Merton: A man for our time, our journey

Monday Books

January 03, 1994|By Jim Westwater

The full beauty of the mountain is not seen until you too consent to the impossible paradox: It is and is not. When nothing more needs to be said, the smoke of ideas clear, the Mountain is SEEN.

-- Thomas Merton LAST month was the 25th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. This year is the 46th anniversary of "The Seven Storey Mountain," his best-selling autobiography.

Merton's life is remarkable. In a short time, he made the transition from a life which was, to say the least, amoral, to that of a Trappist monk, wholly occupied with God. As a young poet and intellectual, he began to live the ascetic life of a Christian contemplative.

Born in southern France in 1915, Merton was the son of an English landscape artist and an American Quaker mother. He studied at Oxford, where his rowdy behavior caused him to lose his scholarship. He later received his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University, where he became one of Mark Van Doren's outstanding students.

In 1941, after working at a settlement home in Harlem, Merton renounced his hedonistic life and at the age of 26 entered the world of the Trappist monks. The Gethsemane, Ky., religious community, whose members pledged themselves to silence, manual work and worship, fulfilled Merton's search.

Thomas Merton's early life was similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi. Both men wallowed in "the good life" in their youth, and both, finding this life barren, eventually turned to a religious order. Ironically, the order that Francis founded, the Franciscans, deferred Merton's request for admission.

"The Seven Storey Mountain," written during Merton's years at the Gethsemane monastery, is intensely personal and vivid. The author immediately involves the reader in the story. He has the uncanny ability to articulate his human struggle with a clarity and precision that is inviting and stirring. We are able to identify with his story; we see our loneliness, our alienation, our struggles and aspirations, and our attachments to this world. Merton writes autobiography and we discover biography -- our own and others'.

Although the book was an immediate best seller, the New York Times never listed "The Seven Storey Mountain" as a best-seller, because, according to Merton's publisher, Robert Giroux, the newspaper considered it a "religious book."

Merton's work is still seen primarily from the perspective of those in the fields of religion and spirituality, but he is an equally important literary figure. The sheer quantity of his literary output is amazing: more than 40 books, some 60 journals, a thousand pages of poetry, some 4,000 letters.

His writing shows a complex figure -- a man of many paradoxes. He writes insightfully about the Shakers, Zen, the medieval mystics, Chinese philosophy, the Crusades and more, including the issues of war and peace.

The breadth of Merton's interests and concerns led him to become increasingly interested in Eastern religions, and it was this interest that took him to the Orient, where he had extended conversations with contemplatives of various Eastern sects.

As a result of these powerful experiences, Merton's writings charted a new path for Christian spirituality which has been described by William Shannon as a "spirituality of being."

Though it's been 46 years since publication of "The Seven Storey Mountain," it is a book for our time and our journey, well worth the reading in 1994.

Jim Westwater is associate dean at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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