaten in silence.]
The monks are obliged to live by the labour of their hands, so the task appointed for manual labour is seriously undertaken, and is of such a nature as to render them self-supporting; such as cultivation of the land, cattle-raising, etc…. Food consists of bread, vegetables, and fruits.... Flesh-meat, fish, and eggs are forbidden at all times, except to the sick.
All sleep in a common dormitory, the beds being divided from each other only by a partition and curtain, the bed to consist of mattress and pillow stuffed with straw, and sufficient covering. The monks are obliged to sleep in their regular clothing; which consists of ordinary underwear, a habit of white, and a scapular of black wool, with a leathern cincture; the cowl, of the same material as the habit, is worn over all. Enclosure [the requirement to remain in the monastery], according to canon law, is perpetual in all houses.
It is never allowed for the religious to speak amongst themselves, though the one in charge of a work or employment may give necessary directions; and all have the right of conversing with the superiors at any time except during the night hours, called the "great silence ".
Naturally Larry found most of this grim and daunting. But Merton so successfully extolled and embodied the moral elevation, the spiritual richness, of the Trappist life that Larry was drawn to it. If God is “the prime purpose of our existence” and if renouncing the world is the best way to live “for God alone” and enter into profound communion with him, Larry thought he should do it. He less than half-heartedly wanted to.
In fact he wanted all kinds of things incompatible with monastic life, principal among them being a love relationship with a girl. Merton had wanted that too and had put it behind him. Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Larry would try to lose his life, as Merton had – and find it in a Trappist monastery, as Merton had.
Matt and Mae O’Toole, religious as they were, thought the Trappist idea bordered on insanity. They wanted Larry to get a job, find a nice girl, marry, and have children -- in a word, live a normal life. They were Catholic enough to be glad there were priests and nuns. They appreciated what those dedicated people contributed to the running of parishes, the sacramental and prayer life of the congregation, and the education of children. But they thought mandatory celibacy was abnormal and unhealthy, and had wanted no part of it themselves. In their view becoming a Trappist would be a tragedy for their son. Think of the things he’d never have: a woman in his life, the joy of begetting and raising a family, a home of his own, and a career, in any earthly sense of the term.
He would leave all his friends behind and never see them again. When a Trappist takes his final vows he promises to live his whole life within the confines of the monastery. Communications with and visits from his family were severely restricted. All those sacrifices, and more, were under the rubric of “leaving the world.” As if that were not stark enough, he couldn’t even have a normal social life in the monastery, because the rule of silence barred conversation with his fellow monks most of the time. His parents made all these arguments repeatedly during his last two years of high school. He was not persuaded.
Larry broke off with a cute little blond girl halfway through senior year. As graduation neared, his father reluctantly arranged for him to make a five-day retreat at a Trappist monastery. There were closer ones but Larry insisted on visiting the monastery where Thomas Merton lived and wrote: The Abbey of Gethsemani in very rural Trappist, Kentucky. If he was going to enter why not go where he might catch a glimpse of the living saint whose books had brought him there? The literary giant whose life and writings had awakened the world to an ascetic spirituality that few had been aware of, ancient as it was.
“Gethsemani was the garden where Jesus spent the most agonizing hours of his life, before the crucifixion,” Matt pointed out. “His anguish was so intense that he broke out in a bloody sweat.” Then he added half facetiously: “Maybe an abbey with a more cheerful name would be a happier place. Is there a Bethlehem Abbey or a Cana Abbey?”
“No, Dad,” Larry said. “If you want to avoid Gethsemani you don’t become a Trappist. That was the right one for Merton and it’s the right one for me.”
The trip was in late June of 1956, a week after Larry’s graduation. His mother and his close friend, Nick Pavone, whom he had double-dated with every weekend till he began practicing for celibacy, saw him off at the airport. His parents and Nick viewed the matter as a tragedy that could still be averted.
They were anxious to give him the feeling that he had committed himself to nothing, that the trip was just an excursion to satisfy his curiosity, and that when he returned he was expected to forget the whole affair. For all their round display of optimism they were afraid. He was unpredictable. One never quite knew what was going on inside him. They hoped for the best.
