Because of some work I am doing, I am back into reading one of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton. Merton had such an interesting, intriguing life throughout the early and middle part of the 20th century. He was born in France, but spent most of his life in the United States. He was born during WW I, lived through the Depression, and through WW II. Of course, then came the Korean War and finally he was coping in the US involvement in the Vietnam War when he was tragically killed in an accident in 1968.
Merton’s life was a pilgrimage through an early phase of hedonism, Communism, and then conversion and baptism into the Roman Catholic Church. He was moved to join one of the most rigorist monastic traditions available, the Trappists. So this worldly, urbane guy settled for years in the monastery in the rolling hills of Kentucky.
But Merton was always a seeker. He was a writer who continued to chronicle his journey through journals and a variety of other written and spoken venues. As I was reading his early autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain (probably his most famous piece), I hit these words about his conversion and baptism into the Catholic Church.
Perhaps like many people, Merton’s conversion as an adult and his baptism would be easy to understand as the culmination of a process. For him there was a relief to have acted and to have been brought through the baptismal waters into the faith of the Church. All that was true for him. But he also began to realize that he had not finished a journey. In fact, he had only begun.
Baptism was a bit like a commencement. It is a transition from one phase (preparation) into the real phase (work, service). He realized that God was not done with him. God was just ready to begin with him. This slowly dawned on Merton and then he offers these powerful words.
“But the conversion of the intellect is not enough. And as long as the will, the domina voluntas, did not belong completely to God, even the intellectual conversion was bound to remain precarious and indefinite.” Those words speak volumes to me. Let’s unpack the two sentences and see what Merton is affirming.
In the first place Merton recognizes two conversions, or rather, a conversion of two different aspects of a person. One conversion is the intellectual. This is a conversion of how I think about things. It concerns how I think about the Divine One, how I think about myself, about human nature, human potentiality, etc. The other conversion has to do with the will. In the quotation above, you will note the Latin word for will is voluntas. We get our English word, voluntary, from the Latin root. So the human will is what we choose to do, what we do voluntarily. It is our desire.
In the quotation Merton recognizes that his conversion and subsequent baptism had more to do with his mind than it did his heart. His conversion had more to do with changing the way he thought about things. He had not grown up a person of faith, but he had changed his mind---been converted---to believe in God and God’s work in his life. This led to a desire to be baptized and be linked to the Church. It is perhaps too simplistic to say this intellectual conversion represented a change of mind, but that is indeed what happened.
But Merton recognizes this is insufficient. As he said, the conversion of the intellect is not enough. It is good, but it is not enough. More is needed. In his estimation humans must also be converted at the level of their will. This is where the other word in that Latin phrase becomes important. The other word is domina. It should not be too difficult to see our English word, dominate, in that root word. Effectively, Merton is saying that the will is the dominating, choosing aspect of the human person, not the intellect. To put it in practical terms, I might know the good thing to do (intellect), but if I do not actually choose to do it (will), that good thing will never be done.
Another way to put what Merton is affirming, is to say one can be intellectually religious, but according to him, that is not enough. One has to be willing to become religious or spiritual. One has to give over one’s will completely to God. “Not my will, but thy will” is the famous phrase.
Merton knew how hard it was to give over his will to that of the God in whom he had come to believe. To give over our wills means we willingly choose no longer to be independent, to be the controllers of our lives. Instead we yield to the Divine Desire which we believe at its deepest level has our best interests at heart.
This yielding, however, is not easy. It is preferable for many of us to hold on to our agendas, our ambitions, and our plans for life. We have a domina voluntas---a dominant will. Until we yield---that is, give up dominating---we are yet spiritual infants. Lord, help me to grow up. Convert me, too.