Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

Way back in April I briefly discussed Merton’s portrayal of Robert Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain, the reason I originally decided to read it, and mentioned that I was also intrigued by Merton’s references to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but would have to come back to them. Since I had just finished Joyce’s book before I started reading Merton’, I might have made more of this connection than I otherwise would have, but Merton’s early life and the style of the book reminded me an awful lot of Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, though in a rather twisted way.

Joyce and Merton seem to have arrived at a critical point in their lives from very different paths. Joyce was educated in a strict, if not rigid, Catholic institution, while Merton was raised as a "free spirit,” with very little discipline. Joyce was drilled in Catholic beliefs while Merton was barely exposed to religion at all since his parents seemed determined to let him choose his own religion. Strangely, they almost seemed like mirror images of each other at one stage in their lives.

I think this passage where Merton described his feelings before entering the monastery is where it really struck me that Stephen in Portrait and Merton seemed quite similar.

What did I care about monks and monasteries? The world was going to open out before me, with all its entertainments, and everything would be mine and with my intelligence and my five sharp senses I would rob all its treasures and rifle its coffers and empty them all. And I would take what pleased me, and the rest I would throw away. And if I merely felt like spoiling the luxuries I did not want to use, I would spoil them and misuse them, to suit myself, because I was master of everything. It did not matter that I would not have much money: I would have enough, and my wits would do the rest. And I was aware that the best pleasures can be had without very much money— or with none at all.

Merton’s description of wanting to “live life to the fullest” seemed almost like a parody of Stephen’s declaration at the end of The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Merton makes many literary references throughout The Seven Storey Mountain, also making it clear he admired Joyce’s works, not surprising since Joyce was hailed as one of the greatest contemporary artists of the time. Anyone who had read Joyce’s Ulysses “twice or three times” must have thought Joyce was a major literary force.

And here is a strange thing. I had by now read James Joyce's Ulysses twice or three times. Six years before— on one of those winter vacations in Strasbourg— I had tried to read Portrait of the Artist and had bogged down in the part about his spiritual crisis. Something about it had discouraged, bored, and depressed me. I did not want to read about such a thing: and I finally dropped it in the middle of the "Mission."

Merton focuses on how his reaction to the priest’s sermon on hell was entirely different than what Joyce had intended:

Strange to say, sometime during this summer— I think it was before the first time I went to Corpus Christi— I reread Portrait of the Artist and was fascinated precisely by that part of the book, by the "Mission," by the priest's sermon on hell. What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon. Now, instead of being repelled by the thought of such preaching— which was perhaps the author's intention— I was stimulated and edified by it. The style in which the priest in the book talked, pleased me by its efficiency and solidity and drive: and once again there was something eminently satisfying in the thought that these Catholics knew what they believed, and knew what to teach, and all taught the same thing, and taught it with coordination and purpose and great effect. It was this that struck me first of all, rather than the actual subject matter of their doctrine— until, that is, I heard the sermon at Corpus Christi.

Merton even tries to smooth over his differneces with Joyce while explaining that Joyce’s descriptions of Catholic life actually inspired him, perhaps because his early life lacked precisely those elements.

So then I continued to read Joyce, more and more fascinated by the pictures of priests and Catholic life that came up here and there in his books. That, I am sure, will strike many people as a strange thing indeed. I think Joyce himself was only interested in rebuilding the Dublin he had known as objectively and vitally as he could. He was certainly very alive to all the faults in Irish Catholic society, and he had practically no sympathy left for the Church he had abandoned: but in his intense loyalty to the vocation of artist for which he had abandoned it (and the two vocations are not per se irreconcilable: they only became so because of peculiar subjective circumstances in Joyce's own case) he meant to be as accurate as he could in rebuilding his world as it truly was. Therefore, reading Joyce, I was moving in his Dublin, and breathing the air of its physical and spiritual slums: and it was not the most Catholic side of Dublin that he always painted. But in the background was the Church, and its priests, and its devotions, and the Catholic life in all its gradations, from the Jesuits down to those who barely clung to the hem of the Church's garments. And it was this background that fascinated me now, along with the temper of Thomism that had once been in Joyce himself. If he had abandoned St. Thomas, he had not stepped much further down than Aristotle.

