A bestseller when first published in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith is considered a must-read for modern Catholics. It is also often recommended to atheists and agnostics in order to “get” what believing in God is all about, but modern readers will find this book incredibly tedious. Personally, this reader found it tragic. A gifted writer, Merton chucked away a promising career as a writer and teacher to become a Trappist monk.
The Big Problems
If you want to know what living through two World Wars was like, Merton shows how he mentally fell apart. Although praised as a mystic, today he would clearly be exhibiting signs of mental illness. Merton’s writings suddenly go from calmly talking to the reader to babbling almost incoherently to God. He shifts from English to French or Latin often without translation. He scolds his younger self mercilessly.
Every now and then, the prose is punctuated with brilliant, lush prose such as. “I went out under the grey sky, under the cedars at the edge of the cemetery, and stood in the wind that threatened snow and held the printed poems in my hand.” (p 448) But they are sandwiched in between dry preaching and events from his life only half-told.
Why All the Fuss?
If the book has such glaring problems, why did it become a best-seller? It does have to be taken into historical context. Many scientific answers to certain problems were unavailable in Morten’s day. So anything unexplained was attributed to God. People still do this today, even though the “God of the Gaps” gets smaller and smaller every day.
Americans that survived World War II – or even both World Wars – had permanent scars on their psyches. The terror and suffering inflicted by these two wars would cause anyone to look for a reason for it all. Post-World War II readers found great comfort in Merton’s autobiography. God had a plan for everything, no matter how horrible, and those who suffered would get their reward after they died. It’s a very comforting fantasy that fuels religions like Christianity today.
About Thomas Merton
Born in France during World War I, Merton lived in Europe and America before converting to Catholicism during World War II. He entered a Trappist monastery in 1941. He wanted to be a writer and journalist before becoming a monk and was encouraged to keep writing. Over 30 of his books of poetry and spirituality were published in his lifetime. He discovered Buddhism in the 1960s and promoted cooperation between Buddhists and Catholics, even earning the praise of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Unfortunately, this very important bit of Merton’s life is completely left out of The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton dies at the relatively young age of 53 while visiting Bangkok in 1968. A ceiling fan fell on him and he was electrocuted. God really loved Merton, didn’t He?