The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968. He accidentally electrocuted himself on a large floor fan that had been faultily wired. Had Merton lived another six weeks, he would have reached his fifty-fourth birthday. Exactly one-half of his life had been spent at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist foundation in rural north-central Kentucky, near Bardstown. As early as 1953, Merton sensed that he needed to live as a hermit, and in 1965 his abbot officially recognized Merton’s retirement into complete solitude in a small cinderblock on the grounds of the monastery.
A poet, novelist, and professor of English at Bowling Green State University (Ohio), Michael Mott has produced a meticulous biography, the text of which runs to nearly six hundred pages. Confronted with a volume of this size, the potential reader will want some preliminary justification. How much can one say about a life devoted mainly to godly silence? Merton was a remarkably prolific poet, essayist, theologian, and social critic. His writings might then necessitate an intellectual biography, but Mott insists that this is not what he has written. Thus questions remain: Can there be a history of a Cistercian cenobite who gradually became an anchorite? If so, can this be anything more than a chronicle of spiritual mood changes and “monastery politics”?
The answer to both questions is yes. If anything, Mott’s book is too short. His account of Merton’s first twenty-seven years makes up only one-third of the book, and these years are truly fascinating ones. Nevertheless, Mott’s strategy here is excusable because this is the very period covered in Merton’s famous autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), perhaps the finest spiritual life writing of the twentieth century. The story is so unusual and provocative that even Mott’s two-hundred-page effort is not quite enough. By the end of his life, Merton was as close to being the “universal human” as one is ever likely get, and the seeds of this universality were sown early in his life.
Merton’s father was a New Zealander and his mother was American. His upbringing took place in France, the United States, Bermuda, and England. To his native bilingualism Merton gradually added competencies in Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese. At Columbia University—where he went after a chaotic sojourn at Cambridge University—most of his friends were Jewish. Reared a Protestant, he went through a long period of religious indifference which even included a flirtation with Marxism. His upper-middle-class standing did not completely protect him from economic realities, for his father’s vocation as a landscape painter brought little income. Merton’s mother died when he was only six years old, and by age fifteen he was an orphan. He rarely enjoyed long stretches of good health; in 1941, he failed the military-service examination because he had too few teeth. Unlike most undergraduates of his day, he was sexually experienced and may even have fathered an illegitimate child.
Such inherently dramatic settings and tensions furnish rich material for the biographer, but to his great credit Mott manages to make the post-conversion, “hidden life” of Merton no less interesting. For readers unfamiliar with monastic life in general, and Trappist practice in particular, Mott’s account of life at Our Lady of Gethsemani provides revelations. Merton chose the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance over the Benedictines and the Franciscans precisely because the Cistercians seemed to require of him the greatest sacrifice. He was not disappointed.
Committed to silence (except during worship, community business meetings, and certain work situations), Merton had to learn to use Trappist sign language for ordinary social interaction. He was allowed no “Particular Friendships” with other monks, yet he nevertheless lived in the closest proximity with his brothers in Christ. In tiny cells created by curtains, the men slept in their woolen habits on straw-filled pallets. To fulfill the Cistercian demand for penance, each monk kept a small whip, to be used on the bare back every Friday. Mirrors were forbidden. All mail, incoming or outgoing, was read. Eggs, fish, and meat were not served in the refectory. Travel was almost completely ruled out, even to the funeral of a parent. Worship consumed nearly one-third of the monastery day. Because the monastery attempted to support itself through various farming...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)