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.

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.

Robert Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain

I first considered reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain when Robert Lax’s editors suggested that Merton held Lax in the highest esteem and praised Lax in his seminal work. I wondered if gaining more insight into his character would offer further insight into Lax’s poetry. Later when I read that Jean Vanier’s life was changed by reading Merton’s work, I decided it was time to read it. But it was only as I actually read The Seven Storey Mountain that I realized I must have been destined to read this book. I was amazed to find several references to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I recently finished reading and still hadn’t decided how to discuss, particularly since Merton’s early life reminded me of the life Joyce portrays in his biographical novel. I was equally amazed to discover multiple references to Merton’s love of Blake, especially since I’d just recently bought Blake’s Complete Works, a book of his drawings, and two critical reviews of his work in anticipation of a mini-course in his poetry. Turns out that it is just plain a great read, too, even if you’re not entirely converted by Merton’s conversion. My only complaint was that I didn’t have the time to just sit down and read it from cover to cover.

Today, though, I’m going to limit myself to discussing Merton’s portrayal of Lax, because I want to get back to Lax’s works and finish up that discussion before circling back and relating Merton’s views of Joyce to my own impressions. Despite the hype from Lax’s editors, there’s not really too much about Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain, though Lax does seem to be one of Merton’s closest friends and was pivotal in getting Merton’s poetry published after he entered the monastery. We first see Lax waiting for a poetry professor to show up:

Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe, and waited for someone to come in and begin to talk to them.

Lax was apparently one of Merton’s “serious” friends; at this early stage of Merton’s life Lax might have been one of his few serious friends because Merton seemed to take partying more seriously than his studies. I suspect that the phrase “meditated on some incomprehensible woe” is the most significant phrase for Merton, at least seen from the perspective of when he wrote this biography.

I’m still not sure what Merton means in this later description,

To name Robert Lax in another way, he was a kind of combination of Hamlet and Elias. A potential prophet, but without rage. A king, but a Jew too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.

perhaps merely that Lax was a reluctant prophet. I certainly never get a sense from Lax’s poetry that he considers himself a “prophet” at all, though the poetry is quite often limited to “subtle intuitions.” His poetry certainly reveals rather than tells.

Although I don’t really consider Lax a Catholic, or even, for that matter, a Christian poet, all of his poetry has a spiritual overtone to it, for as Merton notes:

And the secret of his constant solidity I think has always been a kind of natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God. Lax has always been afraid he was in a blind alley, and half aware that, after all, it might not be a blind alley, but God, infinity.

Unlike Lax, Merton was conflicted by his desire to publish, fearing that it was a self-indulgence and manifestation of ego that conflicted with his desire to serve God:

Lax rebuked me for all this. His whole attitude about writing was purified of such stupidity, and was steeped in holiness, in charity, in disinterestedness. Characteristically he conceived the function of those who knew how to write, and who had something to say, in terms of the salvation of society. Lax’s picture of America— before which he has stood for twelve years with his hands hanging in helplessness at his sides— is the picture of a country full of people who want to be kind and pleasant and happy and love good things and serve God, but do not know how. And they do not know where to turn to find out. They are surrounded by all kinds of sources of information which only conspire to bewilder them more and more. And Lax’s vision is a vision of the day when they will turn on the radio and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know. They will find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity.

The line “They will find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity” reveals much about not only Merton’s writing but about Lax’s writing, too. It’s easy to see how most, if not all, of Lax’s poetry serves this purpose as clearly as Merton’s religious-oriented writings.

Even though Lax didn’t convert to Catholicism until after Merton had become a monk, Lax dispels Merton’s doubts and leads directly to his conversion:

“What you should say”— he told me—” what you should say 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.” A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing— and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.

Not many people could make that statement, even less college students, but it says worlds about Lax’s character, even in his early years. No wonder Merton saw him as even more religious than himself.