The Seven Storey Mountain. By Thomas Merton. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Harcourt, 1948/1976. (Kindle).
Robert Giroux writes in the Introduction to this book that when he first met Thomas Merton at the office of the Columbia Review in New York, and Giroux had
read an article Merton had written, he told himself: “This man is a writer!” The proof sheets were sent to such illustrious writers as Evelyn Waugh, Clare Booth Luce, Graham Greene and Fulton Sheen who found the work laudatory and even superlative in its excellence. Though the New York Times did not include it in its best seller list because it was a “religious book”, praise for the book was quickly and concretely given by the sales in a low period of the publishing year. By the end of that year, it had sold 600,000 copies and by 1984 it had sold three million copies and continues to sell copies today. Mark Van Doren who recognized Merton’s talent as a writer, told his students that a “classic” was a book that continues to be in print. Seven Storey Mountain is a spiritual classic. It is a religious book, an autobiography about a young man who was searching for God and found him in the solitude and contemplation of a Trappist monastery after having experienced profound guilt and repentance for a life lived in the fast lane and squandering a fund his grandfather had set aside for his grandson and his brother John-Paul so that they would have no worry about financing their education.
Merton’s father was an artist who travelled extensively to find appropriate scenes to paint on his canvas and thus earn a living. It also developed an appreciation for beauty and goodness in Thomas, in nature and in the quiet inspiration which Merton interpreted as God’s call to the next milestone on his journey to the Father’s home with many mansions. One of these milestones was when a friend told him to forget about being a priest. He should want to be a saint. In their exchange the friend told Merton. To be a saint, you must want it. Otherwise it won’t happen. It is God’s will for every person who ever lives. The book has been compared with the Confessions of St. Augustine and other classical spiritual works that have inspired countless saints in the centuries in the liturgical calendar, and the saints who are “the next- door neighbor” without special recognition by any church or denomination.
The Seven Storey Mountain is the autobiography of a young man who failed his freshman year at Cambridge University in England. His grandfather was an editor at Grosset and Dunlap, “publishers who specialized in cheap reprints of popular novels, and in children’s books of an adventurous cast.” Merton was free to read some of these books and he inherited his father’s sense of beauty and his grandfather’s love for books. Like many college freshmen, Merton thought he could easily succeed at Cambridge without going to class, living the night away in bars and movie theaters, drinking beer, and neglecting his health. His guardian suggested he discontinue to waste his time and his grandfather’s money and go to the United States. There had to be a university that would take him as a student. Merton was accepted by Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan in New York.
Robert Giroux accepted his first cartoons, jokes and articles for the Jester one of the student publications at Columbia and Merton continued to take courses that would help him in his goal of being a writer and editor as well as a teacher of English literature. Merton had a classical training, taking courses especially in English literature and some of the great teachers and thinkers of the past and modern times. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Dante, Etienne Gilson’s Medieval Scholastic Philosophy, etc.
Religiously, Merton was an Anglican. He was born in France and grew up tagging along with his father who travelled a great deal to find places to depict on his canvas. He was more of an agnostic, though he was very moved by nature and all the beauty round him that he describes so well in his book. Throughout his life he seems to have had insights into God’s call to holiness. Eventually, after trying to return to the Anglican Church and visiting a Quaker Meeting, he realized God called him – in spite of his strong protestant bias – to Catholicism. He asked to become a Catholic and to be baptized at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia University in 1941. At about the same time he had a strong attraction to becoming a priest. At first, he thought he would become a Franciscan like those he met in New York and at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY where he took courses and taught. But – again against his own natural attraction – he was drawn to the contemplation of the Trappists and the desire to amend his sinful past.
Merton had been a convert only two or three years when he began to write Seven Storey Mountain. Later, as a postulant and a novice he was encouraged to continue writing his autobiography by the Abbot of Gethsemani, Dom Frederick Dune OCSO. Merton was a severe critique of himself and of the secular culture of the western world. He admits if he were to write the book at a later date, he might have written it differently. But the book is what it is. It had to be cut and edited. It was too long. Merton admits the book is no longer his own; he was the author, but that was then.
The Universal Call to Holiness
Pope Frances wrote a new encyclical which was published this year (2018). It is about the joy that should come to each of us as we pursue holiness. It is called Gaudete et Exsultate. It rests on a solid theological foundation and it is a pastoral teaching speaking to every member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Reflecting Ignatian spirituality and the long tradition of the East and West for two millennia, it speaks in a language all an understand. The saint can be the next-door neighbor, a friend who loves us and will welcome us forever in our Father’s house of many mansions. Pope Francis stresses the individual call to holiness “in his and her way” as well as the relationship of each member of the Body of Christ.
It is in this context that we should read or reread the Seven Storey Mountain. Merton was at the beginning of his ascent to holiness – but he already knew the way, which is Christ, who accompanies us, strengthens us and makes it possible for us to reach paradise after climbing the seven stories of purgatory. Dante Alighieri told the story in poetry and theology. Merton told his story in a modern context which can help everyone to make the journey confidently in the 21st century.