And then it suddenly became clear to me that my whole life was at a crisis. Far more than I could imagine or understand or conceive was now hanging upon a word — a decision of mine.
I had not shaped my life to this situation: I had not been building up to this. Nothing had been further from my mind. There was, therefore, an added solemnity in the fact that I had been called in here abruptly to answer a question that had been preparing, not in my mind, but in the infinite depths of an eternal Providence.
I did not clearly see it then, but I think now that it might have been something in the nature of a last chance. If I had hesitated or refused at that moment — what would have become of me?
But the way into the new land, the promised land, the land that was not like the Egypt where I persisted in living, was now thrown open again: and I instinctively sensed that it was only for a moment.
It was a moment of crisis, yet of interrogation: a moment of searching, but it was a moment of joy. It took me about a minute to collect my thoughts about the grace that had been suddenly planted in my soul, and to adjust the weak eyes of my spirit to its unaccustomed light, and during that moment my whole life remained suspended on the edge of an abyss: but this time, the abyss was an abyss of love and peace, the abyss was God.
It would be in some sense a blind, irrevocable act to throw myself over. But if I failed to do that … I did not even have to turn and look behind me at what I would be leaving. Wasn’t I tired enough of all that? — Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
The Seven Storey Mountain sat on my shelf for a couple of decades, along with many other marvelous books that I bought for two or three bucks at secondhand stores, fully intending to read them some day. All I knew about it was that it was the autobiography of an atheist who converted to Catholicism and became a Trappist monk and that it was supposed to be quite good.
Just recently, something prompted me to take it down and start in on it. It’s 400+ pages long, and I don’t read as fast as I used to, but I’m enjoying every page of it. I don’t go in much for biographies; still, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read, along with Whittaker Chambers’ Witness — which I liked so much that I bought multiple secondhand copies to give away. The Seven Storey Mountain is extraordinarily well-written, but the subject, of course, is compelling, the only one that really matters: how to save one’s soul. In other words, it’s about vocations.
Years ago, a relative suggested that I should become a deacon, presumably because she thought I would be adept at sermonizing. I knew, however, that there is more to being a deacon than the ability to give a good homily. There must be, because so few of them are good at homiletics — and the ones who think they have a gift for oratory are often the worst.
I’m fatheaded enough to believe that I might very well excel at biblical exegesis and yet honest enough to admit that I would more than likely fail miserably at all the other duties of a deacon, but this was not my reason for demurring.
“I already have a vocation,” I confided.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a father.”
(I should have added that I’m also a husband, but, in a properly ordered society, one presumes the other.)
She was nonplussed by this revelation, perhaps because she and her husband separated when their only daughter was in her early teens, thus facilitating the abandonment of his vocation and the attenuation of his relationship with his daughter.
But fatherhood and husbandhood are my vocations — ones I embarked on, like Merton, with great trepidation, only when I sensed that I might not get another chance.
What a leap of faith it was! Twenty-six years later, I’m still falling, blissfully, into the abyss.