(Kind of) Book Review Wednesday: Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain

10 January 2007

I’ve picked up Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, mainly because my friends Jason and Chris are reading it. Last spring, I went on a serious Merton bender: The Silent Life, The Sign of Jonas, The Monastic Journey, A Vow of Conversation, and The Secular Journals. I like Merton, although not necessarily for the reason a lot of people like him.

I get the impression that people like Merton because late in his life he studied Zen Buddhism; he was the Catholic monk who “dabbled” or studied things that many Catholics do. I like Merton because he stands in very distinct opposition to the stereotypical idea of the clergyman, especially the Catholic clergyman, and the monk. Far from being a skinny, weak, effeminate person of quiet piety, Merton was a lively, affable, strong, masculine struggler, in the sense of the Russian word podvizhnik.

He’s a pretty happy person in his journals, but I think that’s because of his struggles earlier in life. Reading The Seven Storey Mountain, I’m struck by how . . . unsympathetic his younger self seems. I’m not sure if “unsympathetic” is the right word. He’s not likeable, but not particularly unlikeable, either. The early Merton of Seven Storey Mountain seems like a fairly unremarkable, well-off bon vivant. Maybe “bland” is a better word. He’s pretty hard on his early self, but that’s not surprising considering the austere life of penance he was called to.

What’s really surprising is that, somewhere between his arrival in America and his conversion to Catholicism, the reader begins to care about Merton. As a child and a young man, Merton is not an inspiring figure. For all his difficulities or struggles, the reader does not feel invested in them. And then, suddenly, you care about this guy. The reader even likes him.

Even though Merton becomes a remarkably devout Catholic for years before he enters the monastery, he is likeable in a way that many holy people, especially in literature, aren’t. The popular conception of a holy person is an image of a fairly boring and annoyingly pious person. The impression the post-conversion Merton makes is of a vital and vigorous person living quietly but happily, a person most people would want to be friends with.

If you have never read The Seven Story Mountain, read it. If you read it years ago, and many have, pick it up again. If it’s a re-read, you can skim the first few chapters.


7 Responses to “(Kind of) Book Review Wednesday: Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain”

  1. Tripp Says:

    My grandfather (the baptist preacher) gave me a copy before I started seminary the first time in Richmond. I was astounded that a 30 year old had that much to say about himself. It was quite the purging.

    But it hooked me on Merton. It was the first I read of his work. From there on I have really only read his (New) Seeds for Contemplation and his journals. I have read none of his poetry or the Zen stuff. It holds little attraction to me. For some reason Zen never has. Curious.

  2. Zen has never really captured my imagination either. Neither has Merton’s poetry; it’s possible I have just never read or encountered the right poems.

    When I have looked at Buddhism, the Theravedans are really the one’s that strike a cord with me.

    People seem to really like Zen, but for me the Theravedans are really interesting.

  3. Scott Says:

    For compelling stories of personal experiences of Zen, both sympathetic and ambivalent, I like the books of Janwillem van de Wetering. They capture what it’s like to attempt to go hardcore with monthlong Zen retreats and what happens to the mind during long meditations. And what fun it is to break the rules to stave off insanity. 🙂 The books are listed here:

  4. Chris Says:

    Reading Zen koans and other texts of the like remind me of reading a good prose poem. They also remind me somewhat of reading the sayings of the desert fathers. Actually, they pretty much are the same thing. They just go deeper into the antilogic.

  5. Jason Says:

    Oddly, I just finished the book on the train ride home about 10 minutes ago, and here I find this.

    It is such a remarkable book, and perhaps for me in different ways as well. As someone with little to no knowledge of the Catholic experience until recently, it’s been a great introduction. Beyond that, though, what I find most remarkable is that Merton, in this book, writes of his experience and understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a way that I’ve never seen it done before. He implicitly expresses the magnitutude of what that means; he conveys through his experience (rather than through preaching) what a revolutionary change of life, mind, and action that is really expected of a Christian.

    And yet, as you say, he does it in a way that is utterly relatable. He describes the slow discovering and wrestling he experiences in a way that would, I think, resound with any not-annoyingly-and-self-assured-pious person, your average lay person. For example, I love his description of the error he fell into after his initial conversion: as if his life would now continue on in relatively the same fashion, but with this new delightful element of the supernatural: polite prayers, the invigoration of the Eucharist, a pleasant sense, every now and then, of God’s presence in a pretty landscape. I don’t mean to suggest there is anything wrong with any of those things, but Christ was a radical, not merely a comfort.

    I was raised in a household well-saturated with Christianity (extreme Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian, mostly–always worried that his parents would get raptured without him), and I have never encountered such an experience of Christian living as he describes. And I’ve been experiencing this every morning and evening commute for weeks. I told Chris today that I only had a dozen pages left, and I was worried that this ineffable sense might slip away without Merton traveling with me to and from work. (Thank God for that back catalog.) Forgive me if I’m getting a bit hyperbolic, but I just finished the book and I’m still riding that high.

    What I worry about with Merton, though, is how much of his descriptions and experience and prescriptions (subtle ones) are exclusive to the religious vocation. Finding the balance is a challenge he doesn’t address in this book, nor would it be appropriate for him to.

    Anyway, I’ll end with a passage I read this morning that was most remarkable: “By the gift of faith, you touch God, you enter into contact with his very substance and reality, in darkness: because nothing accessible, nothing comprehensible to our senses and reason can grasp His essence as it is in itself. But faith transcends all these limitations, and does so without labor: for it is God Who reveals Himself to us, and all that is required of us is the humility to accept His revelation, and accept it on the conditions under which it comes to us from the lips of men.”

  6. Chris Says:

    Yeah, Merton does give me the idea that I should be living radically differently. How does one do that without dedicating oneself to solitude and turning away from the world? A practical application seems to be living simply. Whatever living simply means to you will alter the world. Merton hammers home the idea that everyone is responsible for everything that is happening between people in the world. He feels personal responsibility for the rise of Fascism.

    Its just a place to start in the practical world, but simple living is a good place to start. Praying the office, too.

    There is a Buddhist teaching about the importance of living alone within society. One lives alone by taking out time to observe oneself, to meditate, and to not engage in mindless chat or activity. This too seems to be a good place to start on the road Merton is prescribing.

  7. Jason,

    It sounds as if The Seven Storey Mountain was a profound experience. One of the great things about Merton is that he wasn’t perfect and has very little shame about that. He tells you how and when he would mess up, and how sometimes he was frustrated, or scared, whatever, which is exactly how we all feel and which is exactly the opposite of how we think “holy people” are.

    I think Merton’s experience is exclusive to a religious vocation, but only in a certain sense. We all have a religious vocation: for some of it is to live as members of the clergy or some religious order, but for many —probably most— our religious vocation is to live in the world. Being in the world but not of it is a real challenge, and I think that’s the vocation that Merton tries to live after he decides not to enter the Franciscans.

    During Merton’s time at St. Bonaventure’s and in Harlem, he was trying to do just that, live a religious vocation in the world. Everyone has a religious vocation, so the challenge is to discern that vocation and to live it. For some, it will be social work in Harlem, for others it might be a vocation that is quite personal. Solitude is not necessary for a religious vocation, although some religious vocations require solitude.

    If you liked this one, pick up The Sign of Jonas. I found it very enjoyable and a fairly quick read; it’s in diary form, although I get the sense that it is highly edited and revised.

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