“How does one find and cultivate such a friendship? We can access so many more people thanks to social media, but somehow an environment known for igniting negativity more than anything else doesn’t seem conducive for soul-searing, one-on-one conversations. Besides, it seems this is the kind of search in which one has to feel the way, leading with the heart. Actually, search is probably the wrong word. It’s been my experiences that the friends closest to my heart have shown up when I wasn’t looking for them. A friend and I once marveled over how we managed to become friends when, on the surface, we had nothing in common. He shrugged and quoted Emily Dickinson: 'The soul selects her own society.' But how in the world does that happen?
“When I think of how Merton connected with his soul friends, the key seemed to be showing up somewhere and being totally, unreservedly himself, like laying all of his cards on the table. Of course, I mean 'showing up somewhere' figuratively, because he couldn’t go anywhere. But the essence is the same, whether he’s with a friend in person of via letters: it’s about Merton doing his thing. Merton reading widely, Merton praying fervently, Merton shaping with a carpenter’s focus and skill his own thinking about the world. Merton not being afraid to communicate this thinking. Merton being so curious and wanting to learn from others. Merton being so joyfully human. When the writer Henri Nouwen first met him, Nouwen was taken aback that Thomas Merton was an 'earthy man, dressed in sloppy blue jeans, loud, laughing, friendly and unpretentious.' He witnessed Merton being exactly who he was. And because Merton’s soul was so completely on display, it was available to attract, like a magnet, the society that would most strengthen it.
“Several years ago, when I worked for People magazine, I interviewed Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, about Susan Sarandon, the actress who played her in the film adaptation of the book. She spoke of their first meeting, at a restaurant in New Orleans, and how she was immediately struck by Sarandon. As they sat eating crawfish, Sister Helen had marveled over Sarandon’s powerful life force, how she was so interested in everything, and how deeply she seemed to be enjoying her meal. 'I was just so attracted to her,' Sister Helen said. I told Sister Helen that I really had to ask about her speaking of 'attraction' — she was a nun, after all. She explained — and I’ve never forgotten this — how we’re all connected to the earth, and it’s like we have magnets within us. We are each attracted to some people and repelled by others. To feel that kind of attraction and energy is rare. When you find a connection with another person, you follow it and honor it.
“At the time, I was in my early thirties and suffering from the wrongheaded notion that I could be friends with anyone. I had friends who took energy rather than provided it, to whom I clung in obligation and not love. I didn’t realize how much these relationships weighed on me until Sister Helen’s words changed my life. She helped me clear out important head and heart space to make room for the meaningful connections that eventually came my way. I’ve since learned the vital friendships are not always easy—distance and circumstances often make them seem impossible—but I am no longer afraid to pursue them. I follow the energy and I leap into the fire because, as the mystic Rumi says, 'If you stay away from the fire, / you will remain sour, doughy, numb, and raw.' “