Thomas Merton went through a significant conversion in his youth and turned into a prominent Catholic author and spiritualist. His autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” discusses his life from childhood to adult and the conversion to Roman Catholicism and entry into a monastery. The title and the sequence of this book were enthused by Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. Merton’s autobiography is divided into three parts: The first describes his life without God (“Hell”); the second, the beginning of his search for God (“Purgatory”); and the third, his baptism and entrance into a monastic order (“Paradise”).
Thomas Merton’s autobiographical work “The Seven Storey Mountain” marked the true beginning of his outstanding literary career. Seven years before, he came into the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Inspired by his abbot; Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton wrote his biography in order to explain his conversion from a non-believing Anglican into a transformed to Catholicism who left a promising educational career in order to join a secluded monastery.
(Merton, 121) In the last several years of Merton’s life, he wrote comprehensively on such varied subjects like warfare and tranquility, the civil movement, racial and social discrimination, Eastern and Western monasticism, and the associations between conventional Christian values and the contemporary world.
Merton divided his autobiography into three sections. The first part deals with the years between his childhood and the physical collapse he suffered in 1936. The second section explains his extensive period of convalescence, his transformation to Catholicism in 1938, and his choice in late 1939 to join a institution. The last part discusses his views previous to and subsequent to his entrance in the Gethsemani Monastery. The heading of Merton’s autobiography depicts the seven levels in Dante’s Purgatory. (Zuercher, 67)
The celestial elegance allowed him to shift from the lowest to the highest degree of divine knowledge. The book “Seven Storey Mountain” explains in a clear and unassuming way Merton’s steady transformation from a conceited and indifferent youngster into a keen and mature believer who retrieved satisfaction as a meditative preacher. From the time of its publication in 1948, the book “The Seven Storey Mountain” has affected many readers in a positive way. (Merton, 129)
The author in the starting of the book “The Seven Storey Mountain” describes himself as a captive of a worldly and selfish world. This evaluation of the new world to a reformatory has struck most of the readers as extreme. The well-known British writer Evelyn Waugh published a well modified story of “The Seven Storey Mountain” in the title Elected Silence in 1949. Waugh removed what he thought as the overstatement in both Merton’s way and his judgment of the world out of his monastery.
Even though Waugh improved many parts of the text in Merton’s book, Merton thought that the polished and sophisticated way chosen by Waugh could not appropriately put across to the audience his intuitive response to his knowledge before and after his transformation. Merton wanted the readers of “The Seven Storey Mountain” to know that his life would have been worthless if he had not got the gift of belief from God; his conversion had drastically transformed his perception of the world.
The book “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. (Zuercher, 71)
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 too many self-destructive urges: After he joined the University of Cambridge in 1933, he began to drink heavily and then fathered a child out of wedlock.
His previous mistress and their son both would die during a Nazi air attack on London. During writing his autobiography, Merton thought of a friend from Cambridge who had committed suicide. He was certain that only the love of God had sheltered him from the same destiny and that he had achieved nothing constructive all this time he had spent in England. He went to America in 1934 and then never came back to Europe. In the first section of “The Seven Storey Mountain”, the misery and isolation which many people experience after the dreadfulness of the Holocaust and the devastation of World War II is strongly and emotively expressed.
In the second section of “The Seven Storey Mountain”, Merton disclosed that he required celestial grace and the ethical support of his friends both in order to nurture spiritually. Once Merton reached America, he registered at Columbia University, where he met two professors, Mark Van Doren and Dan Walsh, who intensely persuaded his personal growth. Van Doren trained Merton to think seriously, to give importance to truth for itself, and to disbelieve all types of baseless reasoning.
Sarcastically, Merton had never planned to meet Van Doren. In the commencement of his junior year at Columbia, Merton went to the wrong classroom by mistake. (Zuercher, 81) When Van Doren came in and started talking, Merton decided to take that course in its place and gave up history course which he actually wanted to take. Merton thought of this unexpected accident as part of a divine plan to help him understand the gift of faith.
Van Doren, who was a Protestant, became one of Merton’s best friends, corresponding with him for years and often visiting him at Gethsemani. Even though 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. (Merton, 135) 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 meditation brought to him there. After considering a few religious orders, he at first left the confined life. Nonetheless, after many conversations with his friends from Columbia and two retreats in Cistercian monasteries, Merton drew a conclusion that only the meditative life would allow him to grow spiritually. He wrote to Gethsemani and was accepted for what he was: a scrape 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. (Zuercher, 82). Therefore, 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, “Meditation of a Poor Man in Solitude” follows this powerful analysis of the last meeting between Thomas Merton and his only sibling. (Giroux, 145)
Reasons for Conversion
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, peace and happiness can be found. (Merton, 147) 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. (Zuercher, 87) Conversion means abandoning the self to the will of God; understanding this led Merton to decide to join a monastery and become a priest. 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.
Merton’s life and that of the narrator of “The Divine Comedy” followed a same sequence. That narrator begins the poem in the middle of his life, and Merton wrote “The Seven Storey Mountain” in the middle of his life; he died at the untimely age of fifty-three.
Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. Harvest Books; Anv edition (1999). ISBN-10: 0156010860. pg 98-210.
Zuercher, Suzanne. Merton: An Enneagram Profile. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2001. pg 58-99.