A Vow of Conversation

Readers familiar with Merton’s classic THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, a semiautobiographical account of the writer’s intellectual odyssey from secularism to the austerity of a monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, may wonder at the title. As a Trappist monk, Merton had accepted the discipline of his order to a vow of silence. The writer’s “vow of conversation” (as we learn from Naomi Burton Stone’s perceptive introduction to the volume), however, is a play upon the words of one of five Cistercian vows: “conversion of manners.” This discipline implied “a vow to do always what is more perfect.”

In his journals, Merton’s quest is for the tranquillity that springs from perfect spirituality. He had come to believe that, for a person of his temperament, the condition of twentieth century hermit most nearly provides that spirituality. In his “conversations” with himself but also with his readers--for clearly Merton has an invisible audience in mind, even in the depths of his private meditations--he clarifies reasons for making this final choice of absolute isolation, absolute silence.

A political activist during the turbulent 1960’s, Merton was at the same time a conservative Catholic. Much of the power in his writings explodes from the tension between his liberal views of Church reform (he opposed all restraints upon the conscience) and his often reactionary theology (he favored the spread of hermitages as a spiritual defense against social corruption).

His journals of the period also record tensions between his diminishing physical strength and increasing moral self-confidence. Suffering from back troubles, throat hemorrhages, skin allergies, and eye problems, among other complaints, he nevertheless retained his spiritual stamina. During the vigil of his fiftieth birthday, he took stock of his life (in the entry for January 30, 1965), his victories and defeats. Few writers have understood their moral “sickness” or the corruption of their times so profoundly; few have written so engagingly about the solace of silence as a key to perceiving the inner life.