Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195

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The Seven Storey Mountain is an autobiography by Thomas Merton. The central theme of the book is Merton's conversion to Roman Catholicism and what he had learned over the course of his theological scholarship. The other theme of Merton's memoir is life inside a Catholic monastery during the twentieth century, which can be found in the third section of the book.

The book is formatted like Dante's Inferno, in which Merton describes his life and eventual conversion to Catholicism as if his whole life experience up to that point was a spiritual awakening process. The first section, which details his childhood, is a phase in his life Merton calls "Hell" because it was a time when God was not present. The second part of the book, "Purgatory," emphasizes the theme of discovering God.

Another theme that is examined in the book is the West's obsession with materialism and superficial desires. Merton recalls his own debauchery in England and the United States during his college years and realizes that western society created a spiritual void that was replaced by worship of money. This experience proved to be a catalyst in Merton's spiritual awakening and eventual conversion.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

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.

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