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The Seven Storey Mountain Paperback – October 4, 1999
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I recommend it to any one who is searching for belief in God because, for Merton, it was an intellectual conversion, and, for many, that makes more sense in today's complex society.
I finally read this book after years of my wife Micheline telling me that this was such wonderful book and well written by Thomas Merton, a Cistercian Monk, i.e., a cloistered monk who dedicates his life to silence and the devotion to God in all labors at the monastery.
After reading My Life with the Saints by James Martin, SJ, he listed Thomas Merton as one of those saints (though not canonized) and his review sparked my interests de novo.
I purchased the Kindle edition and read it. One of the reviews was quite negative about typographical errors and I did take the time to report the typos to Kindle and I certainly hope they have corrected them as promised.
Thomas Merton led a most interesting life being born in France at the foot hills of the Pyrenees Mountains in 1915 to “Bohemian” parents, both artists but adhering to no religion. They had two sons Thomas and John Paul. The father, an impressionistic artist was a bit of a vagabond and they moved often. Merton’s mother dies soon after the birth of John Paul, the father moves to England and changes schools from the French version to the English system. These moves had a very big impact on both sons but Thomas, who is quite intelligent benefits from the hurdles of learning both a new culture and a new language. Soon the Father moves his boys to live with his parents in Douglaston New York where both must start over living with the grandparents.
After a couple of years of the father travelling and painting in Europe, he returns to the United States and takes only Thomas back with him to France where Thomas continues his secondary education in both France and England. He then enters Oxford for his college education, and begins his search for his life goals and discernment as to his spiritual goals.
Under the British system of education he takes courses in both Greek and Latin and a healthy regiment of philosophy and eventually obtains his BA and commences a course of study towards his MA. During this period, his father dies and he is on his own and travels a great deal in Europe during his studies. For a reason not specifically outlined in his auto biography of the Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton is caused to leave Oxford; it is suggested he return to New York to complete his studies.
Upon returning to New York in the mid 30’s, he enrolls at Columbia University to complete his MA and his PhD. While at Columbia, Merton goes through a complex discernment process to determine his relationship with God and eventually becomes a Catholic. He is both intelligent and a pursuer of the deep issues of life and his readings, which he started as a very young man are both challenging and certainly not the usual fare, even then, for a young scholar. They are varied and full of searching themes, evolving from the philosophical the lives of the Saints, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
It is important to note, that Merton, though living an unusual and self-filled and directional life, albeit poor finds himself almost frantically searching for his vocation which he believes is a complete devotion to God as a priest or as a contemplative monk. He eventually goes to the Gethsemane Cistercian Monastery where he lives out his life.
He presents a warm and loving picture of his life as a cloistered and contemplative life and dies while on a mission in 1968 of an unexpected accident in Thailand.
I loved this book and found it an easy read, even when Merton writes about his deep love of God, which reflect his lifelong study of philosophy and spirituality. While I personally would never consider the cloistered and silent life, I could easily understand Merton’s fulfillment there and how each experience in his own life led him to the monastery.
I gave this book five stars out of five and highly recommend it to anyone searching for spirituality and God.
Merton, as the son of an itinerant painter, spent much of his early years traveling with his father to various countries, especially after the death of his mother, where his education was rather piecemeal at best. His recollections of his childhood and these voyages are filled with a child's wonder and remarkable detail. He began his college career at Cambridge, but was forced to begin anew at Columbia College in New York because of some trouble he had gotten himself into and because he had been essentially disowned by his godfather, his own father having passed away recently. This may be one criticism of Merton's autobiography, since those unfamiliar with his life will not know exactly what he left out. Indeed, this is a somewhat sanitized version of Merton's life, but that does not distract from Merton's overall message or aim.
After wandering about after graduation, teaching English, writing articles and reviews and novels, and generally looking for some way to fill the void in his life, Merton converted to Catholicism. The sheer joy and calm that he experienced at this conversion is shared by the reader, as Merton lays bare his doubts and fears about his newfound faith and his possible vocation. Just when things seem bleak for Merton, when his past comes back to haunt him, his vocation is fulfilled and he enters the Trappist monastery Gethsemani in Kentucky, and the final portion of the book is devoted to his new life as a monk and what it means to lead a contemplative life.
"The Seven Storey Mountain" is a compelling read. While it is not overly long, it may take readers a while to read since one takes part in Merton's many contemplations along the way. Intermixed with his memories are Merton's thoughts about various issues and how faith can provide an answer in any situation. Merton's writing is evidence of his talent - his prose is often lyrical and poetic, his contemplations are prayers. It is easy to see why
"The Seven Storey Mountain" has become one of the most influential religious works of the past century. Merton's life will touch a chord with readers from any background, maybe because his story seems so unlikely, but more so because of how his experiences are those shared by everyone.