(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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,...

(The entire section is 858 words.)