The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton, New York: Harcourt, 1976, 1948.
It did not take very much reflection on the year I had spent at Cambridge to show me that all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and that everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in my hands, and that I myself, into the bargain, had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of a person–vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene and proud. I was a mess.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 132
Thomas Merton was born in France in 1915 to a sometimes Anglican father and a Quaker mother, both artists who died when Thomas was young. Thomas spent his childhood and youth between the United States, France, and England. At age eighteen, he enrolled in Clare College, Cambridge, where he notably engaged in wanton sexual license, drank to excess, and retreated into ego-centric isolation. The above quote is Merton’s self-characterization of that period of his life. Merton would leave Cambridge after only a year and return to New York, enrolling at Columbia University, from which he would graduate with a BA (1938) and MA (1939) in English.
Merton’s spiritual quest began in 1938 when he met a prominent Hindu monk and teacher named Mahanambrata Brahmachari. Enticed by the monk’s way of life and his conviction, Merton asked for recommendations for the spiritual path. Merton was surprised when the monk did not recommend Hinduism but rather a path from Merton’s own cultural tradition, recommending to Merton Augustine’s Confessions and Imitation of Christ. Merton devoured them both and began to explore further. He would be baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic tradition in 1938.
In April 1941, after several years contemplating and accepting a call to the religious life, Merton scheduled a retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, a monastery under the Trappist rule. Sure of his call but unsure of the direction it should take Merton resorted to sortes sanctorum, the ritual of randomly pointing a finger at the bible to see if it would render a sign. On this occasion, Merton laid his finger on a portion of Luke 1:20 that reads, “You shall keep silent” (translated from the Latin Vulgate, non poteris loqui). Months later, at the age of twenty-six, Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, and made vows. The Seven Storey Mountain was written in 1948.
From a literary perspective, The Seven Storey Mountain is one of the best autobiographies in English. It is readable, lively, engaging, and exciting. Merton has an outstanding style, with a poetic voice that belies his training.
The book endures because of its spiritual impact, the worth of which is made evident by the more than three million copies sold worldwide. On the one hand, the book is a crushing arraignment of the life that Merton chose to live as a young man and the modern society that helped to produce that life. He writes,
And so I became the complete twentieth-century man…I became a true citizen of my own disgusting century: the century of poison gas and atomic bombs. A man living on the doorsill of the Apocalypse, a man with veins full of poison, living in death.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 94
On the other hand, and more importantly, the story that is told is the story of redemption. The story of one man, Thomas Merton, and his exodus – his journey from slavery to freedom told in his own voice. You see, it was freedom that Merton sought! Not the freedom found in a political, economic, or social systems but the freedom found in being who he was meant to be. For Merton, such freedom was to be found in the monastery, as his words upon entering the Abbey of Gethsemani illustrate,
So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls; of my new freedom.Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 410
I wasn’t about the monastery – or, rather, it was about the monastery because that is where Merton was meant to be – where Merton found his freedom and happiness because it was in the monastery that Merton found the perfection of God’s love for him,
Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His love.’Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 372
My only real critique of The Seven Storey Mountain (but this was common of the era) is that it touches on Roman Catholic elitism. There is a “smugness”, as Flannery O’Connor called “the great Catholic sin,” in the church’s triumphalism. Merton himself was also critical of his excessive moralizing and dualistic thinking that shaped his early understanding of holiness, though such dualism is a common trope of those recently converted from licentious lives (see Augustine’s Confessions as another example).
The Seven Storey Mountain is a compelling adventure story in which Merton emerges as a sort-of modern Odysseus, a lost soul searching for a home, redemption, and freedom. Merton was certainly a heroic figure in my early years as a seminarian. As I heard Merton’s own bout with spiritual confusion, I felt that Merton was writing about me.