Written by Thomas Merton
(Harcourt, 1999), 496 pages
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
Perhaps it was the fact that this book hit close to home that made me feel that it deserved much more attention than I would be able to give it in print. Or maybe it was because of the importance I attach to conversion, to religious questioning in general, and the fact that I see this book as innately useful for these things.
There is so much in this book: we have here an insightful author examining himself, we have spirituality in general, we have the world, people, family, sexuality; we have a rather keen mind intelligently addressing the basic questions of morality, the possibility of belief in God, and—because it was written in modern times—addressed in a manner that is relatable to readers of today; we have a detailed, comprehensive account of every stage of a life – he glosses over nothing that is potentially useful to us for understanding how it is that God chooses to speak to people; on a lesser note, we have a great deal of note from an ecclesiastical historical perspective, a view of how the Church saw itself and functioned in the hay-days of the ‘old liturgy,’ for lack of a better expression. To this last, and as I said, lesser point, we can set Merton’s account alongside other fascinating pictures of the Church in those years, such as those left us by Bernard Haring and Cardinal Dulles, for instance.
If Merton had never caught the public eye during his celebrated years as a Trappist guru, in the two-hundred or so pages of Seven Story that he wrote about his life before his conversion—the whole time during which such a conversion seemed extremely unlikely—in those two-hundred pages we have, even still, a human-interest story worthy of literary record. As in the book as a whole, Merton leaves almost nothing out. However, this does not mean that he is ever boring. He takes the time to do what many writers haven’t the patience to do, that is, laboriously sketch out the details of a human life. This is a religious book, but that does not mean that the life we find here is refracted through the narrow lens of ecclesiasticism. And yet it is all touched with spiritually. The author is fully convinced there is a good and evil, God and world, dichotomy running through life, but he does not imagine that we usually have anything resembling a full grasp of what side we are on at every moment. Let me explain, if I can. Take for instance his youthful flirtation with Marxism. He doesn’t do what some authors might or what some readers would insist he do: paint his youthful adherence to Marxism in a totally negative light and everything after in a good light. In fact, if we compare it with his initial understanding of his new Catholic faith we see that in each case he portrayed himself as a rather inept and ignorant person. As I said in the printed version of this review, Merton’s humility and awe before God is perhaps the most admirable aspect of this great book.
Merton’s youth is a story that sounds very familiar to ours. He, like perhaps all of us, was awash in a sea of conflicting values, agnosticism, and apathy. Such was the world into which he was born. Sound familiar? He was intellectually curious, of course, more than most people are, but he was not extraordinary in any sense of the word. He was not virtuous even in the original, purely volitional, sense, that is to say, strong willed and idealistic. He smoked, he liked to drunk and listen to pop music. He read profane books like those of D. H Lawrence. Mostly, he liked to follow his own preferences and wander through life, desiring merely to experience the best of what he could obtain from it. He wasn’t quite an Augustine either as a young man. Augustine was strikingly brilliant, and, it seems, tortured by scruples. Certainly, both future converts had occasion to enjoy many of the world’s pleasures. Unlike Augustine, however, Merton was rather nondescript in almost every way and, moreover, hardly tortured by the fact that he was less a man than he might suppose he should be. Augustine was always certain that there was a great big secret out there somewhere that he was meant to discover. Merton hardly seemed to have an inkling of anything of the sort until well into his twenties. What is remarkable about Merton is that he would change and become aware that there was such a secret out there and that it was vitally important to learn about it. This strikes me as a rather fundamental kind of personality shift that I didn’t know was really possible in a person.
I think far second to my interest in Merton’s insights into this secret—but second nevertheless—was my interest in his intellectual discovery of Catholicism. As he spent a significant part of his youth in France, he was well acquainted with the vestiges of Christendom, that is to say, its physical artifacts – its ruined churches and monasteries. Of course, these were lifeless memorials of an ancient religion, but, nevertheless, in some ways, signs of something greater. Some of his first literary engagements with Catholicism consisted in his reading of the works of the great English Jesuit’s, Gerard Manley Hopkin’s, poems. He would eventually become interested in those other religious poets, Dante and especially Blake. He also encountered some of Maritain’s works. One of the most interesting moments in this part of the account for me was his discovery of one of my favourite books, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, by Etienne Gilson. I have always lamented that I didn’t discover this book sooner, about ten years sooner in my student career, that is, during my undergraduate years, rather than during my years of graduate study. I always felt that had I discovered it sooner it would have helped me to focus my thought better and have allowed me to take on a more efficient program of reading. However, its impact on Merton was even more profound than what I had wished it had been in my case. Let me simply describe the book in these terms, that it provides a near-perfect picture of the Catholic view of intellectuality. It offers a magisterial synthesis of all the great streams of Catholic thought, from the early thinkers in the Church, like Origen and Tertullian, to Augustine, and then on to Aquinas, Bonaventure and Scotus. It provides a worthy account of the ‘what’ of the Catholic religion’s view of reason. (Such syntheses, of course, are as bold as they are rare and fraught with the danger of misinterpretation.)
