In the beginning of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton portrays himself as a prisoner of a materialistic world. This comparison of the modern world to a prison has struck many readers as excessive. The eminent British writer Evelyn Waugh published a thoroughly revised version of The Seven Storey Mountain under the title Elected Silence in 1949. Waugh eliminated what he considered the exaggerations in both Merton’s style and his assessment of the world outside his monastery. Although Waugh did improve certain passages in Merton’s book, Merton believed that the urbane and refined style preferred by Waugh could not properly convey to readers his visceral reaction to his experiences before and after his conversion. Merton wanted the readers of The Seven Storey Mountain to understand that his life would have been meaningless had he not received the gift of faith from God; his conversion had radically transformed his perception of the world.
The Seven Storey Mountain has been favorably compared to such classic autobiographies as those of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Saint Augustine, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Such praise of Merton’s autobiography is entirely appropriate because he also analyzed with almost brutal honesty the weaknesses and strengths of his character. Merton never attempted to mislead his readers by presenting himself in an overly positive light. His subjective analysis of his own life never seems artificial. His consistent attempt to understand the true motivation for his moral choices persuades his readers both to respect Merton’s perception of the world and to appreciate the universal elements in Merton’s spiritual and psychological growth: The chronological structure of this autobiography enables the reader to understand the gradual changes which caused Thomas Merton to convert to Roman Catholicism and then to enter a cloistered monastery.
Thomas Merton had a difficult childhood. He was born near the Spanish border in the French village of Prades on January 31, 1915. His parents were both artists, and they moved frequently. His mother, an American, would die in 1921 and his father, a New Zealander, would die nearly ten years later. Merton spent his childhood and adolescence in France, England, Bermuda, and the United States but never felt at home anywhere. The artificiality and selfishness of modern society depressed him. Because of his profound sense of alienation, Merton yielded to many self-destructive urges: After he entered the University of Cambridge in 1933, he began to drink heavily and then fathered a child out of wedlock. Both his former mistress and their son would die during a Nazi air raid on London. While writing his autobiography, Merton recalled that a friend from Cambridge had committed suicide. He became convinced that only the grace of God had protected him from a similar fate and that he had accomplished nothing positive during his years in England. He moved to America in 1934, never again returning to Europe. In this first section of The Seven Storey Mountain, the despair and alienation which many people felt after the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of World War II is powerfully and movingly expressed.
In the second part of The Seven Storey Mountain , Merton reveals that he needed both divine grace and the moral support of his friends in order to grow spiritually. After Merton arrived in the United States, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he met two professors, Mark Van Doren and Dan Walsh, who profoundly influenced his personal development. Van Doren taught Merton to think critically, to value truth for itself, and to distrust all forms of specious reasoning. Ironically, Merton had never intended to meet Van Doren. At the...
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beginning of his junior year at Columbia, Merton went to the wrong classroom. When Van Doren came in and started talking, Merton decided to take that course instead of his intended history course. Merton viewed this fortuitous accident as part of a divine plan to help him accept the gift of faith. Van Doren, who was a Protestant, became one of Merton’s closest friends, corresponding with him for years and often visiting him at Gethsemani. Although he did not share Merton’s religious beliefs, Van Doren strongly supported both his conversion to Catholicism and his decision to enter the monastery. Whenever he had personal problems, Merton knew that Van Doren would be there to help and guide him.
Another close friend from Columbia was Robert Lax. He encouraged Merton to take a course on medieval Scholasticism which Dan Walsh, a visiting professor of philosophy from Sacred Heart College, was to teach at Columbia. Walsh taught Merton that no opposition need exist between the acceptance of traditional Christian beliefs and the philosophical search for truth. After he became a Catholic, Merton spoke to Walsh of his interest in the priesthood, and Walsh suggested the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani. At first, Merton rejected this suggestion, but within two years he would become a Trappist. Most of his friends at Columbia were not Catholic. Nevertheless, they attended his baptism in 1938. Eleven years later, his Columbia friends would travel to Gethsemani for his ordination. Friendship enriched Merton’s life and gave him the inner peace which he needed in order to accept the gift of faith. Whatever their religious beliefs, his readers can identify with Merton’s thoughtful analysis of the close link between friendship and the search for happiness.
The third part of The Seven Storey Mountain describes his reasons for entering the Cistercian monastery and the great joy which active contemplation brought to him there. After considering several religious orders, he at first rejected the cloistered life. Nevertheless, after many conversations with his friends from Columbia and two retreats in Cistercian monasteries, Merton concluded that only the contemplative life would enable him to grow spiritually. He wrote to Gethsemani and was accepted for what he was: a rake whom the free gift of faith had transformed into a fervent believer. At Gethsemani, Merton would experience for the first time the pleasures of true emotional and intellectual satisfaction.
When Merton reached Gethsemani on December 10, 1941, he saw the words Pax intrantibus (peace to those who enter) inscribed over the entrance gate. In Merton’s mind, this Latin greeting defined the paradoxical nature of the monastic life. The numerous and often-petty rules in a contemplative order are in fact designed to bring monks inner peace by freeing them from the artificiality of the materialistic world. Thus, the peace he wished to acquire was the wisdom to accept everything as part of the divine plan. Yet this trust in divine providence would soon be severely tested.
Only a few months after his arrival at Gethsemani, he was called to his abbot’s office. Merton’s brother, John Paul, then a sergeant in the British army, had come to the abbey in order to receive religious instruction, wanting to be baptized as soon as possible. By a curious coincidence, Father James Fox, who would serve as Thomas’ abbot and spiritual mentor from 1948 until early 1968, was asked to prepare John Paul for baptism. As his newly baptized brother was walking away from the monastery, Thomas suddenly realized that they “would never see each other on earth again.” Within a year the recently married John Paul was killed in action. Thomas coped with his grief first by praying and then by writing “Sweet Brother, If I Do Not Sleep.” His complete acceptance of divine benevolence persuaded Thomas that John Paul’s “unhappy spirit” had finally been called “home” by God. Only a brief epilogue, “Meditatio Pauperis in Solitudine” (meditation of a poor man in solitude), follows this powerful analysis of the last meeting between Thomas Merton and his only sibling.