Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
The Seven Storey Mountain is the 1948 autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who gained fame through his literary talents and later became an active and influential figure in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
The author first recounts his peripatetic childhood after the early death of his mother, pinballing between France and the U.S. with his father who was a professional artist. Since his father was a non-practicing Anglican, Merton grew up without any real religious belief. When he was ten years old, the boy's father enrolled him in a French boarding school where his gift for writing was first recognized and encouraged. With his father's death when Merton was 15, he came under the guardianship of Dr. Thomas Bennett, a friend of his father.
By means of the doctor's affluence and often reluctant patronage, Merton was able to live a more expansive life. Upon going up to Cambridge, the future Trappist began an intensive period of drinking and womanizing, the details of which were heavily censored by the Trappists prior to publication. One sad by-product of this period was an illegitimate child; the case was quietly settled by Bennett. The doctor and Merton agreed that it would be best for all that he leave Cambridge, and he would soon join his grandparents in the United States and enroll in Columbia University.
At Columbia, Merton came into his own as a person and literary talent, studying with noted professor, Mark Van Doren, and forging lifelong friendships with editor Ed Rice and poet Robert Lax. During this time, Merton was living the typical social life of a college student of that era in New York: going to jazz clubs, movies, etc. while keeping his appetite for liquor and women under somewhat better control. At the same time, his interest in religion, particularly Catholicism, began to grow. After reading The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ, the idea of possibly entering religious life became increasingly attractive to him.
At length, Merton came to believe that becoming a Trappist monk was his true vocation, and he was accepted by the order in 1941 at the age of 26, embracing their austere discipline of silent prayer and manual labor. His superior, Abbot Frederic Dunne, soon became aware of Merton's literary gifts, and began to employ him in writing theological texts and lives of the saints. He also insisted that Merton continue with his own writing, including poetry and journals, whose publication would be facilitated by his friends Lax and Rice. Eventually, this writing would also encompass The Seven Storey Mountain.
Near the end of this early summary of his life and shortly after he had entered the monastery at Gethsemanai, Merton wrote a sentence that summarizes his response to the horrors of the recent war and presages the courageous social activism of his later years.
I became a true citizen of my own disgusting century: the century of poison gas and atomic bombs. A man living on the doorsill of the Apocalypse, a man with veins full of poison, living in death.
Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1516
First published: 1948
Edition(s) used: The Seven Storey Mountain. 50th anniversary ed. Introduction by Robert Giroux. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998
Core issue(s): Conversion; faith; God; grace; monasticism; self-abandonment
Like Saint Augustine of Hippo of the fourth century, the twentieth century Thomas Merton experienced a remarkable conversion in his young adulthood and became an influential Catholic writer and mystic. Merton’s autobiography describes his life from childhood through his adult conversion to Roman Catholicism and entrance into a monastery.
The title and format of the autobiography was inspired by Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 vols.; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Like The Divine Comedy, Merton’s biography is divided into three parts: The first describes his life without God (“Hell”); the second, the beginning of his search for God (“Purgatory”); and the third, his baptism and entrance into a monastic order (“Paradise”). In retrospect, Merton’s life and that of the narrator of The Divine Comedy followed a similar pattern. That narrator begins the poem in the middle of his life, and Merton wrote The Seven Storey Mountain in the middle of his life; he died at the untimely age of fifty-three.
Merton relates that he was born at the beginning of World War I in France to artist parents. He spent his early childhood in the United States. He lost his mother at the age of six and his father while he was in high school. Several people around him, including a French farming family, exemplified good living and happiness, but Merton had no real conception of God or rightful living. He was educated in secular schools in France and England. One of his teachers equated the Christian idea of charity to the concept of gentlemanliness.
Merton recalls that he spent most of his time at Cambridge University in debauchery; perhaps the only good thing that happened that year was that he was introduced to The Divine Comedy. His reputation ruined, he left England for Columbia University in New York.
It seems to me that I was armored and locked in within my . . . self by seven layers of imperviousness, the capital sins of which only the fires of Purgatory or of Divine Love . . . can burn away.
At Columbia, Merton continued his carefree ways but found them increasingly unsatisfying. Recognizing that modern society promoted materialism, selfishness, and irresponsibility, he briefly supported sit-ins against war and capitalism. He also made his first true friends and found a mentor, Professor Mark Van Doren. Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means (1937) convinced Merton of the importance of spirituality, and he explored the mysticism of the East. The works of William Blake, which he had decided to use as the basis for his master’s thesis, convinced him of the importance of faith. Finally, a Hindu monk advised him to read medieval and contemporary Catholic philosophy.