I could say a great deal of this specific reading path that Merton happened upon. All I will say, however, at this point is that it’s important to note that his approach to the Faith was one that involved matter (the ruins he came across in Southern France), feeling (the works great poets like Hopkins), and thought, especially Gilson’s presentation of it. None of these factors should be downplayed for sake of the others, and yet I want to point out, again, in relation to Gilson, how pivotal was Merton’s discovery of the Catholic ‘definition’ of God given by Aquinas. This is a great moment for anyone interested in evangelization and who wonders what role the Catholic intellectual tradition might be considered to have in this. Merton was profoundly impacted by Aquinas’ definition of God. Of this he wrote,
“I discovered an entirely new concept of God—a concept which showed me at once that the belief of Catholics was by no means the vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age that I had believed it to be. On the contrary, here was a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple, and accurate and, what is more, charged with implications which I could not even begin to appreciate, but which I could at least dimly estimate, even with my own lack of philosophical training.” (p. 189)
I tend to think that evangelists can aspire to not much else than to the clearing away of misconceptions. That means that the teacher must have the right conception, doesn’t it, if he is to be useful? This is always what I imagined myself to be capable of, if anything. Changing hearts by sheer force of my personality – that struck me as a seriously mistaken enterprise to take on and I cringe when I see evangelists trying that kind of thing. This is not to say that we cannot see evangelization as a spiritually dramatic event. But the apostles, for instance, never relied on their smiles, jokes and wit to cajole people toward God; they drew from God’s power for God’s glory. Note here the appearance of the phrase “dimly estimate.” Note the phrases, “I had believed” and “appreciate.” These take us close to the inner workings of Merton’s soul. These are the words that he uses to refer to man’s spiritual appetite. It is rationalistic, but not in any absolute sense, as I said, not in a sense that denotes that here we have but a disembodied mind. I think a great many of us can relate to how profoundly spiritually impacting the clearing away of false, anthropomorphic notions about God can be. I groan every time I listen to ‘atheists’ arguing with such things in mind. Ever since Socrates this has been a constant burden for theists to bear.
What does Merton’s youthful experience teach us about the soul’s relationship with God and how we can aid in that soul’s coming into closer relationship with God? First of all, Merton was an individual, and a reader must be attentive to what role his unique personality played in all of this. How can an individual stand for all souls before God? Again, referring back to Augustine, this is why Confessions is bereft of so many of the details of human life we moderns hope to find in it when we read it. The more Merton distinguishes himself as an individual, the less he can stand for ‘all.’ Sort of. Let’s consider Christ. He was a man in a particular time and place. How ought we to consider those details important? It’s easy to get this wrong by overstating it, on the one hand, and by understating it, on the other. (These are, respectively, the erroneous tendencies of liberals and conservatives.) All people are individual; there are no people who are not individuals. So that is the crux.
Merton arrives (finally, on page 351) at a Trappist monastery for a retreat. It impacts him profoundly. His description of the experience is beautiful and evangelistically powerful and important. But why should it strike a person that way? After all, the very idea of monasticism has offended great swathes of people over the centuries – the ‘practical’ people, like Protestants and Marxists. Why would it not strike Merton this way? Gradually the reader discovers Merton’s deep desire for silence and contemplation. This describes him as an individual first. But no Christian, I think, would dispute the essence of Augustine’s anthropology: Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We all desire rest. Rest appears to be an univocal concept, but I would argue it this way: in sin we are all different; in God we are all united, transformed into likeness, not likeness to some merely human prototype, but to the divine archetype. In other words, when we grow in virtue, in godliness, we grow in our desire for quiet. This won’t manifest itself in the same way or according to one pattern or process for everyone. This is how our individuality shows up and plays a role in God’s call. That why the story of one life is not the story of every life. And yet, because we have a common human nature, and a God who never changes, but is purely perfect always, we can speak of commonalities, which, in the end, is why books like this are valuable. For my part I have often been puzzled why people have such a great attachment to St. Therese. Even men. It would be a mistake to consider such men’s attachment as contrived or as a sign of dysfunction. (There is a temptation to do so.) Nevertheless, their attachment to her is as much a sign of their holiness as it is of the quirks in their personalities. We might say the same for certain men’s attachment to Chesterton. Of course, the desire to want to understand spiritual advancement as all of a kind is quite common. Think of those who hold out the Tridentine Mass as normative of a proper ‘spiritual personality.’ In some sense Merton holds out monastic life as the litmus test of spirituality. (Of course, he never comes anywhere close to being imperialistic about it.) I would tend to side with Merton. Others hold out the charismatic movement as that measure. Others hold out the outgoing evangelistic personality as the measure of being ‘in to’ and ‘with’ God. These are all errors of simplification, or the ‘fallacy of composition,’ where the part is made to stand for the whole. In other words, some holy people are outgoing evangelists, but to be an outgoing evangelist is not necessary for holiness or an essential mark of it.
