Thomas Merton helped me fall in love. At 13 years old, I was looking for something – really anything – that would help me articulate what I was feeling. I was searching for meaning; I was on a quest for God and, for the life of me, I didn’t know where to look. So, I went where any self-respecting (and completely self-conscious) teen in the 1990s would go to anonymously search: the public library.
In an age before Google, it was there, in the stacks, that I met Thomas Merton. Among the few books that turned up on my card catalog search of Catholicism, I found No Man Is an Island. It was unassuming enough; I liked the title, and the monk on the back cover looked at me with a clarity that I found intriguing. I took the book home and devoured it.
For everything that I thought I knew, I knew that Thomas Merton had something to teach me. And despite everything he said that went over my head, what I did comprehend spoke to my heart. It spoke of a God who knew me, who wanted me to be my true self, and who was already working within me. As I grew, Merton came with me; he gave me language for the journey I was on, and as the inklings of a religious vocation stirred within me, he was there as a companion, an old friend on the way.
When I first walked into Sr. Suzanne Zuercher’s office a little less than a year ago, I didn’t know which way was up. I had just arrived in Chicago for an eight-month portion of my novitiate experience within the Federation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Having just moved in with three other novices from congregations of Sister of Saint Joseph from around the country, I was overwhelmed. I was in the midst of beginning classes, missing home and getting used to a new schedule and new personalities. I came to Suzanne in search of a spiritual director (someone with whom an individual meets on a regular basis to share and process God’s movements in one’s daily life and prayer in search of clarity and guidance) for the eight months ahead.
Overwhelmed by transition, I sat across from Suzanne wondering if we might be a good fit for one another. As we talked, I loosened up. Suzanne’s eyes conveyed passion and compassion all in one glance. She spoke of her role as a director not to “make” anything happen between God and me, but to simply sit at my feet and listen to the story God and I were telling in my life. She laughed and smiled and spoke of her love of writing. And all the while, peeking over her shoulder was a set of eyes I knew all too well. There above her desk was a portrait of Thomas Merton, perfectly poised to ease any of my remaining fears, as if to say, “Rest easy, my friend, this is a chance worth taking.”
In the coming months, I would learn not only the great value but the abundant blessing it would be to journey with Suzanne. Her 82 years of life to my 28 melted away whenever we were together. She shared freely and openly the wisdom of her experiences and did exactly what she said she would – she sat at the feet of my story and listened attentively to all God was saying in my life.
Her ability to open her heart to others and to hold others’ hearts tenderly and gently is what earned her a devoted following as a spiritual director, a teacher, a psychologist, a school administrator, and an author. An expert in the Enneagram and a devoted follower of Merton, her truest goal was to enable people to better know themselves and, in turn, to come to better know God.
“To the degree that we are present to ourselves, we are in the very same act present to and with the Greater Than Self,” she once told me. To the extent that we are able to be present enough so that others might also encounter the Divine in and through us is a great grace, one that Suzanne was blessed to share. Such a gift requires the self-knowledge inherent in true humility, a sharing of self and a desire to more truly become whole through honesty with one’s feelings, experiences, self and others.
The last time that I met with Suzanne in April she wasn’t quite herself. She was visibly tired and uncharacteristically distant; as our time came to a close, she apologized for not being completely present. She hadn’t been feeling well for a few months, but the doctor hadn’t been able to find what was wrong. We put off setting a next appointment as both of our schedules seemed unclear. Unbeknownst to us, we would never see each other again. Before the end of April, Suzanne was diagnosed with cancer and on June 14, she passed into eternal life.
Within that short span of time, she lived to see the publication of her final book, The Ground of Love and Truth, a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s relationship over two years with the woman he referred to in his journals and writings simply as “M.” Reading the book after Suzanne’s death, I relished not only being able to be with her once more but also the fact that it was Thomas Merton who had brought us together again.
In the end, Suzanne concludes that it was the experience of falling in love that transformed Merton and ultimately reaffirmed his vocation to religious life. Merton’s questioning served to deepen his own vocation. A clear vocation, she argues, is grounded in Love and Truth.
Reflecting back on the months I spent with Suzanne, I can track the movement of my own call and my own movement towards a vowed commitment through love and loss, sickness and health, consolation and desolation. As I do, I can see the lessons of Love and Truth all along the way. I see, too, the impact of Suzanne’s own life and vocation on my own. She taught me to listen to where God is calling, to know the depth and solid space of your own being, and to remain grounded in the hope, love, and truth God provides.
“Truth isn’t easy,” she once remarked to me. It surely isn’t. It requires knowing one’s self and remaining grounded in who we are and who we are called to be. For 63 years, Suzanne Zuercher remained grounded in Truth and Love as a Benedictine Sister of Chicago. She was in love with life and relied steadily on Truth. She taught lessons through the life she lived and the person she was. And in it all, no matter the love or loss, she showed that this life is a chance worth taking.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, who is currently completing her second year of novitiate. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she has published work in various periodicals.]