The Seven Storey Mountain

by Thomas Merton
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

The Seven Storey Mountain was written by Thomas Merton and first published in 1948. It marks Merton's emergence as a writing force to be reckoned with. The Seven Storey Mountain is an autobiographical work which tracks Merton's life from his early childhood through the present day. Merton splits his book into three separate sections. He chose to do this in reference to Dante's The Divine Comedy, which also has three sections.

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The first section of the book covers Merton's life before he found God, which is a period of time he describes as "hell." The second section of the book focuses on the "purgatory" stage of Merton's life. This part of the book covers his search for God and for meaning in his life. Finally, the last section of the book covers the "paradise" portion of his life. This part occurs after Merton found God, was baptized, and entered into a monastery.

The Seven Storey Mountain was praised at its release for Merton's distinctive direct and unpretentious writing style. The story of how divine grace helped Merton move from the lowest level of spiritual understanding to the highest has continued to delight readers on their own spiritual quests to this day.

Merton was born in France but moved to Long Island because of World War I. After his mother died in 1921, Merton moved back to France with his father, who was a painter. However, his father died in 1930, and Merton was left with minimal supervision but a financially supportive grandfather. This led to a period in his life that Merton describes as pure debauchery. The story of his life is an inspiring one because it reminds religious people across the world that it is never too late to find God.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

The publication in October, 1948, of his autobiographical work The Seven Storey Mountain marked the true beginning of Thomas Merton’s extraordinary literary career. Seven years earlier, Merton had entered the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Encouraged by his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton wrote his autobiography in order to describe his transformation from a nonpracticing Anglican into a convert to Catholicism who abandoned a promising academic career in order to enter a cloistered monastery. During the last twenty years of his life, Merton wrote extensively on such diverse topics as war and peace, the ecumenical movement, racial and social injustice, Eastern and Western monasticism, and the relationships between traditional Christian beliefs and the modern world. Although Merton never composed a formal autobiography after The Seven Storey Mountain, he did write several fascinating journals, including The Sign of Jonas (1953), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), and his posthumously published The Asian Journal (1973). In 1968, he undertook his first extended trip away from his monastery: On December 10, 1968, he was accidentally electrocuted while attending an international conference of Eastern and Western monks in Thailand.

Before the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton was not entirely unknown in literary circles. In 1944, his first book, Thirty Poems, had appeared in print. This thin volume included his exquisite poem of consolation “Sweet Brother, If I Do Not Sleep,” written in memory of his brother John Paul, a soldier killed in World War II. Encouraged by both his abbot and his publisher, Merton continued his literary career. During the twenty-seven years he lived in Gethsemani, Merton spent two hours daily on research and writing. This discipline enabled him to produce an impressive number of books, essays, and poems. People as diverse as Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and the Dalai Lama believed that Merton’s writings revealed how a profound commitment to spiritual and moral values can give meaning to life.

Merton divided his autobiography into three sections. The first part deals with the years between his childhood and the physical breakdown he suffered in 1936. The second section describes his extended period of recuperation, his conversion to Catholicism in 1938, and his decision in late 1939 to enter a seminary. The third section describes his thoughts before and after he entered the Gethsemani Monastery in December, 1941.

The title of Merton’s autobiography refers to the seven levels in Dante’s Purgatorio (c. 1320; Purgatory). Divine grace enabled Merton to move from the lowest to the highest levels of spiritual understanding. The Seven Storey Mountain describes in a direct and unpretentious style Merton’s gradual change from a haughty and apathetic young man into a fervent and mature believer who found contentment as a contemplative monk. Since its publication in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain has touched the hearts of numerous readers.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

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.

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