Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton
Published 1948


The Seven Storey Mountain was the next autobiography on TWEM reading list.  The author, Thomas Merton, was unknown to me, and I approached his story lacking in outside influence.  The moment I began reading, I was captivated.

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.

Thomas Merton

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

8 comments:

  1. I wish you had added some of your disagreements because they would get me thinking. It's always good to think. ;-)

    I didn't understand that Purgatory was a place to be penalized but a place to be cleansed, or made holy by paying a debt. To me, penalized denotes burdening someone, but Purgatory is where you slough off the burdens you have made in life, and you become freer and more holy ......???? That's my understanding of why Merton would title his book TSSM, however, I hope a learned Catholic will pop in to explain the concept and enlighten us both. :-) C.S. Lewis didn't agree with the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, but I do remember that he struggled with the notion of going to heaven without purification; he thought that we would have to purified somehow.

    What a wonderful opportunity to be able to visit a monastery! I would love to do this, sooner rather than later. I imagine it would be quite peaceful and edifying!

    Great review, Ruth!

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    1. Ooops, I forgot to add the link to my review! http://cleoclassical.blogspot.ca/2014/04/the-seven-storey-mountain-by-thomas.html

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    2. From my knowledge and experience as a Catholic, purgatory was a scary place to behold b/c it would be where Catholics would be punished - but I didn't want to say punished. So even up to my time in the Catholic Church (the late 90s), purgatory was taught to be a place of torture for sins committed on earth, though not as bad as hell. The "good news" for Catholics who died and went to purgatory was that prayers by living Catholics would alleviate time spent in that place. However, there is no biblical basis for purgatory.

      The really good news is that there is no need for a place like purgatory for torture or punishment or even purging to make one holy because: Jesus paid it all. If Christians have to die and be purged to be made holy, then Jesus' death on the cross was totally unnecessary and worthless. But as a Catholic I was not taught that it was enough that Jesus died. We needed to suffer, do good works, earn our salvation. We had to be made worthy.

      But as Merton, pre-Protestant Luther, and others like them know or knew, no matter what they did, it was never enough! They never felt worthy enough to make up for their sins. They took the burden upon themselves. Even, as you mention C.S. Lewis, he did not focus on what Christ did; it sounds like he, too, felt like he needed to earn his Way, when he could have just given it all to Jesus and not burden himself with perfection.

      Some of the things I did not discuss in my post about Merton had to do with his ideas of perfection. Merton, like Gandhi, was searching for the perfect equation for man's perfection, but it is futile. We can certainly try to attain a simple, peaceful life - I aim for that every day, for sanity's sake - but as a way to be worthy of God's grace - it will only frustrate man.

      Monks seclude themselves from the world to focus on how to come into union with God - as Merton explains. (Ten hours of uninterrupted chanting and psalmody is not impressing God.) God did not ask man to work that hard to become one with Him. He expects us to serve Him in our best capacity - which is terribly flawed.

      Off topic: I tell my husband, when I feel like an utter failure and come to my senses, that God did not call me to be a perfect mother. He just wants me to TRUST Him and obey. Meanwhile, I'm totally messing up my kids and I'm fighting with my husband, and I want to fall apart. And God just wants me to trust Him, lean on Him, cling to Him, in all my flaws and mistakes and failures. Chanting for ten hours will not help me feel closer to God and better about being a wife and mother. And I will never be worthy of God's grace or mercy, anyway. He gives us His grace because He is a merciful God, and He is holy enough. He doesn't need us to prove we are worthy of His grace and mercy b/c He already knows we aren't. That should be enough for us. We don't have to TRY to be.

      I could go on and on.

      Oh, the other stuff I disagree with has to do w/ Catholic dogma of praying to dead people (saints) and lifting Mary up to be equal with God. The same ol' stuff I complain about.

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    3. Thanks so much for taking the time to type all your thoughts out, Ruth. I really appreciate the time it took. Let me see if I can do as good a job of explaining my thoughts ....

      My ideas for Purgatory probably come more from Dante than the Catholic church, so I probably shouldn't give my opinion, LOL! ;-)

      "as you mention C.S. Lewis, he did not focus on what Christ did; it sounds like he, too, felt like he needed to earn his Way

      I think Lewis quite understood that he didn't have to earn his way. It was (this is my paraphrase) more that we are touched by sin and he thought there needed to be a cleansing process before we reached Heaven. Now, I'm not knowledgeable enough to even have an opinion on this, but the basis of his thought seems reasonable to me. Of course, Lewis was musing, as is often the case with him, so it was not really a case of if he's right or wrong, but that we don't know. But I found it an interesting thought. The bus in The Great Divorce goes straight from Hell to Heaven if I remember correctly, so he didn't incorporate this "musing" into his fiction writing as far as I know.

