Tuesday, August 10, 2010

True Conversions No.9: Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain

Thomas Merton
The Seven Storey Mountain
c.. 1948 (Anniversary Edition: 1999), 496pp.
Harcourt Brace: New York
ISBN-13: 9780156010863

I first read Thomas Merton’s now-classic spiritual memoir in 1980, when I myself was 30 years old. I had just arrived in New York City for what was to be a three-year stay; it was a geographic move that also coincided with an earnest spiritual search. Earlier that same year, I had made the decision to become more actively involved in my faith after a lengthy sabbatical from regular participation. Spiritually, I was eager, curious, hungry, and a bit scared. Serendipitously, I lived in the same Morningside Heights/ Columbia University neighborhood that Merton had inhabited four decades previously. And as I delved into his spiritual autobiography, I could trace my own personal Merton Trail down the spine of Manhattan: from Corpus Christi Church and the Columbia campus on the upper West Side to the depths of Greenwich Village. It was a wonderful journey: for myself, and no doubt for many others, Merton’s Manhattan served as a helpful point of reference and entry into the passionate quest of one of the great spiritual writers of our time. A quest which paralleled my own personal path of spiritual rediscovery and connection.

Since its publication in 1948 (Merton was himself 33 years old at the time and preparing for priestly ordination at the Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky), The Seven Story Mountain has sold more than three million copies—600,000 hardcover copies in the first year alone-- and is still in print. This summer, at the age of 60, I decided to re-read The Seven Storey Mountain to see what kind of impression it would leave this time around.

The Thomas Merton of 1948 was a passionate, even somewhat uncritical apologist for Catholicism. He maintained all the fervor of the neophyte—a spiritual enthusiasm which led him from a promising literary career ‘in the world’ to an equally fulfilling literary career while a Trappist monk. Merton’s early life as described in this memoir is a mixed tale of privilege, struggle, suffering, numerous detours, constant searching and ultimate satisfaction in a religious faith and identity. He was born in France in 1915, the first child of an artistic family—his father was a successful painter. His parents were of Canadian/New Zealand nationality with strong connections to both England and America. His was a childhood and youth marked both by tragedy (the early deaths of both parents) and frequent familial disruption and upheaval. Merton’s formal academic education in English public schools and later at Cambridge and Columbia University, was rounded out by ongoing travel and family visits through Europe, England and the United States. As studies and travel involved an intimate immersion into European culture, young Merton moved gradually from an early attraction to Catholic culture to an eventual embrace of the Catholic faith.

Merton’s spiritual ambit, however, was no perfect trajectory by any means. Rather it was marked by painful periods of confusion, reticence, and self-doubt—with heavy doses of adolescent angst and self-absorption. By his mid-twenties, however, Merton had found his spiritual home and entered into the protracted spiritual honeymoon that resulted in this memoir. His was the pre-Vatican II Church— frequently perceived by its faithful as a morally impregnable fortress and bulwark against the seductions and depredations of a decadent culture. It was a world that spoke of certainty, security, and order to its denizens— an environment no doubt especially attractive to a sensitive and intellectually precocious young man who had experienced precious little real stability during his own tumultuous upbringing.

Today, Merton’s narrative stands on its own—even at a distance of six decades-- as a poignant prelude to the ongoing search and spiritual growth of a man who, even from the distance of the more than 40 years since his death in 1968, continues to be admired for his soaring intellect and deep spiritual insight. Its abiding strength and appeal lies perhaps in Merton’s utter sincerity and dogged determination to plumb the depths of his own soul.

I tried, in my own re-reading of Merton, to put aside anything I had heard or read about him in order to have as fresh and unbiased experience as possible. I found myself full of admiration and respect for a young man who, obviously, had suffered so much in his early years. Yet, I could also see the somewhat spoiled and entitled youth of the British and American upper classes who, seemed to sail effortlessly (and literally) across the Atlantic at a time when most Europeans and Americans were struggling to keep body and soul together during the depths of the Depression. Merton’s first direct experience of genuine poverty, in fact, came as a volunteer at Harlem’s Hospitality House, founded by the celebrated Catherine (Baronness) deHoeck just a few years prior to his entry into the monastery. His conversion occurs at a rather high altitude as well: exposure at Columbia to a gifted teacher and mentor, literary critic and anthologist Mark van Doren: his collaboration and friendships with other budding young writers at their periodic encampments in Olean, New York; his rapturous embrace of William Blake work as a topic for his master’s thesis.

But Merton is certainly more than the sum total of his class and relatively privileged background. His initial immaturity and naivete notwithstanding, there is something more to Merton—“something’ which impels him further in his spiritual journey. This is the part of SSM that not only ‘reads’ well today; it also continues to move and inspire the contemporary seeker even at a distance of more than a half-century.

I have to mention, by way of a postscript that there is also a Franciscan dimension to Merton’s spiritual journey. Initially attracted to the Order, he discerned with the friars, but withdrew his application to postulancy after having been dissuaded by his would-be superiors. Merton is rather vague about his reasons for not joining the friars, but the decision did not deter him from teaching for a while at St. Bonaventure’s University before his eventual entry into the Trappists. I can’t help thinking how both Merton and the Franciscans might have been affected had he decided to become a son of St. Francis. We’ll never know!//