By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published June 23, 2011
Early in 1941, as the Second World War engulfed Europe and U.S. involvement seemed imminent, the young Thomas Merton, a recent convert to Catholicism and a doctoral student in English at Columbia University, sat in his New York City apartment and wrote a letter to his local draft board explaining why he wished to be considered a non-combatant objector.
The letter was ignored. Indeed, a few weeks later a notice arrived from the draft board requesting that Merton present himself for his military physical. Merton arrived for the physical, and following the examination, was promptly deemed unfit for military service.
“Go home,” said the doctor. “You haven’t got enough teeth.”
Later that year, three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Merton was admitted as a prospective novice at the Trappist Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. In short order, the abbot decreed that Merton should write his life story, the autobiography of a modern man who had lived fully in the secular world and then abandoned that world, rejecting it not only by converting to Catholicism but by deciding to live a cloistered, silent life as a contemplative monk in a Cistercian monastery. Though he did not want to write the book that became “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton obeyed his abbot. The book was published in 1948, became an immediate bestseller, and for 68 years has never gone out of print while growing in stature as one of the most important spiritual books of the 20th century.
I thought about the image of a “toothless” Merton last week when my graduate Merton class began our discussion of “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Many people—scholars and Merton aficionados in particular—have too easily dismissed the book as Merton himself did. The memoir is the work of a young man, as Merton knew. It lacks the more profound, mystical spiritual insight of Merton’s later work. At times, it is overly pious and includes none of the ecumenical spirit that would characterize Merton’s developing vocation. Indeed, it is for many contemporary Catholics a shocking portrayal of the Church before Vatican II.
But the book has teeth.
It has often been said, in many different ways, that the Merton the reader meets in “The Seven Storey Mountain” is not the Merton he became during the 27 years he spent in the monastery, yet that mature man cannot be fully understood without recognizing the younger enthusiastic voice of the earlier work.
My graduate students, like all my students who have read Merton’s autobiography, had strong responses to “The Seven Storey Mountain.”
“Amazing,” said one. “Brilliant,” proclaimed another. “A profound study of serendipity and paradox,” they agreed. Quite simply, as one student put it, the book is “a prime example of God’s great mercy. I hope others will read it.”
I first read the book myself as a graduate student, without any knowledge of who Merton was, and I was spellbound by Merton’s story. In those days, I walked to campus at Georgia State University, and each day I passed by Sacred Heart Church. Merton’s book, and the influence of two wonderful professors, had led me to think seriously about becoming a Catholic, but I was afraid to enter the doors of that beautiful and mysterious church on Peachtree Street.
By the time I had finished reading “The Seven Storey Mountain,” however, I could not resist. Before long, I was not only visiting Sacred Heart, I was taking instructions from a priest. I became a Catholic on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday in 1993, with my two professors as my sponsors, and Thomas Merton as the imaginative and intellectual stimulus for my conversion.
Not all readers will be moved to conversion through “The Seven Storey Mountain,” but many have been and many will continue to be. And this may be the book’s greatest attribute: strip away some of the piety, some of the rather patchwork narrative, some of the hyperbole and still the book reveals an astonishing mystery. “God called out to me from his own immense depths,” writes Merton. Could anything be more wonderful?
It is summer time, and the bookstores are full of summer reading displays—books required for school reading, books suggested for the beach and the back porch. “The Seven Storey Mountain” is not among them, but for students, especially, it should be.
Parents in my adult education courses often ask me what “Catholic” books I recommend for their disengaged teenagers, and I always mention “The Seven Storey Mountain.” It is a book that can have perhaps greater effect upon the young. Indeed, upon its publication, the book sent shock waves through the young people of the late 1940s who were searching for meaning and objectivity in an anxious post-atomic world. Rebellious in spirit, youthful in tone, energetic in style, the book represents the first baring of an author’s “teeth,” and reveals a sense of purpose that would be sharpened and refined over the remainder of his life.
Yet older Catholic readers unacquainted with Merton’s first great book need to read “The Seven Storey Mountain” as well. Perhaps it will invigorate a sagging faith, or restore a sense of Catholic identity. Perhaps it will lead them to visit for the first time the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers and explore a way of life marked always, as Dewey Weiss Kramer says, by a sense of “tradition and continuity.” Or perhaps it will lead readers to discover Merton’s other work and see within it one of the most remarkable collections of spiritual literature ever written. At the very least, the book will make an impression.
I once loaned a neighbor who was having a difficult time a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain” and urged him to read it. He never returned the book. That, I think, is a very good thing.