The Seven Storey Mountain
Merton had an interesting though difficult upbringing - difficult because his mother died when he was young, and his father was often absent, causing Merton to have a disconnected relationship with him. Other family members raised him and his brother. The interesting part of his life was that he lived all over Europe and America, which enriched his worldly experiences, even if he did not realize it, yet. Not that I advocate relocating every year, especially as a young child, but Merton was exposed to the world at a young age, and it had an essential impact on his future decisions
Later, in his early adulthood, he backpacked all over Europe, which caused him to discover answers to his questions. Like many young people, he had philosophical questions about his world, life, and God. He earnestly pursued these answers that later influenced him to embrace Catholicism and eventually to become a Trappist monk.
During his life as a monk he was encouraged to write about his life; and part of his desire to share his personal story was because of his love for writing. In his memoirs, he shares his thought process with his readers, as he describes the apprehensive, but eager steps he took to seek truth, search faith, understand who God is, choose religion, and dedicate his life to solitude and servitude as a monk. It is all very intriguing and interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. Nonetheless, I will spare you all my personal opinions about his religious experiences and understandings. We just have to agree to disagree, Merton and I.
What I related to most, however, was his choice to live the remainder of his life as a monk. Let me tell you...there is a quiet part of me that would LOVE to live as a monk. Why NOT choose solitude, serenity, and peace? I have only ever known the life of a monk to exemplify peace. My uncle is a monk, and some of my favorite memories are of visiting him at his monastery, which was upstate New York, across the Hudson River from West Point. To me, it was the calmest place on earth; even as a child I appreciated that. The grounds surrounding the monastery exuded peace with its many trees, especially in the autumn when the leaves changed to golden yellow and crimson red. As a little girl, I imagined that heaven would be like this place.
As an adult, my children and I visited a local monastery on a field trip. We learned all about the life of these monks, and how they spent their time in quiet study, contemplation, and work. When we left the grounds that day, my teenage son said, "I want to be a monk." Of course, he was kidding, but I told him I wanted to, too. I would love that peace all day long, to be alone with my thoughts! (But back to reality...)
Meanwhile, Merton chose to be a Trappist monk, in part because he did not think he was good or worthy enough to join any other order. Frankly, if one has to be "worthy" to join a particular religious order, then no one is good enough; but I digress. Merton had heavy burdens from his youth, but my copy of his story did not elaborate. Apparently, his original version talked in great detail about his past, but he was ordered to revise it. In my copy, he only talked about his guilt for mistreating his brother and being selfish for rejecting the love of others and God; however, his writing implies his sins go much deeper. He felt terribly guilty about his past. Dedicating his life to God was how he felt he could find and make peace with God, like a form of penance.
That is what makes me wonder why Merton named his autobiography after the mountain in Purgatorio, by Dante. Purgatory is a place, according to Catholics, where the dead are penalized for their sins on earth before they are able to go to heaven, and the Seven Storey Mountain from Purgatorio represents the seven deadly sins of man. Is Merton implying that his new life as a Trappist Monk is his purgatory for his past sins, which he "reveals" in his autobiography? I am not certain, but if anyone knows, I would be interested in understanding this, as I have been unsuccessful in finding anything in my copy or online.
Other than that, I was grateful to have been exposed to this story. It will be a good memory for a long time.
|Portrait by Jim Nally|