Seven Storey Mountain is the autobiographical account of Thomas Merton’s conversion to Catholicism, finished when he was 31 years old. I first read it when I was in my early 20s, during my own journey across the Tiber. I was completely enchanted. I would have gone out immediately to read all his other works except for the warning from a Catholic friend that Merton had developed an unhealthy fascination with Buddhism later in life.
It shocked me, as Merton had described his pre-conversion immersion in Eastern mysticism brought on by reading Aldous Huxley. After his conversion he looks back and finds it “ironical” that he looked to Eastern religions “as if there were little or nothing in the Christian tradition” (217). He saw Huxley’s sympathy for Buddhism to be a result of following “the old Protestant groove back into the heresies that make the material creation evil of itself” (204). His opinions on these matters changed dramatically over the next two decades preceding his death, as Anthony Clark reveals in his excellent analysis of Merton’s writings on page 6.
Clark’s article prompted me to reread Merton’s conversion account. If the purpose of writing is to teach and delight, as wise men assert, then Seven Storey Mountain without doubt succeeds on both counts. There is much to learn from the book, and he never fails to delight. But two decades have also changed my opinions.
As I read, I couldn’t help thinking about Into Great Silence, a remarkable documentary about the Carthusians of the Grande Chartreuse. The film simply shows the monks going about their daily lives, with one twist: Interspersed in these vignettes are prolonged close-ups of the monks—not speaking, just looking into the camera. It’s amazing what is revealed about them in that one minute of gazing into their faces.
The older monks, without exception, face the camera with a childlike complacence, radiating peace and joy. The young monks, on the other hand, seem as uncomfortable as most of us would be: self-conscious, eyes restless, squirming.
I see that same self-awareness in the photographs of Merton—and in Mountain. It reminds me that he was a young man, and a very young monk, when he was catapulted into fame—the undoing of many. Before all that, he asked Our Lady: “Shall I ever look anywhere else but in the face of your love, to find out true counsel, and to know my way, in all the days and all the moments of my life?” (143). No doubt she was with him at the hour of his death.
It is a long road—whether one is a convert or a cradle Catholic—from that first religious fervor to genuine holiness. May God in his mercy keep us from straying too far from the true path.