The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography Of Faith, by Thomas Merton
In finishing this book I have completed the task of reading the books that various contemplative Christians have viewed as the 25 books that all Christians should read. I can honestly say that I likely would never have read the book had I not been encouraged to do so by this challenge . Was it a worthwhile book to read? Absolutely. There was a lot to appreciate about this book. Yet, at the same time, I feel rather ambivalent about this book, specifically about Thomas Merton’s self-portrayal. I have read Catholics complaining about the Mertonization of contemporary Catholicism, and I can understand the nature of the problem in looking at this person, who comes off as being highly conflicted and even self-contradictory. It also seems as if Merton popularized a model of celebrity renunciation that others, like Henri Nouwen, would follow, making the contemplative orders of Christendom filled with leftists who see monasteries as places of refuge from the harshness of the marketplace of ideas where such people and their mistaken worldviews come off rather poorly, and I am not a fan of that particular phenomenon which this book brings into focus.
It takes a bit more than 450 pages for Thomas Merton to tell the story of his upbringing and his path from godless leftism to celebrity monkdom. Some people may find that to be a horrifying thought, although those who take the chance to read this book will find a lot of exciting material and a great deal of melancholy bittersweetness. The author is somewhat less than candid about his moral flaws and seems a bit ignorant of just how wicked his interest in communism and leftism in general was, something he never fully owns up to, despite calling his hatred of bourgeois people and mentality a sin briefly towards the end. After an introduction and a note to the reader that seek to place the book in a context that views this strident work as a beginning and not an ending, Merton spends the rest of the book writing a three-part memoir about the period of life from birth to his mid-20’s. The author begins with a discussion of his family background, growing up in France and England as well as the United States, having a loving but irreligious family that had notably anti-Catholic bias, and his own educational background. He berates himself for being a cruel older brother and comments on the strange path that he took first to conversion into Catholicism, then his serving as an instructor and then becoming a Trappist priest in Kentucky, where he helps his brother convert to the Roman Catholic Church before the brother’s death in military service as a bomber pilot in Europe, which is about where the book ends.
There are some aspects of this book that really bothered me. For one, the author seems both to enjoy privilege himself but bash it in others. He seems particularly harsh against Wasp culture and mentalities, but his own writing career appears to have depended on his own elite education and connections made as a child of privilege. He strike me as one of those whiny leftists who decry privilege while simultaneously and unironically enjoying it. Wanting to get away from the responsibilities of the world, the author ends up joining a Trappist monk but instead of getting away from it all he ends up publishing notable works of writing and spending his days not only writing but also translating texts, rather than engaging in the sort of labor that would mark a true renunciation of the world and the author’s own private ambitions. Yet even with all of these complaints, the author’s struggle for faith and to express and appreciate God’s grace is definitely worthwhile, even if the author is not a perfect model of a worthwhile contemplative Christian.
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