Convert Companions: Of Merton and Waugh, Me and You

Friendship is only possible with people similar to ourselves
and those to whom we are bound by good will.

— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

“Notable & Quotable: Evelyn Waugh on Writing.” It was a column headline in the Wall Street Journal and it grabbed my attention immediately. Waugh, the celebrated British novelist and Catholic convert, is one of my favorite authors – especially his masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, a tale of heartache and hope, sin and salvation that permanently colored my vision of grace. Waugh’s prose style was exquisitely fluid, which meant that any advice he’d care to dish out would be invaluable.

I read on.

First the WSJ column introduced Mary Frances Coady’s book, Merton and Waugh (Paraclete, 2015), a study of the largely epistolary friendship between Waugh (a Crusty Old Man per Coady’s subtitle) and Thomas Merton – the subtitle’s Monk made famous by his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Next in the column was a lengthy quotation from the book – an excerpt from a letter Waugh wrote to the young American Trappist. “Never end off any piece of writing the moment it is finished,” Waugh instructed. “Examine each sentence and ask, ‘Does this say precisely what I mean?’”

It was a tantalizing hint of further riches to come – the kind of plainspoken wisdom I’d be a fool to ignore. I cut the full quotation out of the newspaper and stuck it above my desk, and then promised myself to track down Coady’s book for more.

When I got a copy from the library and dove in, I indeed I found more – more writing tips, as I expected, but also a raft of insights into the life of faith. Waugh, for his part, provided the former, prodding Merton to tighten up his writing and to avoid sloth in composition as in contemplation. “You scatter a lot of missiles all around the target instead of concentrating on a single direct hit,” wrote Waugh at one point. “Your monastery tailor and boot-maker could not waste material. Words are our materials.”

Merton, on the other hand, had the greater expertise in the spiritual life, and he advised Waugh accordingly. “Really I think it might do you a lot of good and give you a certain happiness to say the Rosary every day,” Merton recommended for example. “If you don’t like it, so much the better, because then you would deliver yourself from the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction.” Sound counsel, that.

There’s a lot of this chatty back-and-forth in the book, along with helpful commentary and extrapolations from Ms. Coady – and it’s a rich, satisfying read. Since it’s based primarily on extant letters (the two men only met in person once), Merton & Waugh captures moments of vulnerable candor we might not otherwise be privy to. If you’re a fan of either author or both, Coady’s gem of a book is a must.

But Coady’s book isn’t just about writing and spirituality. It also provides a sidelong glance at conversion and friendship, their vagaries and how they’re connected. And they’re definitely connected – if you’re a convert, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Conversion means to “turn around,” and there’s no question that our friends can sway our thinking and our behaviors, that they can nudge us to turn this way or that. Simultaneously, when we do make changes and turn, our friendships are bound to be affected – at times, strengthening them when the turns are mutual, weakening or even altogether muting them when the turns diverge.

This dialectic is especially at work in the life of the Catholic convert, for his lot can be a lonely one and very peculiar. He bumps up against Catholicism, who knows how, and it leaves a residue, an odor that he just can’t shake. He turns to his friends for support – no good. There’s an undertow to the Faith, a rip tide, and the more he resists, the more swiftly he goes under – and deeper. Old friendships give way to new friendships as the convert sinks into the morass of an all-encompassing Love. 

There, he gradually, almost imperceptibly, transitions from knowing about the Faith to living it, and that comes especially through just being around other Catholics – lifers (“cradle” Catholics), in particular, although we relish commiserating with other converts as well. Instruction and RCIA hardly hint at Catholicism’s bare-knuckled assault on our settled lives. The first several years (at least) as a schlub Catholic in the trenches is like a finishing school, wherein we come to terms with what we’ve really taken on. This occurs most typically by our rubbing shoulders, either briefly or over the long term, with those already making a go of it.

Thus, our constant tutors become the people in the next pew, the ladies who pray the Rosary every day after Mass, our priests and Catholic neighbors, and the stranger we glimpse making a furtive sign of the cross. It’s the daily mystagogy of ongoing conversion beyond Easter in which we’re individually “drawn and moved by grace,” as the Catechism teaches us, but with a “communitarian dimension” (#1428-29). Indeed, it’s what we see at work in the letters of Merton and Waugh – “iron sharpening iron,” as the Proverb has it, bolstering each other, filling in hidden gaps, lurching ahead together. And through their published writings, the two authors did the same for countless others they’d never meet, including me.

The same goes for another prominent convert-writer who makes an appearance in Coady’s book: Servant of God Dorothy Day, social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Coady relates the comical tale of Waugh dropping by to see Day during his 1948 American tour. It’s easy to envision the hilarious juxtaposition: Waugh, the upper-crust Brit accustomed to luxury and refinement; Day and her humble Mott Street comrades, ladling out soup to the masses of New York.

When Waugh showed up in a limo ready to take everybody out to a tony restaurant, Dorothy demurred. Instead, the whole crew trooped over to a local Italian eatery to partake of much conversation, food, and drink – a bit too much drink in Dorothy’s view. “Mrs Day didn’t at all approve of their having cocktails or wine,” noted Waugh in a letter home, “but they had them & we talked till four o’clock.” Waugh referred to Day as an “autocratic ascetic who wants us all to be poor,” so you’d think he’d been turned off by the whole affair. Nevertheless, the brush with slum and sanctity left its mark on Waugh according to Dorothy. “Since then he sends us checks every now and then,” she wrote in Loaves and Fishes, “always made out to ‘Dorothy Day’s Soup Kitchen.’” It was his way of throwing his support behind the group’s Works of Mercy, Dorothy conjectured, while downplaying its “anarchist-pacifist” philosophy. “And perhaps he is right,” she concluded.

So we see that Dorothy and her friends affected Waugh’s faith life, and he affected theirs – after a single afternoon. In addition, we know that there was a similar bilateral impact between Merton and Day, though the two apparently never even met once. I myself can testify that all three hugely influenced my own life and conversion, and, although I never had a chance to reciprocate, I definitely contributed to the dissemination of their influence by giving away piles of their books.

The point is that we’re all beneficiaries of each other’s efforts in the order of grace, regardless of what we ourselves think. “All these things so mixed up in us,” wrote Dom Hubert Van Zeller, “so cut across by what we have learned from others, from experience, from our surroundings, and from the hundred and one apparently fortuitous circumstances of every day, have fitted into the pattern which is me.”

The incredible thing is that God himself created that pattern – the Author of the universe sketched out our character – and he wants to include us in his master plan. “There is nothing mistimed or misplaced: our entries fit exactly with our cues, our positions on the stage are allowed for. It is only our acting and our lines that we have to worry about.”

If that’s the case, then we do well to keep in mind Waugh’s earlier advice on writing, but with a slight twist. All of us, neophytes and cranky old-timers, have thoughts, words, and actions as our “materials” of influence. We best not waste them.