Many years ago, in 1948, a book was published that had an immediate dramatic effect on its readers. It was written by a young man, Thomas Merton, and told the story of his riotous youth, conversion to Catholicism, and entry into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, in 1941, when he was twenty-six years old. The book’s title was taken from Dante’s description of Purgatory, The Seven Storey Mountain.
In those postwar years, a book telling of a young man who had been as worldly as anyone else choosing a contemplative vocation had a fascination it is difficult to describe. We small-souled readers are capable of at least an aesthetic response to accounts of heroism, and doubtless many lived out in an imaginative minute a lifetime of asceticism while reading the book. But Merton’s impact went far beyond this. In Seeds of Contemplation, he fed the flame that had been ignited by his autobiography. There was a great influx into the Trappists, new foundations sprang up across the land. And Thomas Merton, who had turned away from the aspiration to write when he entered the monastery, soon became an extraordinarily prolific writer.
When he died in 1968, in the Orient, his influence had adjusted to the Vietnam generation, and he became identified for many with the antiwar movement. Biographies of Merton have been written, and given what has become the manner of biographies, his luster dimmed somewhat, but the role he seems destined to play for Americans is more secure now than it ever was. In part this is due to the devotion of his admirers, who have refused to let obscurity claim him. Brother Patrick Hart, a fellow Trappist who served as secretary to Merton, has earned the gratitude of us all for his self-effacing and tireless effort to keep the flame alight. Brother Patrick edited the letters of Merton and brought together his literary essays.
When I first read Seven Storey Mountain, in the year of its appearance, I was overwhelmed and somewhat shamed by the freshness and awe with which Merton spoke of things that had become matter-of-fact to me. Doubtless the convert will always open the eyes of the cradle Catholic to the marvels he takes for granted. But it was Merton’s enthusiasm for Catholic culture, particularly the spiritual and intellectual patrimony of the Church, that awoke in me a desire to assimilate and be grateful for that great tradition.
But I also was fascinated by Merton’s account of his desire to become a novelist. He told of spending summers in a cottage in upstate New York with college friends, all of them writing away at their novels. It was as if I first realized that things get written by getting written, a day at a time. Merton’s hopes for publication were dashed. He would submit his novels, and they would be refused. Later, after he became famous as a Trappist poet and spiritual writer, a publisher brought out one of those youthful novels. It was awful.
Was Merton a good poet? I am no judge, of course, but he does seem uneven to me. He wrote free verse, tennis without a net, but sometimes it worked. Often it did not, and his similes would not cohere. Oddly the failures happened when he was under the influence of the psalms.
His continuing role is that of a spiritual type, a gifted author of protreptic works that awaken a deep longing for the inner life. Reading his complete journals will give us the man, warts and all. Perhaps, as with the de-saccharinizing of the Little Flower, this will make him even more appealing to l’homme moyen sensuel. Mount’s biography shocked me a little, and I indulged some pharisaical thoughts. Any flaw in someone striving for sanctity sets off the hum of criticism in those of us who could not have lived a day of the life to which Thomas Merton gave twenty-seven years of his. It is good to settle down again with this marvelous and saintly author.
This column originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.