The Seven Storey Mountain

by Thomas Merton

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.

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