October, 2008 marks the 60th anniversary publication of Thomas Merton’s, The Seven Story Mountain— an expressive and influential autobiography of the definitive spiritual and Catholic vocational experience. Maybe you remember, perhaps you dreamed or read about, or even cursed it.
I do.... and I continue to praise the book to this day(not the last one silly).
Writer Mark Sullivan wrote a revealing article in the September 28th edition of Our Sunday Visitor (OSV). In the opening text, He quotes author Paul Elie ("The Life You Save May Be Your Own"-Farrar Strauss and Giroux) summarizing the importance Merton has on modern culture "The Seven Story Mountain describes what it feels like to be in the grip of God. Merton makes you feel that not only is religious experience real and possible, but that it is necessary, vital and attractive, the center of life, just as Catholic tradition insists that it is…"
And this is where it begins.
I have my mom to thank for introducing me to Merton. Age sixteen I believe. This was was my first experience reading Merton’s narrative. I don’t recall the book having much of an influence, not like it does today. At sixteen I was just trying to fit in. Because I read it then... as a teen, I sincerely believe the transformative blessings of the book began to resonate...... into my adult years, long after I forgot about Merton's trial. There would be many years in between readings too. Not college.... nor even a blissful relationship.... did I reflect on the Seven Story Mountain. Not until 08. A current time. Merton’s narrative bell (perhaps gong) rings when I least expect it. Is that why I never parted with my HBJ 78’ edition copy?
Yes I said in 83, 86, 90, 98, 08. Time to dig into this or that chapter, contemplate the vocational calling.
This little book made it through several moves too. From house to house, neighborhood to city, to Europe and back. Always there in my imagination, stuffed away sure. But to my surprise, I usually found it at the top of the "Mayflower Transit" packing boxes.
Today my tattered copy barely remains in the jacket. The pages are beginning to show the slightest signs of yellowing paper. Earmarks are plentiful. So are the many underlined, starry eyed paragraphs and sentences. I'm fond of the little pen notes in the margins- from 78 to 08. Things like-"The function of art", "Virtues", Putting yourself in the Passion", "Representation of poverty manifested through Harlem", "The purpose of community", "St. Therese", "The crux of conversion" On and on they go. Thirty years of quotes. They read like my own spiritual development- turns and bends in the pilgrim road. Obstacles. Stumbling blocks. Insights are here too. So is Grace.
Here’s just one of my favorite paragraph’s. My margin note- "Merton’s conversion of heart (circa 1990?)…
"For now, in these days, I was often alone in the chapel, under those plain beams, watching the quiet Tabernacle, and things began to speak inside me. This time, it was a much deeper impulsion, the expression of a much profounder need. It was not a movement of appetite— intellectual if you like, but still of appetite towards some good that could be seen and felt and enjoyed: a form of life, a religious existence, a habit, a Rule. It was not a desire to see myself vested in this or that kind of a monastery. It was something quite different. I no longer needed to get something, I needed to give something."
Although written from a male perspective, I am certain that women will enjoy this book. In fact, many secular and religious women have commented on it over the years. So has the music world. In 1981, Joan Baez recorded music to the words of Thomas Merton:
THE BELLS OF GETHSEMANI
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers on your tomb
And if I cannot eat my bread
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveler.
Come, in your labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head
Brother, take my life and bread
And buy yourself a better bed
Take my breath and take my death
Buy yourself a better rest beneath the bells of Gethsemani
When all the men of war are killed
And flags have fallen into dust
Your cross and mine will tell men still
He died on each for both of us
That we might become the brothers of God
And learn to know the Christ of burnt men
And the children are ringing the bells of Gethsemani
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain
He weeps in the ruins of my spring
The money of whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land
The silence of whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb
Hear them and come, they call you home
And the children are ringing the bells of Gethsemani
Yes, if they had been there
They would have taken that crown of thorns from his hair
And stayed for a while in that place of despair
Ah, but what do I see, my brother is there
And he's ringing the bells of Gethsemani
Recently, singer-Songwriter Kate Campbell along with Spooner Oldham recorded a beautiful prayer song on Merton’s words on her album "For the Living of these Days".
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going
I do not see the road ahead of me
I cannot know for certain where it will end
Nor do I really know myself
And the fact that I think that I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone
Thoughts in Solitude© 1958 Abbey of Gethsemani
Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain is available at your local independent bookseller. Give it a read this Fall.
The Merton Institute
Thomas Merton Blogs
Thomas Merton Internet Bibliography
1968 Merton- "You say goodbye, and I say hello"