As late in his life as mid-May 1967, at the age of 52, Merton was still a seeker, writing, "I experience in myself a deep need of conversion. . . ." This was not surprising in light of the Catholic view of conversion being gradual, but it was apparently unknown, or disregarded by those who thus wanted to pin down an actual, convenient moment of conversion for Merton.

Scholars have argued the slippery slope of Thomas Merton's true Christian conversion for 50-plus years. How Merton ultimately dealt with the question of  [choosing] Margie or God in 1966 directly relates to whether he was in a state of being one with God, or disabled in his true beliefs, having slid backward as the years passed at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Certainly even being tempted in a sensual way indicated his unrest with the state of his spiritual being and caused him agony while he pondered his decision.

Specific moments of conversion mentioned by those inspectors of Merton's life include his visits to various churches in Rome as an 18-year-old in 1932, mystical vision of his father in a pensione room, his baptism at the Church of Corpus Christi, his decision to enter Gethsemani, his monastic vows, and his ordination. Perhaps it occurred when he confessed past sinful deeds in the forthright letter he wrote to [a close friend], the Baroness de Heuck, in 1941.

Elements of [Merton's] conversion run the gamut, according to those assessing what truly causes such a transformation. Some note a change of direction, a true reorientation of one's self, or even a personal revolution. Dr. Anthony Padovano, an ardent Merton observer, suggests there is an "‘Ah-ha' eureka experience and nothing looks the same again. I guess the closest most come to it is love. When you are in love with someone, the whole world looks different all of a sudden." Certainly a crisis may create a path to conversion, whether it is from no religion or spirituality to one, from one to another, or the complete abandonment of any. Conversion expert Dr. Lewis Rambo believes experiencing a crisis causes one to become a "religious seeker," where the "crisis destroys the old so that something new is required." Rambo's commonsense view fits perfectly with Merton's acknowledgment that his path to Gethsemani was highly influenced by disgust for his previous, unfulfilling lifestyle. This spurred Merton to seek a new religion (Catholicism), which led him to a monastic life with lasting consequences. This squares with his words in SSM, "And then it suddenly became clear to me that my whole life was at a crisis. . . . It was a moment of crisis, yet of interrogation: a moment of searching."


Join the discussion:  What is your experience of religious conversion?

Read the second book excerpt from Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free next week at Patheos.  

Mark Shaw, a Theological Studies graduate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, is an attorney turned author with nearly twenty published books. His latest, Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free, was published November 10, 2009. More about the book and Mark, a resident of Superior, Colorado, is available at