Sinful, worldly, lustful, restless, and rootless youth with a literary bent sporadically senses the call of God. Is it real? Will he respond? What does it mean to respond? And then what?
That synopsis of Thomas Merton’s best-selling The Seven Storey Mountain is a caricature that highlights several questions each reader must face: Was this autobiography written as a work of literature? Or instead as a spiritual meditation? Or both? Is it an interpretative depiction, or instead a snapshot of Merton at a specific moment? Isn’t it presumptuous to write an autobiography while still in your early thirties? Was Merton honest with himself? With the reader?
Merton, born in France and educated at Oxford and Columbia, was a knowingly gifted writer with a seemingly remarkable recall for detail bordering on fabrication. After Pearl Harbor, one step ahead of the Draft Board, he joined a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he was encouraged to write. In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton chooses anecdotes that further his story and whose symbolism often becomes apparent as his tale unfolds. Nevertheless, the first part of the book is slow, even feeling padded, and his final wrestling over the question of whether he has a religious vocation seems overwritten.
Most famously, the book only hints at Merton’s womanizing past and omits any reference to the child he fathered out of wedlock. Merton treats of spirituality and prayer and progress in the spiritual life so extensively that the reader can overlook the fact that he does not claim to be perfected: “God … certainly beset me with graces … of the kind that even a person without deep spirituality can appreciate as graces; and that is the kind of person I was then and still am.” Recent editions include A Note to the Reader by William H. Shannon, Founding President of the International Thomas Merton Society, that seems written to discourage the reader from engaging the book on its own terms and to make one wonder why anyone, much less Merton, ever converted to Catholicism or joined the Trappists.
In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton expresses a deep awareness of the horror of his own personal sins and their horrible effect and also of the ameliorating merit of the Catholic Mass. This does not often come through in Michael Mott’s otherwise extensively detailed authorized biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which, published in 1984, also was a best seller. The Merton who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain is portrayed by Mott as an inflexible monk hard on his youthful self. Mott has an older Merton rejecting the younger Merton and “working to turn himself from the pious, rigid, opinionated young monk into a vulnerable human being for twenty years,” which is ironic because, absent that autobiography, Merton would have not achieved such a large readership for his other writings or be as widely known or studied today.
Mott is more interested in Merton the writer than Merton the Catholic or Merton the Trappist, and Merton wrote incessantly: journals, poems, letters, articles, books. “Merton’s writing was more of a compulsion than either a vocation or a job.” Mott’s approach is understandable: if he had not been a writer, Merton would be an unlikely subject for a biography. But Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is subtitled “An Autobiography of Faith.” Mott’s biography of Merton could be subtitled “Mentioning Matters of Faith Only Out of Necessity.” Merton’s Catholicism and Trappist spirituality are necessary backdrops for the biography, but that’s all they are. They weave themselves into the story, but their depth is never plumbed, so Merton is left adrift, even though Merton keeps insisting on and returning to them while also skirmishing with and violating them. The exception to this is Mott’s treatment of Merton’s fascination with Zen near the end of his life; here some aspects of Catholic mysticism are explored to prove a similarity to Eastern mysticism.
Merton’s life was a search or rather many searches: a search for self; for God; for home; for approval; for love; for women; for rest; for fame and recognition; for nothingness; for companionship; for solitude. He seemed to flit from interest to interest, often deciding he had found what he sought only to be off again. With much substantiation and insight, Mott thus suggests there were many Mertons, a suggestion Merton himself made in his writings. This is captured by an early reviewer, Frederick J. Blonigen, writing in 1985 in Reflections.
This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the December, 2018 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.
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