Merton describes a pivotal moment when, as a graduate student in 1938, he decided to attend a Catholic mass. He states that an inner voice told him to go. He was impressed by the piety of everyday people and the solemnity and ritual of the services. The sermon, concerning the divinity of Christ, the importance of grace, and the history of the Catholic Church, was the grace that inspired Merton to seek God further. He was awakening spiritually for the first time in his life.
A few weeks later, Merton sought guidance from a local priest. His faith developed through meditation, contemplation, and reading of spiritual authors. However, he recalls that he was just beginning his spiritual quest, beginning the purification he characterized as climbing the “seven storey mountain” of Dante’s Purgatory. The mountain is a powerful biblical image of faith and covenant: Noah’s ark landed on a mountain, Moses received the Ten Commandments on a mountain, and Jesus was seen with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.
Baptism was an initial step toward God, but not a sufficient one, Merton says. At first, he became convinced of his weakness and helplessness without God’s grace. However, he did not seek out more grace by asking for spiritual advice or by attending Mass and communion daily, so he slid into everyday indifference and lived as he had before baptism. He thought that an intellectual conversion was enough to ensure spirituality. He developed understanding of the life of Jesus; Mary, Mother of God; and many saints, such as Francis of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux. He began to think that he was called to the priesthood.
Merton recalls that he continued writing and teaching but prayed more earnestly and immersed himself in the spiritual and grace-filled life of the Catholic Church. Rebuffed by the Franciscan order, he nonetheless began reciting the daily prayers the Catholic Church required of all priests. The oncoming horror of World War II haunted him. He worked briefly with Catherine de Hueck, who had organized Christian service work in New York’s Harlem. Finally, in 1941, he was admitted to the Cistercian (Trappist) monastery as a postulant; the Cisterian Order is a cloistered order of monks totally devoted to prayer, contemplation, and manual labor. “I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself, and to belong to Him is to be free.” In giving all to God, he says, he had climbed the many-layered mountain and found paradise.
Merton’s religious themes are centered in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic spirituality and theology, but much of his writing concerns universal Christian ideas. A chief theme is the importance of grace. Life is empty without God and offers only empty pleasures and inescapable woes. Modern society enslaves its members with distractions and material goods; self-sacrifice can help people distance themselves from the false promises of the world. According to Merton, only through the sanctifying grace of God, which is the full participation in God’s life that supports us to good actions, can peace and happiness be found. Natural goodness is transformed by grace to bring us and others closer to God. Grace thus saves us and allows us to become our best selves.
As Merton experienced it, conversion was preceded by grace-filled moments provided by good people, reading and contemplation, and the inspiration of an “inner voice” that directed him to carry out his thoughts. However, even baptism was not sufficient for true conversion. After his baptism, Merton continued acting as he had previously. Only after a while did he realize that conversion means conversion of every moment of each day, of turning toward God in thought and action constantly. Conversion means disregarding the concerns of the world, even denying pleasures to one’s self. Conversion means abandoning the self to the will of God; understanding this led Merton to decide to join a monastery and become a priest.
Inherent in Merton’s choice is the traditional Christian choice between contemplative prayer and good works. The parable of Martha and Mary from the New Testament exemplifies the issue. Merton did social service work in Harlem and anticipated doing more social service if he did not join a monastery, but he believed that prayer and contemplation were the necessary underpinnings to any fruitful actions in the world. The sacrifices of the contemplative monks were the basis for much of the good in the world. Contemplation, rather than action, was clearly the better choice. Later in his life, Merton, while still in the cloister, would campaign against social injustice and war, stating that there is no true division between contemplation and social action.
True happiness and true freedom come from giving all to God. The giving is easy and the rewards are great, says Merton. While this involves a kind of loss of self, in the end it allows for growth of the real self in God.
Sources for Further Study
- Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Merton’s life and thought after he entered the monastery, including his development during the civil and spiritual changes of the 1960’s.
- Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Discusses connections between Catholic authors Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, three of whom were converts.
- Pennington, M. Basil, ed. I Have Seen What I Was Looking For. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2005. Merton wrote more than seventy works; this book presents excerpts from his writings organized by major themes.
- Shannon, William H. Thomas Merton: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005. An excellent introduction to Merton’s life and works, with a fairly detailed discussion of The Seven Storey Mountain.
- Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, and Patrick F. O’Connell, eds. The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. Useful for both the scholar and the serious reader of Merton.
- Zuercher, Suzanne. Merton: An Enneagram Profile. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2001. A study that links Merton’s biography, personality, and spirituality as a search for one’s true self in connection with God.