Biography & Autobiography.
Religion & Spirituality.
HTML:One of the most famous books ever written about a man's search for faith and peace.
The Seven Storey Mountain tells of the growing restlessness of a brilliant and passionate young man, who at the age of twenty-six, takes vows in one of the most demanding Catholic ordersâ??the Trappist monks. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, "the four walls of my new freedom," Thomas Merton struggles to withdraw from the world, but only after he has fully immersed himself in it. At the abbey, he wrote this extraordinary testament, a unique spiritual autobiography that has been recognized as one of the most influential religious works of our time. Translated into more than twenty languages, it has touched millions of lives.
However, as in all things, there is a
layered book. As William Shannon points out in the excellent Introduction to the 1998 edition, itâ€™s really 3 books in one.
First, itâ€™s a record of his life: his birth in 1915 in France, his early life and schooling, his education at Cambridge and Columbia and so on. But as Shannon points out with great insight, itâ€™s also a memory of his life; while the memories and his interpretations of them lift the book up from a dry accounting, memory is also selective. The third and most useful of Shannonâ€™s explanations is that itâ€™s also a monkâ€™s judgment of his early life, and Merton was harsh indeed on his younger self; Merton is remorseless in documenting his flaws, his sins.
But for most people, what is important is really a 4th bookâ€”Mertonâ€™s spiritual journey which took him finally to the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941 at age 26. While it is true that the monk Father Louis was very hard on the young Thomas Merton, it is within this context that Merton struggled with his desperate need to find a meaningful direction to his life, one that led to conversion to Catholicism and eventually to a life as a contemplative. That struggle and the insights and religious/spiritual experiences he had on his way are what make the book a powerful read and an inspiration to so many. As Giroux, an editor, says in his essay, 50 years later, the book is still selling steadily.
Another reason for its popularity is that Merton makes those experiences so accessible. He was a poet as well, and thatâ€™s obvious, not just in the ease and smoothness of this prose in his description of his life. It is especially evident in his lyricism in portraying his exaltation, his love for God, Mary and the saints, and his joy, his gratitude for all the mercies and grace bestowed upon him. Because I feel it is nearly impossible to do justice to this aspect by description, I tried to find one of the many passages like that in the book in order to quote them hereâ€”but in fact, they really can not be taken out of context. That is the best indication of how integrally Mertonâ€™s faith is woven into his story. I suspect that that is one major reason why the book is so popular and why so many people of all faiths have found it so inspirational.
However, this is the early monk, not the later one. Even in the latter part of the book, one can still see the religious intolerance, flashes of smugness, arrogance, and sexism, as well as the judgmental way in which he views â€śthe worldâ€ť. The Catholic church of 1948 was pre-Vatican II, and Merton definitely shows that in his dismissal of all religious expression except Roman Catholicism. But what is truly ironic about the young monk is that in dismissing what he calls oriental religion and practices, even in this earliest of his works one can see that his insistence on staying with the present moment, his belief in meditation, and many of his observations can be taken right out of Zen Buddhism; itâ€™s the clearest sign pointer to the fact that in his last years, he was indeed drawn to that way of expressionâ€”integrated, of course, with his Catholic faith.
Also, there is humor in the bookâ€”gentle, sometimes a little difficult to see, but definitely there.
Despite all the flaws, the reason why the book is so powerful is that Merton, like all mystics, penetrates to the heart of the dissatisfaction, unhappiness and longings of everyday people. He is able to express, in terms Westerners can understand, how those yearnings for direction and our fears and denials lead us to lives that are empty and filled with self-loathing. He has also shown, in an accessible and extremely powerful way, how he, a most imperfect person, worked his terribly painful way up the seven storey mountain of this struggle and his gratitude and exaltation to have reached the summit.. Few thoughtful people, especially in today's world, can fail to be affected by his story.
This isn't a book, however, that you're going to sit down and read all at one go. It's four hundred and twenty pages long, so that pretty much precludes speeding through the thing.
Is it ever hard to read? Well, yes. But I'd temper that with the thought that I haven't read a spiritual book that was ever completely easy. And there are times when switching back and forth between philosophical/religious insight and autobiographical stories isn't as smooth as it could be.
However - keep this fact in mind. When Merton wrote this book, he was ONLY THIRTY-THREE YEARS OLD!! I was astounded and a little befuddled by that when I got to the end and discovered it. I thought, as I was reading, that this book was written by a wise old man. Imagine my discomfiture when I found that he was only five years older than me.
And yet - inspite of some minor awkwardness in the sheer writing mechanics - this is an amazing book. As a Catholic and convert myself, I found his story extremely inspiring. However, I don't think that only Catholics should read this book. Anyone who considers themselves spiritual (or would like to) should read it, and consider its contents.
I was glad to learn later that Merton said he regretted much of this book, and for my own enjoyment I will assume it is this over-eagerness of a recent convert that he regretted.
Beyond this one complaint I can say that it is a beautiful book with value beyond the Catholic world, as well a good introduction to Merton.
This book is not in the same category of many popular Christian writings of this time. Thomas Merton's faith is one that was found in an ancient church and many ancient writings. It was a faith found through traditional liturgy and reading. I don't think Merton would have been comfortable in many of the modern churches (both Protestant or Catholic) that attempt to mold worship to meet cultural demands.
Thanks to all the reviewers who so aptly described this book and caused me to want to read it. I hope others will find it equally as inspiring.
It was published in 1948 and therefore did not include the last 20 years of his life.
I think it was designed to show simply his worldly beginnings and his road
After World War II and the Great Depression, people were ready for the simplicity of contemplative prayer.
They needed the hope and confidence that could be found in a spiritual approach to life.
Thomas Merton provided that.
"Clean, unselfish love does not live on what it gets but on what it gives.
It increases by pouring itself out for others, grows by self sacrifice and becomes mighty by throwing itself away." (Thomas Merton)