This lovely morning I heard a bagpiper saluting the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean, and I thought:
We all live in the household of the Almighty Father, where the board overflows with food. Some sit at the table and eat their fill, and some of us linger like dogs underfoot. But we, the curs of the divine household, eat plenty, too, from the scraps that fall. The only thing that matters is to be inside the house.
Okay: Seven Storey Mountain…
Thomas Merton entered the Catholic Church at age 23, while a student at a big-city university. As did I. Before leaving the house to go receive his first Holy Communion, Merton worried whether brushing your teeth violated the prescribed fast. I did, too.
During his first year as a Catholic, Merton undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, sitting on the floor of his bohemian downtown apartment. Me, too. He found a way to quit smoking and felt like a new man. Yes.
During his twenties, Merton made a retreat at a Trappist monastery, and the indulgent love of the heavenly Father wrapped him up like a silent blanket. Ditto.
Merton visited Rome. “I started with the misconception common to Anglo-Saxons, that the real Rome is the Rome of ugly ruins, the Rome of all those grey, cariated temples…then I began to haunt churches…And without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim.” Sounds familiar.
After joining the Church, Merton had to wait to embark on the path to the priesthood, so he taught school. Me, too.
Merton wrote a lot of religious poems. Merton could not stay away from the tabernacle. Merton adored Christ crucified. Merton kept copious journals. Merton rode a lot of trains and took a lot of walks by himself. Merton wondered if a real Christian had to go live in Harlem or East Baltimore like the Catholic Workers. Merton loved Shakespeare and Dante and admired T.S. Eliot. Merton studied Spanish. Merton had one sibling, a brother, a couple years younger. Merton fell in love with St. Therese. Merton did some hitch-hiking in upstate New York. Yo tambien. Yo tambien…
I have read Seven Storey Mountain three times. Each time, it seems more familiar.
But the differences are much starker:
Thomas Merton was a real writer, genuinely brilliant. Merton was born in France and grew up on Long Island (It is wonderful to imagine rural Long Island, as it was in the 1920’s!) and England. No one in Merton’s family frequented church regularly. When WWII came, he submitted to the draft, but he didn’t have to go, because his teeth were so bad.
On the other hand, I have some of the best teeth I know of. And I grew up going to church. And, even though Merton and I both visited the Trappists and thought of staying there to live in our coffins until the final bell, I knew I was really supposed to be a parish priest–in spite of how difficult this would make things for the poor people of the parishes.
Seven Storey Mountain contains not a few jeremiads, tirades against the world–the world that deserves damnation. At 22, I did not understand these passages. At 29, I loved them. At 44, well…
Merton always includes himself among the guilty. He practically blames himself, all his youthful sins, for the eruption of World War II. But: While this book contains stunning, enormously consoling interior honesty, it, meanwhile, contains precious little human connection with other people.
(For example, without getting into anything disedifying here, my dear reader: I read with not a little disgust the cursory manner in which Merton dismisses the young ladies with whom he had been in love–without so much as a trifling description of any of them as recognizable people. Were they not his friends? It seems odd that they pass like inhuman props through the storyline. I promise that I will never write my own One-and-a-half Storey Mountain, because it would itself provoke the divine wrath for its tediousness. But, if I did, there is a woman or two who would receive more fulsome and respectful treatment.)
Fr. Basil Pennington wrote in Thomas Merton, My Brother, that Fr. Louis changed significantly, and disavowed Seven Storey Mountain, because of an experience in Louisville.
Here’s how Merton describes the experience. (From his private journal, March 19, 1958):
Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream–the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race–and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!
Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are–as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.
Beautiful. But Pennington gets carried away with this, I think. After all, Merton had profound experiences as often as most people drink coffee. If we all had a nickel for every profound experience Thomas Merton had, we would have some money to give away if and when we became Trappists.
To be altogether blunt: I think the idea of invoking “later” Merton against the “pre-Vatican II piety” of the genuinely famous Merton (Seven Storey Mountain has never gone out of print) is patently stupid. Statements like the following, which can be found in a “Note to the Reader” by a Mr. William H. Shannon in the 1998 edition of Seven Storey Mountain, simply boggle the mind:
The pre-Vatican II church into which Merton was baptized was a church still reacting–even three centuries later–to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons-circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity.
Can this man have possibly read the canons of the Council of Trent? Anyway, the idea that Vatican II gave us a New World Order in our Church–this idea has been thoroughly exposed as a fraud. Time has made mincemeat of the idea. And if we look at the whole question of early vs. later Merton that way, our thoughts will linger on altogether too shallow a plane anyway.
Let me speak solely for myself. Yes–I can say, “Me, too,” to an awful lot of what Thomas Merton wrote in Seven Storey Mountain. I found enormous consolation in my twenties from Merton in his twenties. But, now that I am older than Merton was when he went to Louisville for a doctor’s appointment in 1958, I find the jeremiads of Seven Storey Mountain somewhat uncharitable and pretty pointless. So let me say:
I love being a secular priest. I am no good at it, interiorly or exteriorly. But I love God, His Christ, His Church, and His world. I love the fact that the second Vatican Council gave us not a New World Order in the Church, but the mandate for the New Evangelization. Which we pursue, in the immortal words of Woody Allen, in the exact same place where you can get a good steak.