Review – The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
This book was a best-seller when it was published in 1948, and remained popular for many years. It is usually referred to as the autobiography of a Trappist monk, but that is misleading. The book ends shortly after Merton becomes a monk, and says almost nothing about his monastic existence. It is almost entirely concerned with his prior life.
Merton was what we now call a seeker, someone seeking spiritual enlightenment. Initially, they find it in one place or another, but this is only temporary. They become disillusioned, and switch to a different religion. This process is repeated ad nauseum. Theirs is an endless search, punctuated by brief periods of ecstatic delusion.
Merton started off as a non-religious slacker who received a large inheritance. We don’t know how much, but his younger brother continued to live very well off his share, while Thomas squandered his relatively quickly. At first, he traveled. Sightseeing in Rome, he toured some historic churches, whose mosaics almost triggered his first conversion: “These mosaics told me more than I had ever known of the doctrine of a God of infinite power, wisdom, and love Who had yet become Man, and revealed in his Manhood the infinity of power, wisdom, and love that was his Godhead” (p. 121). That’s quite a lot to take away from some tiles. But he also did some reading:
“I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day. Soon I was no longer visiting them merely for the art. There was something else that attracted me: a kind of interior peace. I loved to be in these holy places. I had a kind of deep and strong conviction that I belonged there: that my rational nature was filled with profound desires and needs that could only find satisfaction in churches of God” (p. 122).
Merton’s “rational nature” could only find satisfaction among the mosaics and other architectural details of churches. That’s like saying that his adventurous nature could only find satisfaction in a sensory deprivation tank; there is nothing rational about religious mosaics and architecture. They were designed to elicit awe, and in Merton’s case, they succeeded. We will find that Merton’s rational nature was miniscule and easily filled.
In spite of his profound satisfaction with the churches, he did not convert. But on his way back to the United States, he suddenly found new inspiration: “I was in the thick of conversion. It was not the right conversion, but it was a conversion. Perhaps it was a lesser evil. I do not doubt much that it was. But it was not, for all that, much of a good. I was becoming a Communist” (p. 145). He managed to outgrow it before doing any witnessing or organizing or anything beyond chit-chatting with his friends. Nonetheless, it left a last impression:
“It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness…. there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.…
Being the son of an artist, I was born the sworn enemy of everything that could obviously be called ‘bourgeois,’ and now I only had to dress up that aversion in economic terms and extend it cover more ground than it had covered before – namely, to include anything that could be classified as semi-fascist… and I had my new religion all ready from immediate use….
It told me that all the evils in the world were the product of capitalism. Therefore, all that had to be done to get rid of the evils of the world was to get rid of capitalism. This would not be very hard, for capitalism contained the seeds of its own decay (and that indeed is a very obvious truth which nobody would trouble to deny, even some of the most stupid defenders of the system now in force: for our was are altogether too eloquent in what they have to say on the subject)’ (pp. 147-8).
Remarkably, just as the Nazis were taking over Germany, and the Communists were spilling lots of proletarian blood, Merton concluded that “all the evils in the world were the product of capitalism.” But even after growing disillusioned with Communism - for no apparent reason - he realized “I must now devote myself to the good of society, and apply my mind, at least to some extent, to the tremendous problems of my time’ (p. 149).
Speaking of evil, Merton offers up a confession: “Did I know that my own sins were enough to have destroyed the whole of England and Germany? There has never yet been a bomb invented that is half so powerful as one mortal sin-and yet there is no positive power in sin, only negation, only annihilation: and perhaps that is why it is so destructive, it is a nothingness, and where it is, there is nothing left- a blank, a moral vacuum” (p. 141). Merton is strong on bombast, weak on sense. After all the destruction caused by bombs of all sorts – including the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Mr. Merton assures us that a mortal sin - like masturbation or perhaps the use of a condom - is far worse. I wonder how he felt about pederasty?
One of his friends suggested he check out the Catholic Church. Those old feelings aroused by the mosaic tiles returned, and a priest recommended some books:
“I sat for hours with the big quarto volumes of the Jesuit Father Wieger’s French translations of hundreds of strange oriental texts. I have forgotten the titles, even the authors, and I never understood a word of what they said in the first place…. The strange great jumble of myths and theories and moral aphorisms and elaborate parables made little or no real impression on my mind, except that I put the books down with the impression that mysticism was something very esoteric and complicated, and that we were all inside some huge Being in whom we were involved and out of whom we evolved, and the thing to do was to involve ourselves back in to him again by a system of elaborate disciplines more or less to the control of our own will” (p.205).
In other words, he stared for hours at books without understanding a word. But he loved it! It was like he was on an acid trip, and kept saying, The colors! The colors! The vibes!!! What’s more, this mindless trip formed the basis for his religious pursuits – “the thing to do” was to develop “elaborate disciplines” to better deal with this “huge Being.”
Eventually, he got to the point where he could read and more-or-less comprehend the Christian Bible. He found the Truth:
“Jesus Christ was not simply a man, a good man, a great man, the greatest prophet, a wonderful healer, a saint: He was something that made all such trivial words pale into irrelevance. He was God…. He was also truly a man, born of the Flesh of the Most Pure Virgin, formed of her Flesh by the Holy Spirit….
