that there was too much wrong with my strange, vague, selfish hedonism”
Just as Augustine’s Confessions told the conversion story of a young man who still benefited from the rich fruits of the Pax Romana, reverberating even through the decline of the Empire, so too Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain tells how a modern, steeped in apathy and the din of self-seeking, finds his God, his Church, and his vocation.
Merton was not raised in a religious household. There was little, if any, use for religion by his utilitarian mother and bohemian father. When he does begin to be introduced, ever so insignificantly, to Christianity, it’s through a strange substitution. In a cross between laugh-out loud hilarity and furrowed-brow wrongness, Merton recounts how a chaplain at his high school in England inserted “gentleman” for “charity” in 1 Corinthians. Merton’s close here is perhaps just parenthetical, but it is a deep revelation into a philosophy that chooses “gentlemanliness” over “charity:” “And so it went. I will not accuse him of finishing the chapter with ‘Now there remain faith, hope and gentlemanliness, and the greatest of these is gentlemanliness…’ although it was the logical term of his reasoning” (81). Charity is deeply concerned with “the other” and gentlemanliness is first concerned with oneself. The idea of gentlemanliness triumphing over charity is the idea of the self triumphing over the other. But for Merton, this was only one expression of a deeper rot.
This deeper rot reached beyond England. Merton called it “some kind of moral fungus, the spores of which floated in that damp air, in that foggy and half-lighted darkness…some kind of subtle poison in Europe, something that corrupted me” (139). Bereft of God, rightfully unattracted to the notion of gentlemanliness triumphing over charity, and aware of a poison in his surroundings, Merton turned inward to his own counsel: “But the only wickedness I was up to was that I roamed around the city smoking cigarettes and hugging my own sweet sense of independence” (101). These inward musings would lead him to replacement religions/gods, one of them being communism.
He confesses his selfishness in seeking out communism: “I was seriously exercised about the injustices done to the working class, which were and are very real, but were too serious for my empty-headed vanity – but simply because I thought it fitted in nicely with the décor in which I now moved in all my imaginings” (103). Yet even here he finds fault when he realizes that however perspicacious communism might be in detecting the cause, it, like capitalism, has no real cure: “The chief weakness of Communism is that it is, itself, only another breed of the same materialism which is the source and root of all the evils which it so clearly sees, and it is evidently nothing but another product of the breakdown of the capitalist system” (149-150). Communism was a false god, and Merton quickly saw that.
At this time he began to see that happy as he might feel about following his own will, with a poison in the air and no antidotes in modern systems, there was something deeply wrong with his life: “it was evident that there was too much wrong with my strange, vague, selfish hedonism” (146). Merton had not yet found God. But He had started, in fits and starts, to discover His Church.
It wasn’t easy. While Merton’s early upbringing was not religious, what parts of it touched on religion took care to reinforce that Catholicism was immoral. For Pop, Merton’s grandfather, “ Catholicism had become associated, in his mind, with everything dishonest and crooked and immoral” (29). Apart from this family bias, Merton constantly commented on how little the world (and he) seemed to care about God or eternity: “…all the hypocrisy and petty sensuality and skepticism and materialism which cold and trivial minds set up as unpassable barriers between God and the souls of men” (96). He could not approach God directly. So God approached him indirectly, through writers like Dante and Blake.
Indeed, it was Dante’s genius that cracked the ice of skepticism for Merton: “Because of his genius, I was ready to accept all that he said about such things as Purgatory and Hell at least provisionally…” (135). And as Merton began to see that there was a spiritual world, he saw that a great collision was occurring and would continue to occur between the spiritual and material in the modern world. This quote, obviously overlaid by the mature Merton in reflection on his past life, is particularly revelatory and deserves to be quoted at length:
Did I know that my own sins were enough to have destroyed the whole of England and Germany? There has never yet been a bomb invented that is half so powerful as one mortal sin – and yet there is no positive power in sin, only negation, only annihilation: and perhaps that is why it is so destructive, it is a nothingness, and where it is, there is nothing left – a blank, a moral vacuum.
When Merton was able to confront both his sins and, indeed, the sins of the whole world, the remedy became even clearer to him: “When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace” (186). Grace would perfect the imperfect.
Yet, Merton knew that not all was sweetness and light. He knew that suffering was part of the body of Christ as well. As he ascended his seven storey mountain, Merton moved from dealing with his willfulness and reluctance to change to a gradual submission in Christ. Indeed, this submission was a total reset for Merton. He had an easy, established life, with friends and a course of action – he was going to get his Ph.D. at Columbia. As Merton’s life reset, he “Catholicized” his life plan – he was going to move from a life of self-directed studies at Columbia to a life of self-directed studies with the Franciscans. And yet, this bothered Merton. This new life of sanctifying grace called for more than the superficial change of clothing and taking of vows – it required, of Merton, everything. And thus finally, he found himself, clean of the world’s slime, not in a Franciscan novitiate, but in a Benedictine Abbey in Kentucky: “My mouth was at last clean of the yellow, parching salt of nicotine, and I had rinsed my eyes of the grey slops of movies, so that now my taste and my vision were clean” (333). Merton was home.
I think that the reason that Merton is so relevant and compelling to the modern reader, and why his memoir does not seem dated, even in the digital age, is because he has lived what we are living. He has lived the loss of authority. He has lived the directionless of modern man. He has seen the unbridled pursuit of self-pleasure. And he has struggled with the ever ancient, ever new thoughts of Augustine: “Oh God, give me chastity, but not yet.” Merton’s struggle with his own will is truly our own struggle.
So often many people never realize this fundamental turning point in their own lives: “And then it suddenly became clear to me that my whole life was at a crisis. Far more than I could imagine or understand or conceive was now hanging upon a word – a decision of mine” (279). Merton was not looking at himself through the material eyes of the world, but through the spiritual lenses of faith. So many people wait for a sign or some voice from the heavens – Merton confronted this crisis within himself when all to the exterior seemed calm and in order. Indeed, it was because he now had eyes of the spirit and could see that, as St. Paul so long ago noted, our battles were not with flesh and blood, but with angels and with ourselves, that he was able to take up the gauntlet of his vocation.
Like Augustine, Merton found his joy in following Christ’s will, not his own. What is remarkable about Merton’s story is that it illustrates that despite all of the problems of the modern world, conversion is still very possible, if one cooperates with grace and the gifts of the mind and spirit that God sees fit to dispense.