Final Thoughts on The Seven Storey Mountain

I enjoyed reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Personally, I would rate it higher than Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It gave me insight to Merton’s life, insight I didn’t get from just reading his poetry and non-fiction. At times it was hard to believe that the Merton portrayed in the beginning chapters could ever become the Merton I knew through his later writings. That said, I might not have gotten through the book if I hadn’t previously read some of Merton’s later works and hadn’t been prepared by this disclaimer

He was happy to replace the doubts and uncertainties of his past with the unquestioned and unquestioning certitude of the Catholic Church of the mid-twentieth century. Confident in his belief that he belonged to the “one true” church, he all too often speaks disparagingly about other Christian churches— mirroring the church’s complacent triumphalism himself. Even fifty years ago this triumphalism proved a problem for some readers of other religions, who sensed the book’s power but were bewildered by its narrow religiosity. One young woman, although obviously moved by her reading, lamented: “Why is he so vituperative about Protestants? Are they that bad?” Readers today will be better able to put this narrowness in historical perspective and thus be less bothered by it.

in the preface. Truthfully, I still had a hard time with several of his statements about other religions; they undermined much of what he had to say. At times he reminded me of one of those people who Eric Hoffer described in The True Believers (a book I discussed years ago) — and that’s definitely not a good thing.

Luckily, I had forgotten most of that by the time I reached the last chapter entitled “America is Discovering the Contemplative Life” where he summarizes what seemed to be his most influential ideas.

But Saint Thomas also comes out flatly with a pronouncement no less uncompromising than the one we read from “Umbratilem.” Vita contemplativa, he remarks, simpliciter est melior quam activa (the contemplative life in itself, by its very nature, is superior to the active life). What is more, he proves it by natural reason in arguments from a pagan philosopher— Aristotle. That is how esoteric the question is! Later on he gives his strongest argument in distinctly Christian terms. The contemplative life directly and immediately occupies itself with the love of God, than which there is no act more perfect or more meritorious. Indeed that love is the root of all merit. When you consider the effect of individual merit upon the vitality of other members of the Mystical Body it is evident that there is nothing sterile about contemplation. On the contrary Saint Thomas’s treatment of it in this question shows that the contemplative life establishes a man in the very heart of all spiritual fecundity.

Though I’m afraid I’m more apt to be convinced by, “that pagan philosopher” Aristotle than by Saint Thomas, contemplation does seem, at the every least, a spiritual act, and is seen as such in nearly every religion I’ve read. No wonder Merton would later find such common ground with the Dalai Lama.

I wish Merton had done more than just briefly outlining the steps in reaching a state of contemplation and defining contemplation,

First comes the active life (practice of virtues, mortification, charity) which prepares us for contemplation. Contemplation means rest, suspension of activity, withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God and learns something of the secret of His perfections less by seeing than by fruitive love.

Yet to stop here would be to fall short of perfection. According to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux it is the comparatively weak soul that arrives at contemplation but does not overflow with a love that must communicate what it knows of God to other men. For all the great Christian mystics without exception, Saint Bernard, Saint Gregory, Saint Theresa, Saint John of the Cross, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Saint Bonaventure, the peak of the mystical life is a marriage of the soul with God which gives the saints a miraculous power, a smooth and tireless energy in working for God and for souls, which bears fruits in the sanctity of thousands and changes the course of religious and even secular history.

With this in mind, Saint Thomas could not fail to give the highest place to a vocation which, in his eyes, seemed destined to lead men to such a height of contemplation that the soul must overflow and communicate its secrets to the world.

but contemplation as he defines is certainly a tantalizing prospect, tantalizing enough that I added his New Seeds of Contemplation to my Amazon wish list. Is “contemplation” just a different name for “meditation” or are the two traditions different? Interesting, too, that contemplation seems tied so closely to his lifelong ambition to be a writer, one whose “soul must overflow and communicate its secrets to the world.”