      "...Merton, like Gandhi, was searching for the perfect equation for man's perfection, but it is futile ....."

      I don't want to put Merton and Gandhi together because I think their aims were completely different, so I'll focus on Merton ..... yes, I do think that he was seeking perfection, in that he was trying to get as close to God as possible, as God is perfect. I don't think he was under any illusions that he was going to attain perfection in this life, and I'm sure he knew that he was going to fail. But in knowing that, does that mean he shouldn't try?

      "Monks seclude themselves from the world to focus on how to come into union with God - as Merton explains. (Ten hours of uninterrupted chanting and psalmody is not impressing God.)"

      I've been reading some contemplative literature and what I found so astounding is the insight they have into human nature and the human condition. You'd think, being isolated, that they would lose touch with people and civilization, yet instead they seem to get closer. At first it seemed like a strange dichotomy, but when you think about it, perhaps it's not so strange after all .............. by drawing closer to God, they get closer to man, His creation.

      "Chanting for ten hours will not help me feel closer to God and better about being a wife and mother."

      Personally, at this point, for me either, but you will find people who will tell you chanting for ten hours does make them feel better and closer to God. I have no experience with Catholic tradition so I wouldn't say one way or another, but particularly because I have no experience, I don't want to discount it.

      "Oh, the other stuff I disagree with has to do w/ Catholic dogma of praying to dead people (saints)"

      I've seen you mention this before and I'm not quite sure if I understand this. I thought when Christians die, they are alive in Christ? So then they wouldn't be dead. If you understand it the same way, then we can go from there to the praying ........ it was explained to me that they are not in fact praying to them (as in equating them with God), but instead asking for intercession in the same way I might ask you to pray for me. Perhaps this tradition has become twisted in some dioceses, but that was my understanding.

      Yes, the Catholics and Orthodox have their saints, but I think we have ours too. St. Brad Pitt, St. Justin Bieber, St. (insert name of sports star here), St. IPhone, etc. ......... ;-)

      "... lifting Mary up to be equal with God. "

      Yes, I understand some Catholic churches are talking about elevating Mary to be alongside Christ, which I have a REAL problem with. However, I think other Catholic churches might have a problem with it too ....??

      (to be continued ........)

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    4. (continued, and going a little off topic ........:-) )

      Don't get me wrong ....... I completely agree with you about not having to earn our way into heaven. I don't agree with Catholic penance (nor does the Orthodox church) [although I'm starting to see the benefit of confession done properly], and there are some Catholic practices that I don't think I'll ever understand. But I know that we have prejudices against each other that are based on believing whatever one hears, yet what one hears is often not true. Five years ago, I would have been very harsh in my condemnation of the Catholic church, but I forced myself to take a couple of courses at a Catholic college and have recently been part of this Orthodox book group. By participating in both, I realized that probably about 80% of what I thought about them is either untrue or, at the least, not at all accurate. I am completely blown away by this book group because what I expected is nearly completely opposite from what I'm learning. The Orthodox church seems so staid and dogmatic because there are so many traditions, but there is complete grace and freedom within these traditions in a way that I've never experienced, moreso than in the Protestant church. It is so unexpected, I'm still trying to get my head around it! :-)

      A funny story about pre-conceived ideas in the opposite direction ......... the Orthodox priest in the book group (he used to be Pentecostal) was driving with a priest-mentor, and the priest asked him, "Father M, why do Protestants hate Mary so much?" He was rather shocked by the question and had spend the rest of the driving explaining that Protestants don't hate Mary. So you see, the misunderstandings go both ways.