There is not one mention of Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien or C. S. Lewis in this book. Bl. John Henry Newman hardly makes as appearance. This is a different history of intellectual conversion than many we have heard about in the twentieth century, as, for instance, I read about in Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts (reviewed in CRB, Spring, 2015). Those massive literary figures played no role whatever in Merton’s conversion. That is something that needs to be pointed out. There are many roads to heaven. How often do we hear about people being converted to Catholicism by Blake?!
Why I have laid all of this out within the context of evangelization can now be guessed at. What explains Seven Story Mountain’s popularity? I enjoyed it very much, but my enjoyment of it means less than I might otherwise take it to mean. No one should be so foolish as to think his own taste precisely coincides with God’s taste, that is to say, with objective truth. And yet the life of every person reveals something about humanity. Merton’s seems to have revealed more of this to more people than most works have ever been able to. As I quoted of Pascal in the Summer Issue,
“There is no surer sign of extreme weakness of mind than the failure to recognize the unhappy state of a man without God. There is no surer sign of an evil heart than failure to desire that the eternal promises be true.”
Let me apply this truth in this way: the popularity of a book with the good Catholic people is an apt sign of its innate goodness. I would not apply this to humanity indiscriminately. But the good Catholic people, the people of the sensus fidelium, the people who feel and have been formed by the Faith of Christ, love well the better things, to use Aquinas’ phrase. Jesus’ answer to the question as to whether He was the Messiah or not was “come and see,” that is to say, “come see how I live.” Just as good lives are the kinds appreciated by good people, so good books are the kind loved by good people. A priest I know always says that it’s time to go to confession when the Gospel seems repugnant to you. In other words, you are the one who changes, not the Gospel. If you cannot see good things as good, the problem does not lie with those good things. Merton stated at one point that some students he knew thought the Gospel’s teaching on humility was ridiculous. (p. 337) What does such an attitude reveal about a person? What does Merton’s love of silence reveal about him?
The evangelist—we should see by now—has to know people. He must be a psychologist. He will be as ineffective as an evangelist as his tendency to identify his own taste with God’s taste is strong. A true psychologist is an observer, but also a deep thinker. I hope it goes without saying that he does not use his special insights to manipulate people. Merton did not. A book is a very gentle, and thus respectful, means of evangelizing. Merton simply shared his experience. This does not mean that he has to confine himself to such nonsense as is denoted by the popular expression, ‘my truth.’ As I have said, Merton spoke in absolute terms. Yes, he confined himself to describing his own case, but the God he believed in was the God of all people. We can certainly say that Merton hit on something or somethings very rare and precious about our lives, our lives in God. Merton’s story has become the story of many, as has St. Therese’s, as has St. Augustine’s. Merton’s gift to the modern Church, I think is two-fold: it is the gift of a story of a perfectly typical young man’s discovery of God, and it is the gift of a hymn to monasticism. The Church needs monasticism. I agree with him when he speaks of the Abbey in Kentucky as “the cause and reason why the nation is holding together.” (p. 356) What powerful and yet true hyperbole! The record of the twentieth century has been one of radical secularization. We can point to but a few agencies that have worked against this secularizing. Seven Story Mountain’s celebration of monasticism is important among these.
Seven Story Mountain is interesting. It is a human interest story, for one. It is, more importantly, a profound story of a man’s coming into conscious relationship with God, one that no one can fault for being too heavy-handed or pedantic. It is full of touching and profound insights into the spiritual life. As I read I kept thinking about how different was his experience of God and religion from that caricatured in the media. Whose version is closer to the truth about man? Unlike Hollywood, Merton wasn’t pushing an agenda. He discovered a pearl of great price and was forced to call it that by no force other than his own inner-longings and by the grace of God.
So that is the big story. We can also find other, little but worthwhile, stories in this great book. It provides interesting glimpses into the state of the Church in the first half of the twentieth century, America’s entrance into World War Two, Cambridge University, New York – particularly the New York of 1930s Columbia University. He presents a valuable interpretation of Aquinas’ view of the religious life, that I found convincing, and wish I had read back when I used to teach the Summa. (pp. 453-8) Likewise, he includes a fascinating account of his encounter with our local hero, Catherine Doherty. (372-86)
A picture of Catherine Doherty taken by Thomas Merton
Is it possible for all of us to agree, to come to a place where it’s possible for us to agree, that monasticism is the heart of the Church? The timing of Seven Story Mountain is very peculiar, when you think about it. It was written in 1944, and this makes it an historical anomaly. After all, within twenty years the Church would be set into a context where ‘the spirit of the times’ was all that mattered, and constituted a law determining ecclesiastical practice. But, then again, many great books in our history did not appear when they were ‘supposed to.’ Merton’s paean of the spiritual life and of monasticism would undergo a very long period of gestation. But it was one that would prove fantastically fruitful. I don’t know if he was correct or not when he said that “America is discovering the contemplative life.” (p. 453) It depends what you mean by the word ‘discovering.’ I tend to think that this is wishful thinking in the sense in which he uses it in this book. I don’t think a significant section of people will ever know contemplation. But it is a goal we should strive for, since I agree with him that it is the goal of Christian life to talk with God face-to-face, as to a man.