I suspect the climax of The Seven Storey Mountain can be found in this passage:

This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example. Yet if this sublime fire of infused love burns in your soul, it will inevitably send forth throughout the Church and the world an influence more tremendous than could be estimated by the radius reached by words or by example. Saint John of the Cross writes: “A very little of this pure love is more precious in the sight of God and of greater profit to the Church, even though the soul appear to be doing nothing, than are all other works put together.”

It’s hard to know whether Merton’s main purpose was to convert his readers to Catholicism or to convince them of the importance of Contemplation. I decided to read his book because several people I admired said that they had converted to Catholicism because of it. It obviously didn’t have that effect on me, and I doubt it would have even as a teenager.

On the other hand, as I noted it did enhance my interest in contemplation. Although I’m sorely tempted to download Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation on my Kindle immediately and begin reading it, I’m going to avoid that because I need to finish writing up some of my ideas on other books I’ve recently finished before I forget them entirely. One of the ways I’ve avoided writing lately is by picking up a new book and reading it instead. Maybe I’m just saving my brain for the many “brain games” I’ve been playing lately.

Portland’s Japanese Garden

I’m fond of a foggy morning with foghorns sounding in the distance, but we had nearly two weeks of solid fog here, whole days living in the clouds. Luckily, Leslie had made plans to visit Mary in Portland, which has been basking in sunshine while we were fogged in. Since we didn’t have definite plans, we agreed it was a good time to visit Portland’s famous Japanese Garden. As it turned out, it wasn’t just a good time; it was a perfect time.

We were greeted by this beautiful Japanese maple at the garden entrance,

Japanese maple

and didn’t have to walk very far before we were greeted by several photographers all trying to capture this view.

Japanese Garden

I’m not sure it’s possible, but if I were by myself I’d be tempted to bring a tripod and shoot HDR in an attempt to capture as much of the color as possible.

The birder in me couldn’t resist this shot, though the scene was backlit and it took a while to draw out some of the background colors without losing all the detail in the cranes.

Crane Statues

Fall color was definitely the highlight of this visit, but I still love the Japanese Sand and Stone garden, no matter what the season.

 Japanese Sand and Stone garden

Sometimes, though, you can have the best of both worlds

Flat Garden

as here in the Flat Garden.

I suspect if I lived in one of the nearby apartments I might never read another book, especially if Larry Tyrrell was playing his flute in the background as he was during one of our visits.

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.

Best Novel of the 20th Century?

I spent far too long attempting to read and understand James Joyce’s Ulysses to simply let it pass without comment, but I’m not going to attempt a literary analysis because I couldn’t come close to sources already online unless I were willing to devote a few more years to it, which I’m surely not. I merely want to address one of the questions I consistently hear about the novel and constantly asked myself as I struggled through it: Is this really the greatest novel of the 20th Century?

Stylistically, Ulysses was definitely a groundbreaking novel. It’s hard to believe Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one of my favorite “modern” novels, published in 1895 and Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922 were only published 30 years apart. Joyce’s Freudian, stream-of-consciousness approach changed the modern novel forever. Hardy’s omniscient viewpoint seems archaic compared to Joyce’s viewpoint, though admittedly today’s best-sellers still seem rooted in the more traditional narrative style.

Joyce’s exploration of Leopold Bloom’s mind, his Freudian analysis, as it were, was unprecedented as far as I know, though it seems to have become de rigueur in “serious” modern novels. Judging from graduate school readings, modern protagonists in serious novels more often than not suffer from the same despair and alienation that Bloom and Stephen do.

As Josh Rahn notes in his essay on modernism:

Modernism introduced a new kind of narration to the novel, one that would fundamentally change the entire essence of novel writing. The “unreliable” narrator supplanted the omniscient, trustworthy narrator of preceding centuries, and readers were forced to question even the most basic assumptions about how the novel should operate. James Joyce’s Ulysses is the prime example of a novel whose events are really the happenings of the mind, the goal of which is to translate as well as possible the strange pathways of human consciousness. A whole new perspective came into being known as “stream of consciousness.” Rather than looking out into the world, the great novelists of the early twentieth century surveyed the inner space of the human mind. At the same time, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud had come into mainstream acceptance. These two forces worked together to alter people’s basic understanding of what constituted truth and reality.