      I think as Protestants, we kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater. There are so many traditions in both churches (Orthodox and Catholic) that are just beautiful and completely Christ-centred, perhaps even more so than in Protestant churches. They're not only designed to help us know God better, they are also designed help us with our everyday lives. And they bring a comfort to people. But certainly there are Catholic and Orthodox churches that have strayed from the original intent, as there are Protestant churches that do things they shouldn't. But I want to be careful in judging people/institutions before I've experience them myself. For example, my daughter went to a youth group that had a weeks long stretch of having the kids act out scenes from The Hunger Games and apparently every single kid chose to act out something violent. Her youth group at the beginning of the year brings in a car, they spray paint it and then give all the kids sledgehammers to bash the living daylights out of it. (my daughter did neither of those things, just so you know .... ;-) ) So if I was hearing these stories second hand, I could say, "Wow, do you know that Protestants teach children to murder and destroy property!". It's not at all accurate (not only for the churches who did these things, but certainly not for the whole Prostestant church), but if you take the worst case scenario and set it as an example for all, that's what can happen. I think there's been so much division in the church that we have to find a way back to live with ourselves and find a middle ground.

      In any case, I got off topic a little with my random ramblings, but those were some of my thoughts as I read Merton and then your comments, tinged with my personal experience. I really appreciate you sharing your ideas, Ruth. I've learned alot from you; you challenge me to see things if different ways, or bring up things that I wouldn't have thought of. So thanks for being honest and willing to discuss .... :-)


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    5. Whew, OK, I will try to reply to some of your comments, but others I cannot respond b/c I don't know much more about it - like with C.S. Lewis.

      So, the first thing I thought I'd answer was the part about saints. "To die to self and be alive in Christ" is for the living. When you become a Christian, you give up yourself and follow Christ. The Bible says, "The dead cannot see or hear." The Bible also says not to pray to dead people (do not try to communicate w/ the dead.) The Bible also refers to living followers of Christ as saints. But from my Catholic life, only the Catholic Church determines sainthood after that (dead person) met certain requirements. We could pray to them because they had special powers (like to help you find your lost keys or keep you safe in your travels). A dead saint had power because they went directly to God, since they were "in heaven."

      Well, the Bible is clear that Christians no longer need someone else to go to God for them. When Christ died and rose again, he ended the need for us to have a priest to be intercessor. Now we could go directly to Him because he was our mediator and we were or are like a High Priest. But the Catholic Church is still functioning like the Middle Ages, acting as the mediator between God and sinners, and they do not discourage Catholics to pray to saints, to pray for them.

      But I know Catholics today who still want to hold on to non-biblical principles b/c they do not believe they are worthy to go directly to God or they are not fully trusting in Jesus to hear them. Believe me, if you want to find those darn car keys, go directly to Jesus in prayer. He knows where your keys are!

      And Mary falls into this situation b/c she is dead and cannot hear or see us. She is with Jesus, but she is not Queen of Heaven serving on a throne with her Son. She knew Jesus was her Savior! She was a sinner, too. It is all in Scripture. But the Catholic Church still holds her to be a SINLESS VIRGIN equal to God the Father.

      Now, if you talked to individual Catholics, you may get all kinds of answers, but the Catholic Church has one authority, and it is in the papacy in Rome. All Catholic Churches follow the universal principles of the Roman Catholic Church. The Mass is the same all over the world.

      Protestant churches are different from Catholic churches b/c they do not have one universal leader (unless it is the Bible). So there are zillions of different churches and beliefs. The best ones (in my opinion) just follow Scripture as the Authority on everything. But, unfortunately, there are some pretty awful non-Catholic churches out there that don't even preach Christ. They have replaced Him with something else, and no one is being fed Truth. That is why people (who have no excuse now to know truth) need to use good discernment and have a right conscience when choosing a church. In the end, God knows one's heart.

      Personally, I do not like interfaith stuff b/c it is exactly what Satan wants in order to confuse people and turn them away from Truth. We fall into the trap of wanting to be tolerant and inclusive, but we are offending Jesus and why He died for us. He not only came to save us from God's wrath, but He also came to judge us and divide us. (HE said it.) But we don't want to preach that b/c it is highly offensive and divisive. We rather preach love and tolerance - which has been twisted to make Jesus into just a really good teacher who came only to love everyone and bring peace. The only peace Jesus brought was between man and God. But His truth has been totally twisted, and unfortunately, false teachers and ungodly men have infiltrated both the Catholic and Protestant teachings. It's actually very frightening how much the false teaching is going on in the name of Christ.

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  2. Intriguing! I do crave solitude and quiet, and I love routine, but I've never been attracted to monastic life. I'm not sure why not, now that I think about it, aside from the fact that I'm not Catholic.

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    1. Oh, I'm not really attracted to the monastic life, as much as I am attracted to PEACE AND QUIET. : D

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