The Seven Storey Mountain
The Seven Storey Mountain is the 1948 autobiography of Thomas Merton, poet, public intellectual, and monk of the most ascetic Roman Catholic order, known popularly as Trappists. A list of his dozens of books and a full biography are available at www.merton.org, but here is a short version of his life. He was born in France to non-religious artist parents, a New Zealander father and an American mother, and spent various childhood years on both sides of the Atlantic. He studied briefly at Cambridge and then extensively at Columbia. Eventually convinced of a call to religious vocation, while still in his twenties he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he was encouraged to continue writing. He later became active in the American civil rights movement and in East-West religious dialogue, and died in 1968 in Bangkok while attending a religious conference. He wrote this autobiography a few years after joining the order.
The book is considered by many to be a spiritual classic, and in the sense that it is an articulate and thoughtful account of one (remarkable) person’s spiritual pilgrimage, I agree. The basic elements of Merton’s story from youthful restlessness to spiritual maturity are common to many, but the particulars of his upbringing and his intellectual gifts are far from mundane. His comments in witness of the lead up to America’s entrance in World War II are also interesting for what they reveal about general public opinion.
I found the chapters about his early years the most intriguing, perhaps simply because his childhood was so unusual: playing in the French countryside, mostly alone and sometimes with other boys; living for a time with his American “Pop” and “Bonnemaman”; the early death of his mother; moving from Provincetown to Bermuda to England with his father; hiking alone across Europe during holidays from boarding school. But also his retelling of those days seems to come to him more easily and with less internal turmoil than what follows.
The middle and late chapters detailing his college and graduate school years are emotionally more complicated and, for me, a little harder to read. I attribute this to my disagreement with a fundamental tenet of his understanding of “calling.” Merton is foremost an intellectual who emerges from his identity struggle seeing intellectual pursuits as worthy only in the service of the church, rather than worthy for their own sake—not a surprising position for someone who ultimately finds his place as a vocational “religious.” He doesn’t quite explicitly state this position, but his denigration of his pre-conversion publishing aspirations, for example, his dissatisfaction with his literary studies, and his eventual relief at pursuing writing again within the monastic community support this interpretation. His words occasionally have an anti-intellectual ring, but he was simply too much of a scholar—as this book abundantly demonstrates—for that presentation to be taken seriously. I think he simply saw the subjugation of his intellectual gifts as a necessary path to greater humility, writing in one passage:
The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!
Thus it was a relief for him to remove his ideals and gifts from the “world” and into a sacred space where, instead of dissertation advisers or chapbook publishers, he was free to think and write for an audience of One. Though I would disagree with any theology that limits spiritual service solely to that done within the confines of the church, I empathize with the appeal and relief of his choice. And clearly, it was that structure that ultimately gave him the confidence to take his spiritual service back out into the world as he became socially and politically active in later years.
The intensity and duration of his desire to understand himself in context is at times exhausting to read—at least for me, perhaps due to the occasional similarity with my own erratic identity struggle. (I certainly agree with him that “Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers”; and sometimes the toughest opponent is the self.) But when I did grow weary of the “I was too miserable to know my own state” discussions, my perseverance was sometimes rewarded with a shining passage of pure descriptive narrative, such as the two I will reproduce here. The first comes in his recounting of extracurricular activities as an undergraduate, between his brief (and regretted) stint as a communist and his brief (and only slightly less-regretted) stint as a fraternity brother:
October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and the quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.
The joy of possibilities! A second like observation occurs in his description of moving to Greenwich Village at the start of his Ph.D. program:
I suppose the apartment on Perry Street was part of the atmosphere appropriate to an intellectual such as I imagined myself to be and, as a matter of fact, I felt much more important in this large room with a bath and fireplace and French windows leading out to a rickety balcony… Besides, I now had a shiny new telephone all my own which rang with a deep, discreet, murmuring sort of a bell as if to invite me suavely to expensive and sophisticated pursuits.
I don’t, as a matter of fact, remember anything very important happening over that telephone, except that I used to make dates with a nurse…Also, it was the occasion of a series of furiously sarcastic letters to the telephone company because of various kinds of troubles, mechanical and financial.
Moving from serious to humorous, from theological to literary to mundane, The Seven Storey Mountain opens a window on the intellectual atmosphere of the first half of the twentieth century. As Merton reveals personal history, he also sheds light on organizational elements of monastic orders and educational institutions, religious and secular. Though the volume requires perseverance, readers who stick with it gain a provocative glimpse into the mind of the man who has been called “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” Read it for that purpose and you won’t be disappointed.