Michael Mott. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was a Trappist monk and a prolific author. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton is a comprehensive biography of Merton’s life and work. It discusses Merton’s childhood, his wild youth, his frustrating and successful attempts to be a writer, his desire to forget himself and how that related to (or conflicted with) his introspection and fame as a writer, his frustrating search for solitude within the monastery, and his social activism against the Vietnam War.
Some of you may remember the 2004 Jennifer Garner movie, 13 Going on 30. Jennifer Garner plays Jenna Rink, and her best friend is Matty. Matty is criticized for giving a play-by-play description of everything that is going on around him. I thought of that movie while I was reading this book, for a lot of the book seemed to me to be a play-by-play description of what Thomas Merton was doing: what he ate, with whom he ate, his meetings, etc. This is good for informational and biographical purposes, but it was a bit tedious for me as a reader. Sometimes, though, I actually enjoyed it. There is a part of the book about Merton’s schedule when he was pursuing solitude as a monk: he prayed, he ate simply (a sandwich) and thus did not have too many dishes to wash, and he went to bed early. I have been thinking about that over the past couple of days, as I have had a few days of solitude.
While there were tedious parts of the book, it had a lot of gems. More than once, I would be plodding along as I read, then there would be a vague suspicion in my mind that I should go back and reread what I just read. I did that, and I found what I read to be phenomenal! There were gems about the writing process and how Merton sought to find his own voice as a writer—-good or bad—-through writing in his journal. Merton wrote a letter about the types of books he was allowed to read at his monastery: books that were about God or the human condition. Merton had profound insights about love, with which I interacted in my posts here and here. Merton criticized President Lyndon Johnson for claiming to be a man of prayer who sought God’s guidance, only to wage a war of aggression against Vietnam. Yet, Merton could also be critical of the Left, as he attributed its pointless infighting to a lack of religious or spiritual motivation on its part (on a similar note, see this post). Merton learned from other religions (i.e., Zen Buddhism), but he also criticized inter-religious dialogue that does not respect differences—-in which one party tries to see itself in the other party rather than allowing the other party to be different.
Identifying exactly why Merton became a monk was a bit difficult to me. He did not seem to have a Saul of Tarsus or a Martin Luther experience of instantaneous and dramatic conversion. His artist father would tell him Bible stories, and that stuck with Merton, on some level. Merton visited Rome and, in an attempt to enjoy and appreciate the experience, he attended Catholic services, sometimes having disappointing experiences, and sometimes being blown away. He was a voracious reader, and a book by Aldous Huxley drew him to monasticism, even though Merton would criticize Huxley for writing too much about the subject from a standpoint of distance. Merton also had a wild youth. He left Cambridge because he got a woman pregnant, and he may have been trying to find a more stable, maturer kind of life, even though he would continue to struggle with his sexual desire.
I would like to read his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, to see how he narrates his journey to the monastery from a religious perspective—-to get his personal conversion narrative, if you will. At the same time, Mott’s biography made me sensitive to the possibility that what Merton narrates may not have been entirely what was—-which is not to say that Merton was making anything up, but rather that how he told his story and his perspective of certain events may have varied based on what he was writing. Some of what Merton says about his parents in The Seven Story Mountain, for example, differs from his portrayal in earlier drafts. What he says he felt about a particular experience in one book may differ from what he says in another book. He was also a bit constrained by the monastery censors in what he was allowed to say and do. Merton was encouraged to present himself as one who was stable, one who did not join the monastery out of a flight of fancy but would stick with it, and yet, soon after The Seven Story Mountain was released, he was thinking of leaving the monastery for another monastery. (Merton had the insight that perhaps he could stick with his present monastery because the difficulties there could help him to grow, and he did stay with it, for a while.)
In terms of his personality, Merton was somewhat of a mix between introvert and extrovert. He hated rejection, which may have gone back to his educated mother correcting him as a child. There was a part of him that craved solitude, yet he sometimes shied away from it when he got it. He said that he could only get so much mileage out of conversations with most people, and he tried to avoid people who would tell him that The Seven Story Mountain changed their life. Yet, he was also gregarious and could talk with everyone like he was sharing things intimately with that one person.
One reason that I enjoyed the book is that it was about a Christian point-of-view that is favorable towards solitude. That resonates with me, as an introvert and as a person with Asperger’s. The book also mentioned certain Catholic thinkers in history who actually wanted to go to hell after they died to minister to people there. That is an admirable approach, one that contrasts with how a lot of Christians approach the topic of hell.
Like I said, this book could be tedious, but it was a worthwhile read.