Monday, May 3, 2010

Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain"

I first picked up The Seven Storey Mountain at a book store and looked at it. I had never heard of Thomas Merton before, but something drew me to his work. I did not get anything written by him that day, but every time I went to Barnes and Noble, I would look at some of his books and consider buying them. What was it that made this monk so appealing to me? Was it the simple yet stylish clothing he got to wear? Was it the fact that he led a very simply life in a monastery? Or was it just the fact that God had give this man some amazing insights in which to share with the world?

It turns out that it was a bit of all of those things. Eventually, I bought the book along with another book that he had written on the Desert Fathers called Wisdom of the Desert. I thought that book was very fitting since I bought them both the night before I flew to live in the desert right outside of Las Vegas for a week. I read Wisdom of the Desert very quickly and had much wisdom imparted on me from that book. The Seven Storey Mountain was very different from the other book. It was much longer. The Wisdom of the Desert was only seventy-five pages long and mostly wisdom sayings and stories from the Desert Fathers. “The Seven Storey Mountain” on the other hand, was over 460 pages. It was also an autobiography. I am not sure if I had ever read an autobiography, besides reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions. The insights of looking onto ones past from a differing point of view than it had been previously are ones that not only make you thank God for the graces He has bestowed upon you, but causes you to want to share those changes with others. This is what I feel has happened in this book.

One of the first things that I noticed with this book was the detail and writing style of Merton. He brought me into every place that he had been. He had grown up and had visited many places in Europe and the United States. Every time he introduced a new place, he described it with such detail that you felt you were viewing the story from his own eyes. It wasn’t just the material things that he was able to describe either. He described the attitudes, the morals, and even the spirituality of the places he went. He was able to make you feel the presence of God in the places He was describing. I would say the one thing that I wasn’t a fan of was how he seemed to deify Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since this was written by a Catholic monk, I can understand. Besides that, some of his insights were outstanding. Sometimes, it was a friend of his that would say something that caused me to stop and reflect on what was said. One of the most memorable was after Thomas had been converted and was walking down the street with his friend Lax. It starts off with Lax asking Thomas, “What do you want to be, anyway?” The rest of the conversation went as follows:

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman-English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion of betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should day is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

When I read this statement, it made me pause and wonder if I had ever wanted to be a saint. I am not talking about having sainthood put upon me by some church or group of people, but what I am talking about is living as God desires His saints to live. Just as Lax said, we just have to want to do so. God has given us the ability to live as saints; we just have to have the desire to use those abilities. The greatest thing that God has given us in this effort is that of His grace. It is only by His grace that we can even get close to becoming what He created us to be, saints.

Going along with the topic of saints, earlier in the chapter, Merton is talking about the impending war in 1939. He then writes this paragraph:

By this time, I should have acquired enough sense to realize that the cause of wars is sin. If I had accepted the gift of sanctity that had been put in my hands when I stood by the font in November 1938, what might have happened in the world? People have no idea what one saint can do: for sanctity is stronger that the whole of hell. The saints are full of Christ in plentitude of His Kingly and Divine power: and they are conscious of it, and they give themselves to Him, that He may exercise His power through their smallest and seemingly most insignificant acts, for the salvation of the world.

So many times, we hear of one person making a huge difference in the world, by doing small things. We then put the label of saint on them and hold them to a high standard than we do to ourselves. All Christians are able to change the world. Yet we continue to think that we are not worthy enough to even do so. It is insights such as this that are littered throughout the last half of the book that makes it such a great read. It is more than just a story about a guy who becomes a Trappist monk. It is also that Trappist monk pondering what He could have done, if he had not held on to things in his life after his conversion.

One of the most influential people, to me, that Thomas comes across is a lady who goes by the name of Baroness. She emigrated from Russia after the Communists began to persecute the Catholic Church in their country. She ended up starting a ministry in Harlem called the Friendship House. She lived among the poor, along with a few other ladies. They started a library, recreation rooms, and a clothing room. This lady was making a difference in a community. She had no formal education in ministry. She had no money. All she knew is that she was called by God to do something and that’s what she did. He met her while he was teaching at St. Bonaventure in upper New York. She had come to speak to the students and faculty. She made quite an impression on Thomas as well. So much so, that before he went into the monastery, he spent some time in Harlem with her.

As I have already mentioned, Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk. Soon after his baptism, he felt led to a vocation in a monastic order. He had applied to become a Franciscan at first, but he was denied. For a long period of time after that, he struggled with knowing what his vocation was. He greatly desired to go into an order but because of a few people, felt that he was not supposed to. He tried to live out the life of a monk even though he was not formally one. This lasted until he finally went back to Gethsemane in Kentucky. There was a Trappist monastery there which he has visited on a retreat a few years earlier. This time, he was there to stay. When he arrived at the gate to the monastery, the gate keeper said something that struck me. The same man had opened the gate the first time Thomas had come to the monastery and had at that time asked if he was going to stay. This time, he asked,

“This time have you come to stay?”

“Yes brother, if you’ll pray for me,” I said.

Brother nodded, and raised his hand to close the window. “That’s what I have been doing,” he said, “praying for you.”

This got me thinking, who all is praying for me? Could there be a person out there, which I have only met once in my life that is praying for me, for my well-being, for my vocation? I can only hope that I would be so blessed.

Throughout the last part of the book, Thomas gives a great insight into the contemplative life that monks of the Cistercian order live. They are men full of great joy, joy that only comes from having a close relationship with God. He also makes mention of how important it is to live a life of contemplation.

This book has caused me to look at my own life and examine it closely. I hope that everyone who reads this would be able to read this book at some point. The spiritual insights will make you want to become a better Christian and desire to get to know God all the more. It has done that with me.


Anonymous said...

I look forward to reading it when you get home...Mom

Marcy said...

"This got me thinking, who all is praying for me? Could there be a person out there, which I have only met once in my life that is praying for me, for my well-being, for my vocation? I can only hope that I would be so blessed."

which gets me thinking...who have I met only once that I am praying for....

Travis Weil said...

That is a good point Marcy. I failed to see that before. Wow, this is actually very convicting.