August 11, 2010

The Seven Storey Mountain

A few notes on one of my summer reads, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. I had read some other books by the same author in the past, i.e., New Seeds of Contemplation and The Silent Life, but had never taken the time to read Thomas Merton’s breakthrough autobiography. It has been an unexpected discovery under many points of view—both positive and negative, if I may say so. What is certain is that it has been an interesting, worthwhile read.

Who says, “My life is mine and mine alone” should have a read of The Seven Storey Mountain, a book which tells the story of a young man who, from no religion at all, became a Catholic and entered the Order of Cistercian of the Strict Observance—the Trappists—at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. A story that demonstrates, perhaps once and for all, that no one is the master of his own destiny, that “the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10: 23). That we must have access to God and His nature if we will ever live the right way, the way He lives. That we must recognize God’s will as more important than our own desires. As the famous Prayer of Thomas Merton goes (Thoughts in Solitude),

My God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

And as the closing words of the book read:

But you shall taste the true solitude of My anguish and My poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of My joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end, and brought you from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi and St Bonaventure to the Cistercian abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani: that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men. Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi.

At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, the whole of Merton’s life is such an American story, in an Emersonian sense: “All life is an experiment. The more experiment you make the better” (“Experience”). By the way, this might also be, in my very humble opinion, the meaning of those Latin words, Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi (Let this be the end of the book, but not of the search). As a matter of fact, Merton’s “complexities” manifested themselves in many ways previous and following Seven Storey Mountain’s publication, e.g. in his various attempts to leave the Trappist Order for the Carthusian and Camaldolese eremitical orders—in the mid-1950s he tried to obtain an authorized transfer from the Abbey of Gethsemani to the Sacro Eremo (the hermit village) of the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy, a wonderful place that I know very well, si parva licet …. And above all, as author and Thomas Merton expert Mark Shaw discovered through seven volumes of Merton’s private journals, released in the mid-1990s, there existed a more human side to Merton causing one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century to suffer and admit, “The depressions are deeper, more frequent. I am near fifty. People think I am happy.” After all, it has been said that the essence of Merton’s spirituality itself is the “humanity” of it. And at the beginning of 1966 he wrote in his journals that he yearned to love, but there was no woman to love, and obviously monastic rules forbade it. But later on, while recovering in a hospital from back surgery, a student nurse half his age named Margie Smith soothed his pain with a sponge bath and it was love at first sight ... but it was an unconsummated “love affair.” Eighteen months later, he had to choose between Margie, the woman he called, “a miracle in my life,” or the God who had saved his soul. When he finally chose, says Mark Shaw, Merton emerged renewed: stronger and surer than he would have been without being tested by such a shattering conflict.

Well, this may not be exactly what one could call an example of monastic discipline and conduct, but to be honest, after reading The Seven Storey Mountain, it would be inexact to say that I was surprised by that discovery … If ever, what surprises me most is that such a man as the young Thomas Merton could have become what he eventually became. And this is the real miracle, this is what I was talking about when I said, along with Jeremiah, that this story demonstrates that “the way of man is not in himself.” We are all in the hands of God.

What else? Well, I have loved his profound and insightful thoughts on a subject that is very dear to me, the Gregorian chant:

How mighty they are, those hymns and those antiphons of the Easter office! Gregorian chant that should, by rights, be monotonous, because it has absolutely none of the tricks and resources of modern music, is full of a variety infinitely rich because it is subtle and spiritual and deep, and lies rooted far beyond the shallow level of virtuosity and 'technique,' even in the abysses of the spirit, and of the human soul. Those Easter 'alleluias,' without leaving the narrow range prescribed by the eight Gregorian modes, have discovered color and warmth and meaning and gladness that no other music possesses. Like everything else Cistercian—like the monks themselves—these antiphons, by submitting to the rigor of a Rule that would seem to destroy individuality, have actually acquired a character that is unique, unparalleled.
But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.

Isn’t that absolutely amazing? It would be enough to make me a lifelong fan of Thomas Merton. But there is more. Much more. Take this, for instance:

Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.” [The Silent Life]


  1. This is a great reminder for me of Merton. I read "Seven Story Mountain" in the late 1960's, early 1970's, and it's always been a part of me, even in my bad boy days. It's come up in conversation a couple times recently, so I guess it's about time to re-read.
    Last night at Bible study, we're in the verses of John, where Jesus predicts his suffering and death on the cross, and how human that moment was. He said to his friends, "Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name." When I read what struggles Merton had with his own desires and humanity, and his strengthened faith resulting from his dealing with them, I'm thinking how much we all struggle with our own humanity. From Jesus to us. Just a lovely post. Welcome back.

  2. you sold me on it...over to Amazon i think.

  3. The Seven Storey Mountain is a modern-day Confessions of Saint Augustine. Great book!
    Merton’s enthusiasm for Catholic culture, particularly the spiritual and intellectual patrimony of the Church, is touching (it is not too much to say that TM was responsible for the amazing growth of the Trappist Order in the US).
    Great and inspirational post!

  4. "The best reason to read The Seven Storey Mountain may be the one Merton provided in his introduction to its Japanese translation:

    'I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.'"
    Michael Joseph Gross

    Thanks for posting such a thoughtful and insightful post!