Thursday, December 22, 2005

Vivificat! on Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain

Teofilo of Vivificat! A Catholic Blog of Commentary and Opinion offers us Martin Kochanski's eloquent review of Thomas Merton's masterpiece, The Seven Storey Mountain

Here's a taste:
Probably Merton's greatest work was his spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain (called Elected Silence in early, abridged UK editions). Here is an appreciation of it:

What people need is somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity.

To summarise the plot of Seven Storey Mountain in a sentence, it is the story of how a rather wild young man settled down to become a Trappist monk. This sounds a little like St Augustine's Confessions but although they are of the same literary genre, the books couldn't be more different. Augustine savours too much of Grand Opera to be readily assimilable. Thanks to an expensive rhetorical education, he spends half his time in bel canto arias to the Almighty and the other half beating his breast starting with his confession of how wicked he was even in the cradle, where he used to yell when he wanted his parents to do things for him. Meanwhile, Merton, a poet rather than an orator, writes of himself that "Free by nature, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born... loving God and yet hating him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers" altogether more likely in the modern world!

Principally what makes the Mountain worth reading is that as he looks into his past Merton loves himself and forgives himself, and loves and forgives everyone else too. This doesn't mean that he thinks that what he did was good, just that he looks on it dispassionately and sees its proper place in his life. He has drunk of Dante's Lethe and Eunoƫ, and so remembers his sins "only as an historical fact and as the occasion of grace and blessedness" (Dorothy L. Sayers, introduction to the translation of Dante's Purgatorio).

Thomas MertonMerton starts his narrative by seeing himself in relation to God, and that's how it continues. Everything is seen in terms of its true context within his life and its true significance in the course of it and there are a few surprises, as when we see William Blake and James Joyce leading him towards baptism. If this sounds rather ponderous, it isn't. It isn't ponderous precisely because it is orthodox. The new man that he has become is like the New Law given by Christ: not a rejection of the old but a fulfilment; and so he loves his old self, like all the rest of God's creation, but with clear eyes, distinguishing the good from the bad; seeing good in unexpected places and assessing its nature and usefulness.

Merton's prose style is deceptively relaxed. It looks so effortless that you think there's nothing to it; until you try to reshape one of those laid-back sentences and realise that it's a tautly efficient machine and that it says what it has to say in half the number of words that anyone else would need.
I started The Seven Storey Mountain at least ten years ago. I can't remember now why I didn't finish it, but I'm beginning to think I should resume reading it. Mr. Kochanski's review adds an exclamation point to this idea.

Go read the whole thing!