And how do we know? Because it was revealed to us in the Scriptures and confirmed by the teaching of the Church and of the powerful unanimity of the Catholic Tradition from the First Apostles, from the first Popes and the early Fathers, on down through the Doctor of the Church and the great scholastics” (p. 229).
Jesus was God but also truly a man, born of the Most Pure Virgin. How do we know? The Bible tells us so, and generations of leaders of the Catholic Church kept repeating it. What more proof could you ask for? This is the great mind at work. This is the mind that so impressed Americans of the 1950s, at which time Oral Roberts, a faith healer and snake handler, had the most popular show on television. (Note that three of the four Gospels did not say that Jesus was God, and basically contradicted that claim. But Father Merton ignored that.)
Merton attended a Catholic mass and was transformed: “All I know is that I walked in a new world…. everywhere was peace in these streets designed for violence and noise” (p. 231). When people speak of Merton the Trappist monk, a contemplative, there is a clear implication of intellectual activity. But one of the striking things about Merton is the absence of such intellectual activity. He is a hysterical personality, operating almost completely on an emotional level. Because he favors polysyllables and long, run-on sentences, people are apparently misled.
Soon after this, he became a Catholic. He tells us: “One of the big defects of my spiritual life in that first year was a lack of devotion to the Mother of God…. People do not realize the tremendous power of the Blessed Virgin. They do not know who she is: that is it through her hands all graces come because God has willed that she thus participate in His work for the salvation of men” (p. 251). Here he did not cite any Scripture, probably because these claims are not scriptural. The claim that “through Her hand all graces come” contradicts both Scripture and early Church teachings, but Merton was easily indoctrinated.
Here is another striking example of Merton’s “wisdom.”
“In so far as men are prepared to prefer their own will to God’s will, they can be said to hate God: for of course they cannot hate Him in Himself. But they hate Him in the Commandments which they violate. But God is our life: God’s will is our food, our meat, our life’s bread. To hate our life is to enter into death, and therefore the prudence of the flesh is death” (p. 252).
I’ll leave you to contemplate this.
Merton assures us that following God’s will has many benefits. For example, “I remember when I took my exams for the M.A., I went to Communion two days in a row, and both days I was very happy, and also I did quite well in the examinations” (p. 256). Similarly, “What I eventually found out was that as soon as I started to fast and deny myself pleasures and devote time to prayer and meditation and to the various exercises that belong to the religious life, I quickly got over all my bad health, and became sound and strong and immensely happy” (p. 287).
A friend told Thomas Merton about a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Merton knew nothing about it, but decided to go on retreat there. Several years later, he returned to become a novice, an apprentice monk. He says little about “the various exercises that belong to the religious life” there. Presumably, the Trappists knew more about such matters than Merton previously discovered on his own. But not long after entering the monastery, Father Merton was sick much of the time, and spent a lot of time in the hospital. By the grace of God, he forgot this, and failed to make the kinds of “logical” conclusions he previously did.
Merton never lived the life of a typical Trappist monk. Shortly after entering, he began writing this book, and before long, had a best-seller on his hands. (Actually, the Church had all rights to the work, including profits.) The monastery developed a thriving tourist business, and Merton was a major attraction.
As the book ends, Merton becomes a monk, and is given a new name. He contemplates his split personality with his old identity of Thomas Merton: “this is a situation in which my double, my shadow, my enemy, Thomas Merton, the old man of the sea, has things in his favor. If he suggests books about the Order, his suggestions are heard. If he thinks up poems to be printed and published, his thoughts are listened to. There seems to be no reason why he should not write for magazines” (p. 451). In other words, he is not living the life of a monk, but rather of the author Thomas Merton, who is housed in a monastery. He is also a celebrity who does a good deal of traveling, unlike the other monks.
The Seeker Continues
The book only covers Merton’s first few years in the monastery, and actually says little about that, since he was leading a very non-monkish existence. But I was curious, and did a little research. First, Father Merton not only omitted some sordid behavior prior to his conversion, he omitted some sordid behavior after he became a monk and was hospitalized.
More importantly, while the book tries to convey the impression that becoming a monk ushered in enlightenment, peace, and tranquility, this was not the case – at least not for long. Merton the Seeker soon began seeking again. Before he (accidentally) electrocuted himself in a bathtub, he began studying with Suzuki - a famous Zen Buddhist teacher and author. In all likelihood, Thomas Merton would have converted yet again had he remained alive.
While the 1950s have a reputation of being very religious and straight-laced, that was not the whole truth. Yes, a historically high percentage of Americans went to church, and Oral Roberts became a superstar. But the best paid entertainer of the decade was Liberace, a raving queen. Some of the biggest stars, like Rock Hudson and the recently-deceased Tab Hunter, were also quite gay.
This was the height of the atomic age, when many were digging bomb shelters, and Billy Graham was traveling the world, telling millions of desperate people to come to Jesus right now before those Godless commies blow up the world. While it is largely forgotten today, a great many people thought the world was about to end. It was a popular theme across all media. People began drinking three-martini lunches. Membership in the KKK swelled.
On the surface, things looked as straight-laced as President Eisenhower. But beneath the surface, there chaos and deviance, like Vice President Nixon. But there was nothing like our President Trump.