LARRY REMEMBERED that flight to Kentucky vividly all his life. There was the pretty southern girl who got on the plane at Washington, blond and creamy skinned, satin-lipped and lovely, with sea-blue eyes and a slumberous drawl. She sat across the aisle from him chatting amiably with a soldier whom Larry envied passionately. He decided she was one of many things that would be given him on the other side of eternity. (He thought heaven would contain – besides the beatific vision of God – fulfillment of deeply felt desires that are frustrated in human life. This was a cherished part of his personal creed; he had no Church sanction for it and hoped it wasn’t heresy.)
In the train depot in Louisville he saw a girl who could not have been more than sixteen waiting in the station with a baby in her arms, and he wondered if her husband knew that she was a large part of paradise. Looking out the windows he was appalled at the impoverished shanties along the tracks, where poor half-clothed whites lived out their squalid lives. At least they were allowed to speak, he reflected. The men had their women, the women had their men, and both had their children. He could imagine a sorrier life.
Debarking from the train in the darkness he found that another passenger was bound for the monastery. A thin soft-spoken man of about thirty-five, he was unprepossessing but friendly and likeable. They asked around and learned that the abbey was two miles up the road and that no cab service or public transportation was available. So they picked up their luggage and trudged through the darkness. A two-mile walk with heavy suitcases was a challenge when they were already fatigued from a long trip and ready to fall into bed.
ON THE MORNING OF THE FOURTH DAY each guest was given a private interview with the retreat master. In the course of Larry’s he said he was thinking seriously about joining the order.
The monk seemed pleased. “How long have you been thinking about it?” he asked.
“Over two years.”
The priest nodded approvingly. That three-word answer allayed all doubt .
“It’s a hard life,” he said, “and not always a happy one. By no means always a happy one. But if you’re going to enter you should do it with a whole heart. Make it known to everyone at home – family and friends – that you’re taking a permanent step, and there will be no turning back. Give away your clothes, your money, everything you own. Don’t look over your shoulder. Burn your bridges behind you.”
Larry was stunned by the swiftness of the man’s transition from viewing him as a casual visitor on retreat to one making an unshakeable commitment to monastic life. Larry had expected at least a trace of his parents’ concern that it might be the wrong step for him. Instead the priest leaped to the conviction that the boy’s decision was not only a fait accompli but irrevocable.
“When you enter the monastery, you should realize that you’re discarding your personal identity. You’ll no longer be…” -- he looked at a notepad in front of him – “Larry O’Toole. You’ll take a new name; the name of a saint. They’ll shave off your hair except for the thin tonsure. You’ll wear a rough burlap cassock like the rest of us. There will be no social conversation. You’ll live by a strict rule of silence. You can speak only to your superiors and your confessor. Only in special cases to guests of the monastery. For all other purposes you’ll be taught the sign language.”
Larry nodded with grave assent, visualizing each new reality.
The priest ended the conference by saying he would arrange an interview for Larry with Father Louis, the master of novices. Larry realized with elation that Father Louis was the Cistercian name of Thomas Merton. He’d had no idea Merton was master of novices. A personal interview with the great man was more than he had dreamed of. He was almost unnerved at the prospect.
IT WENT OFF SMOOTHLY THOUGH. Around one o’clock that afternoon he was called into the main hall and introduced to a rugged, affable-looking man of medium height with a firm handshake and a disarming smile. His manner was so unclerical and unassuming that it was hard to believe he was a priest, much less a famous writer.
First he proposed going up to Larry’s room for their talk, but then decided against it on the grounds that it was “too hot up there.” This was such a normal human consideration that Larry was shocked at it. He had supposed the good priest would suggest the hottest place in the monastery as a matter of principle, so they would be in a fitting state of discomfort. But apparently saints could take liberties in such matters, rest on their laurels, so to speak.
They walked through the monastery garden, out the main gate, and then strolled the tree-lined driveway beyond. The sky was blue and clear but for a few puffy clouds, the sun was hot, the air humid.
“What made you decide to become a Trappist,” Merton asked. He had apparently been assured by the retreat master that Larry's decision had been made.