By: Justin Evangelisto
The memories we make in college are some of the most memorable in our lives. The books we read during this time will be some of the most influential in our growth. Thomas Merton knew this; hence he remembers the books he read that influenced him throughout his youth. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is a work worthy to devote time to read in college, one I will treasure.
Thomas Merton is something of a paradox. He was a monk secluded from the world but involved in issues of this world. As a Trappist monk, he lived a life of silence, but his voice was heard throughout the word The Seven Storey Mountain sold millions of copies in the post-WWII world. Merton has much wisdom to offer for the current Chapel Hill student.
This “autobiography of faith” takes the reader through Merton’s life, from his early childhood in France to him entering the Abbey of Gethesemani as a monk. He describes all the places he lives at different moments vividly: the provincial countryside of southern France, the mountains and valleys of upstate New York, the ancient churches of Rome, the shrines of Cuba, “dark and sinister” campus of Cambridge, the bustling halls of Columbia. Throughout the work he analyzes his intellectual and spiritual formation; how he went from nominally Protestant to atheist, then from his conversion to Catholicism and his lengthy discernment of monastic vocation. The buildup to WWII looms in the background. While the reader knows that he will end up a monk, Merton certainly did not for most of his life. That it took years for Merton to find his true calling after There are many unexpected turns, both tragic and joyful, in Merton’s life, which I will leave unspoiled.
Merton’s experiences of college are surprisingly still relatable. Like today, the typical American liberal arts college gave “its students a superficial knowledge of everything”. He was “full of all the economic and pseudo-scientific jargon appropriate to a good Columbia man”. At Columbia he was an atheist and a leftist who hung around with the Communist Party. The activism of the campus leftists in the forms of journalism and protests feels current. Switch Communist with Democratic Socialist He recognizes that he “failed to distinguish between reality of the evils which Communism was trying to overcome and the validity of its own diagnosis and its own cure”. He later experiences the Christian response to those evils in the Madonna Apostolate of Catherine de Hueck in Harlem.
But while at Columbia, it was the English professor Mark Van Doren who opened his mind. He taught literature as literature, unlike the “second-rate left-wing critics” to whom “all their literary heroes are revolutionary leaders, and all their favorite villains are capitalists and Nazis”. He was led by beauty into truth. Like Merton, I was fortunate enough to find a professor from whom I learned to read Shakespeare so that I could enjoy and learn Shakespeare’s insights into the human condition. Such professors are gems rarer nowadays then in Merton’s.
His writing style is immensely enjoyable and easy to read. No wonder he had a promising career as a writer (one which he left behind). Finding time to digest dense works is hard to come by in college My favorite time to read this was in bed before I fell asleep, setting the soul at ease before rest. Some readers might be reticent about Merton, thinking he might be modernist. No need to fear. The Seven Storey Mountain is an orthodox Catholic work. His views on the liturgy, scriptures, and the church in this book are far from modernist or heretical. I cannot speak for his later writings, but this early work of his is solid. Merton’s respect for other religions is seen too, as his friendship with the Hindu monk Brachmari shows. Indeed, this autobiography has drawn readers of many different faiths and no faith. For those curious about Catholic mystical thought, this would be a good introduction. The time I devoted to reading this work was well spent; I am grateful to Merton that the lessons from his life will help guide me through my life.