A Climb Through Existence
One man, through text, lives eventually for the contemplative life, that which God has willed for him
Merton did away with the world. He saw the opportunity for advancement, an advancement dissimilar, contradictory even, to that of the man of the world. Merton shut himself off to the society which partially recognized him, a society which partially recognizes each and every one of us. Only when we take intense notice do we begin to understand our path, our reason for existing. Before the true depth of this endeavor is undertaken, the man of the earth is not fully aware of his calling.
Rejection in life is seemingly inevitable. Look to anyone’s life and the certainty of that statement is easily digested. Thomas Merton is a man who battled the world, was spit out in the heat of the battle, and in turn backed away.
The freedom that comes with birth is something most never realize, but those who do live a far less insecure life than those trapped under the weight of their own ideals given to them most likely by their elders, people who convince the would-be risk taker to “ease” his way through life to the comfortable retirement. This retirement is, seemingly, necessary.
Having read, and being the owner of some of Merton’s other books – “The Wisdom of the Desert,” “New Seeds of Contemplation,” “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” – I’m aware of his desire for the contemplative life. In “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton defines contemplation in the Epilogue: “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 leaves something of the secret of His perfection less by seeing than by fruitive love.” His thoughts on contemplation are similar to most, yet seemingly lacking some sort of implied effort. When contemplating, according to Merton, one must allow God into his life; and what do we do to let Him in there?
The religious life, for Merton, proved his saving grace, literally. While in the world, he never could fully grasp happiness, a kind of peace probably few can understand. He heard voices, he calls them bells, referring to them a number of times in relation to his own life and that of his brother’s afterlife. The book ends with a touching, heart-wrenching poem to his recently-deceased-at-the-hands-of-a-war brother – a war caused by the “sins of man,” according to Merton.
He doesn’t particularly lecture. He wants people to know the truth he has arrived at, but never in reading the book did I feel weighed down by any sermon casting me to hell. Instead, Merton writes of his relatable sins, entrusting the reader with honesty. One gets the impression Merton knows no other way of writing. His times spent coming close to fist-fighting and woman-chasing aren’t left out of this text, nor is his time spent trying to be a communist. His sins, he doesn’t hide from.
So many of this book’s pages are devoted to Merton’s childhood. His memory of his youth is remarkable. His family is well accounted for, scattered throughout the world as they were. Not one particular family member raised Merton: his father, an artist, decided to pursue many landscapes, resulting in vast traveling. Young Thomas was with him only some of the time. At other times he was with acquaintances of his father or his grandparents. Most of the book is written without a thought of his younger brother.
Reading “The Seven Storey Mountain” is in fact a challenge. The reader must open his heart to the style of Merton’s writing. He can be brief or long-winded. He doesn’t write to impress, though.
He died in 1968, fairly young at 53. He never would have entered my life had it not been on recommendation from a friend. It’s interesting to trace the steps back to where and from whom great writers enter one’s life. Within “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton tells of his love for his hero, William Blake.
How fortunate I am to have read this book two times now. I’d like to predict how many more times I read it, but that’s a difficult number to guess. Autobiographies are fun to read because the reader is able to draw parallels in his life to those of the writer, but most writers write their life stories in an older age. Merton was merely 33.