Merton seems to quietly dismiss Joyce’s dissatisfaction with the Church with the phrase “peculiar subjective circumstances,” even if it’s not entirely clear what that means. He suggests in the last line that even if Joyce had rejected the Catholic Church, his underlying beliefs were still quite similar, as other critics have also noted. For Joyce, Art seemed to replace the Church while his basic underlying beliefs remain the same. Merton who had grown up admiring Catholic Church art in Italy with his parents must surely have felt that the two vocations could complement each other.

There’s no doubt that Joyce’s description of the priest’s sermon affected Merton when Merton describes his first personal encounter with a similar sermon:

When the sermon on hell began, I was naturally making mental comparisons with the one in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and reflecting on it in a kind of detached manner, as if I were a third and separate person watching myself hearing this sermon and seeing how it affected me. As a matter of fact this was the sermon which should have done me the most good and did, in fact, do so. My opinion is that it is a very extraordinary thing for anyone to be upset by such a topic. Why should anyone be shattered by the thought of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God's. In damning them He is only ratifying their own decision— a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice. Nor will He ever hold our weakness alone responsible for our damnation. Our weakness should not terrify us: it is the source of our strength. Libeuter gloriabor in infirmitatibus meis ut inhabitet in me virtus Christi. Power is made perfect in infirmity, and our very helplessness is all the more potent a claim on that Divine Mercy Who calls to Himself the poor, the little ones, the heavily burdened. My reaction to the sermon on hell was, indeed, what spiritual writers call "confusion"— but it was not the hectic, emotional confusion that comes from passion and from self-love. It was a sense of quiet sorrow and patient grief at the thought of these tremendous and terrible sufferings which I deserved and into which I stood a very good chance of entering, in my present condition: but at the same time, the magnitude of the punishment gave me a special and particular understanding of the greatness of the evil of sin. But the final result was a great deepening and awakening of my soul, a real increase in spiritual profundity and an advance in faith and love and confidence in God, to Whom alone I could look for salvation from these things. And therefore I all the more earnestly desired Baptism.

I suspect many of us who read widely subconsciously interpret reality though the eyes of author’s we’ve read, but I can count on a single hand the number of times I’ve consciously been aware of something I’ve read while experiencing an important event. Joyce had obviously made a major impression on Merton, even if his reaction to the sermon on hell was quite different from Joyce’s final reaction.

Perhaps Merton’s response to Joyce could have been overlooked if it had only been mentioned it at the beginning of his conversion, but Joyce is also mentioned a the climax of the book, when Merton is about to enter the monastery:

And then he turned to Father Master and said: "Father, here is a man who was converted to the faith by reading James Joyce." I don't think Father Master had heard of James Joyce. I had told the Carmelite that reading Joyce had contributed something to my conversion.

While the statement that Merton had been “converted to the faith by reading James Joyce” seems a humorous exaggeration, he obviously rejected Joyce’s viewpoint. Perhaps, despite Joyce’s undeniable power as a writer, Merton wanted to avoid the life Stephen was living. Perhaps he saw where he himself seemed to be headed when he thought “The world was going to open out before me, with all its entertainments…”

Perhaps this book should have been entitled “The Portrait of the Monk as a Young Man. “ In many ways, The Seven Storey Mountain seems to be the next generations’ answer to the Lost Generation. Instead of rejecting the values of the Catholic Church as Joyce had described doing in Portrait of the Artist, Merton rejected his liberal childhood and embraced the Catholic view of life.

2 thoughts on “Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

  1. I enjoyed reading your insights. Merton’s comment on the value of weakness is interesting and calls to mind St. Therese’s description of her approach to God: that she stands like a small child with her arms raised, pleading to be picked up, and God carries her to great heights. Her “little way” was a major contribution to Catholicism.

    • Thanks, Tom. I still have a little more I want to add to this discussion, but it’s sunny and the lawn seems to be still growing even though the leaves have almost completely covered it. With rain forecast, blogging has to wait.

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