Joyce offers a brilliant portrayal of Leopold Bloom. We not only discover the causes of Leopold Bloom’s despair; we also begin to see the world differently through his eyes. Shown as a victim of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he’s the perfect outsider who, as a result, sees more clearly what is invisible to those who blindly accept their culture. What a brilliant strategy for Joyce who himself had become increasingly alienated from his Irish culture to choose a protagonist who was alienated from Irish culture while at the same time claiming an Irish heritage.

I think if someone asked me to name the most influential novel of the 20th Century I might very well answer Joyce’s Ulysses. After all, I doubt that two novels I actually prefer to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Catch-22, would ever have been written if Ulysses hadn’t broken ground first. Even a writer like Thomas Merton who superficially seems to have little in common with Joyce seems to have admired and been influenced by his work.

Stylistically it’s undeniably a masterpiece. Given my druthers, I prefer to read a novel that seems new, that surprises me. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle
and Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse were great reads and made a real impression on me when I first read them. Unfortunately, they haven’t stuck with me nearly as long as more traditional novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly one of the 10 best novels of the 20th Century, and one whose definition of courage I’ve held dear all those years.

Style is undoubtably an important aspect of any work, but, for me, content still trumps style. At least in a serious novel that I’m going to spend time studying, it’s the author’s vision of the world that most interests me. Perhaps if I had lived in Ireland in 1922 I, too, would have seen the world from Joyce’s viewpoint and would have regarded Ulysses as the best novel of the 20th Century. It was definitely a time of deep alienation. Darwinism and science had undermined many religious beliefs. World War I had laid waste to Europe. This was the “Lost Generation,” and It’s no coincidence that T. S.Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was the most acclaimed poem of the time. In the end, though, Joyce’s vision is too close to Eliot’s Wasteland and Pound’s schizophrenic view of the world for my taste.

Joyce reminds me of psychiatrists who study the sickest people in society and then use their findings to generalize about human nature — possibly because his portrayal of Bloom seems so Freudian. I can empathize with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and admire the way he helps Stephen when he realizes he’s in trouble. But I’ve read the original Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom is no Ulysses. He reminds me more of Eliot’s Fisher King than he does Ulysses.

As many critics have pointed out, Leopold Bloom is so ordinary that it’s hard to take Blooms comparison to Odysseus seriously. Odysseus represented the ideals of Greek Culture. Bloom is anything but ideal; he’s certainly not “heroic” in any way I would define the word. He’s a victim of society who still manages to be a better person than most of those who discriminate against him, but that doesn’t make him “heroic,” or worth emulating. I’ve got enough of my own problems without wanting to emulate Bloom. To be “heroic” Leopold, or Stephen, would have to find a way to stand up to those forces that are destroying them, and there’s no indication of them being able to do that.

Some might claim that Ulysses’ emphasis on alienation as a defining characteristic of modern life and the victimization of the individual makes it a seminal work, but I didn’t find Stephen’s reaction against Irish society particularly new or particularly revolutionary. Society has always pressured people to conform, probably more in the past than in modern times. From what I’ve seen of small-town-life, there is more pressure to conform in villages then there is in large cities. Emerson argued convincingly nearly 100 years before Joyce that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The difference between Emerson and Joyce is that Emerson offered “self-reliance” as an alternative to those pressures, whereas Joyce suggests no alternative.

Ulysses has forced me to consciously examine what it is that I look for in a novel and, in turn, decide how important various elements of a novel are to me. This is one of the hardest blog entries I’ve ever written and has required far more thought than I usually put into an entry. It’s even made me appreciate the novel more than I originally did.

Having to reconsider your criteria for judging a book probably makes the novel worth reading, even if you decide in the end that it’s not even close to the best novel of the 20th Century. While trying to discover who was in the Modern Library group that decided what the greatest novels of the 20th century were, I found another list called the “Readers List” that said that ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand was the best novel of the 20th Century. In fact, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard dominated the top ten novels. Given those options, I would have to concede that Ulysses was clearly the greatest novel of the 20th Century.