I’ve just completed the Thirty-Day Book Project, which for me turned into a sixty-two day book project. Now the practice of blogging about books seems to have embedded itself in my bloodstream. Hence a post about the most recent book I read: The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography by Thomas Merton.
Merton was born in France in 1915 and moved around throughout France, England, and the United States during his lifetime. His mother died while he was a child and his father died of a brain tumor during his teenage years; after that, his closest family association was with his grandparents. The start of Merton’s journey through adult life is one that’s remarkably common for young men of the twentieth century. He attended university, first in England and later at Columbia University in New York. At the start, he was a rebel, determined to thumb his nose at authority. He flirted with atheism, with a communism, with all kinds of silly intellectual fads. He entered a fraternity and spent years partying and drinking at various spots in New York City.
Then, as the end of his education approached, he began to notice how hollow and unsatisfying his life was. He began searching farther afield and eventually explored works of Catholic philosophy and spirituality. The more of these he read, the more he found his wisdom and understanding growing, along with his ability to cope with the modern world and all its violence, greed, and contradictions. This lead him first to conversion and baptism and then, after much pain and many struggles, to enter a Cistercian monastery at Gethsemane in Kentucky. Though he lived until 1968, The Seven Storey Mountain ends in 1946, concluding with the death of Merton’s brother Paul in WWII and some reflections on the growth of the Cistercian order in America.
Because of his tremendous writing skill, his directness, his organization, and his keen insight into the nature of humanity and God, Merton became one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century. His books are often offered as good introductions to Christian life and thought for those not truly familiar with such things. In contrast to other introductions such as Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Merton does not try to bend out of his way to make Christian belief fit a modern worldview. Instead he simply writes with power and beauty from a Christian perspective, and lets that power and beauty carry the meaning across, even to readers who aren’t used to his type of thinking. Here’s an excerpt from The Seven Storey Mountain.
The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God. We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man’s reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole.
But if Merton is good for beginning Christians, he is good for veteran Christians as well. While is description of life before entering the monastery is a fascinating picture of a lost soul, his description of life after entering it is an equally fascinating picture a found soul. He choose the Cistercian Order (also known as Trappists) because of the strictness of their lifestyle. Among the things that he mentions were the lack of heating and air conditions, the simple (and vegetarian) food, the fasting during Lent, constant prayer including ten recitations of the Psalter during September, and other devotional activity of that sort. When we read this, most of us will realize how few steps we’ve taken on the path towards union with God, compared to the many that people like Merton and his fellow monks did.