Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why The Seven Storey Mountain?

Nine hours of sleep is enough. Get to bed at a decent hour, set your alarm, get your ass out of bed, bundle up, scrape the ice off your car, and go to Mass on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul -- that was January 25th. Pray for whoever it was under the blue tarp, on the driver's side of the smashed car, along the icy road yesterday morning. A dozen police cars, lights flashing, the empty closed road, the quiet and patience of all the other drivers obediently crowding into one lane; then a jack-knifed semi and two or three flattened small trees in the median strip, all witnessed that here eternity and the world just met.

I had been reading and since have finished Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. It was one of four spiritual classics offered for sale at Bishop Barron's site Word on Fire. I thought well yes, I'll get it, but I can just as well buy it and the other three from Amazon.Smile cheaper, and make the half-percent donation to my local parish. This wasn't mean of me, I hope.

Thomas Merton's prose is beautiful, better than his poetry, but something about him annoys me. Why is his story considered so remarkable? Because he had been known in the publishing world since childhood -- his grandfather worked for Grosset and Dunlap, he met "Bob" Giroux and Mark van Doren at Columbia -- and so when he became a Catholic and a monk, the word spread? ("A Trappist, no kidding! Well well ... say, tell him if he can give me eighty thousand words, I'll take a look at it. He had a way with words as I recall." Pause. "Are monks allowed to write memoirs - at thirty?" Professional chuckle....) Then there is the whole business of his own hermitage on the grounds of Our Lady of Gesthemani in Kentucky. I've seen photos, it's a lovely little house. What did the other monks think of his being allowed this treat? Did he need such quiet and privacy, or was it a reward for being a rainmaker for the firm?

The Seven Storey Mountain doesn't even seem very spiritual. Three or four times in the book, he suddenly outflows with a short paragraph that seems to come from outside himself, and to be wise. You'll know because you'll be startled, and underline it. Otherwise he seems to be always looking at himself, admiring himself and marveling at his journey.

Often it's a literal one. From the interesting childhood and adolescence in Bermuda, France, and England to the specific geography of Manhattan streets, churches, and college campus sports fields, one gets the impression of someone privately telling a circle of friends, not so much anything spiritual that they can use, but rather: Ah yes, remember? I left all that. I left it. In fact I would even say (it's me talking again, not him), that in the chapter on his trip to pre-Castro, lushly Catholic Cuba, he writes the only psychological explanation I have ever read and begun to understand, on why some people enjoy really eat-everything, ride-the-local-buses travel. Admitting that he survived "the perilous streets and dives of Havana" with probably angelic protection, he says,

... this absence of trouble, this apparent immunity from passion or from accident, was something that I calmly took for granted. God was giving me a taste of that sense of proprietorship to which grace gives a sort of a right in the hearts of all His children. For all things are theirs, and they are Christ's, and Christ is God's. They own the world, because they have renounced proprietorship of anything in the world .... 

Maybe not too many travelers think in those words, -- and again, if this is a spiritual classic for everyone, what does all that mean? -- but the attitude of own-the-world confidence might be common. Merton here sounds as if made in the very mold of his own grandfather, "Pop" of the childhood chapters, whose loud, American (of course) tourist enthusiasm embarrassed the boy living, for the moment, authentically with his artist father in a hamlet in the Auvergne.

He may own the world but he perhaps should have explored his own backyard more, or read more comic novels. As we read on we meet his "little man" for example, the mysterious Indian "poor little monk" Bramachari, whom he met among his young Columbia friends and who seems to have introduced Merton to the idea of "spirituality" being the possession of all religions. This man sounds just like the Guru of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels. He too wafted about, penniless and peaceful, boarding with and teaching meditation to wealthy middle aged ladies (and running up liquor bills) until their husbands had had enough. When "Daisy's Guru" was found out as a London curry cook he decamped in the night with the silver .... The decade is right, too: the spiritualism-mad, table-turning 1930s. Did Merton never crack a smile at himself?

For that matter, did he ever have a backyard to explore? Not really. For all I know Thomas Merton may be among the greatest saints in heaven, and it may be most uncharitable to pick out the annoyances in his most famed book. But the curmudgeons who give it bad reviews on Amazon notice what I do. They notice the endless word painting about landscapes, and the tales of a sad little orphaned family -- he had one brother -- brought up helter skelter and pulled in and out of schools in Europe and America without much rhyme or reason, none of this background striking him as perhaps explaining some emptiness and anger. About three fourths of the way along in his story, he does, as one curmudgeonly reviewer says, go into sheer raving. He discovers Harlem, and the plight of the Negro. It's all the "furtive sensualities and lusts of the rich whose sins have bred this abominable slum," and so on, pages' worth, only by the time the crusading Russian baroness who raised his consciousness about it asks him "Well Tom are you coming out to Harlem for good?" to help, he had made up his mind about his vocation and had been accepted into the monastery in fresh, rural Kentucky.

He seems to show a pattern of discovering and condemning evil, and then of turning on his heel and walking prayerfully away, full of "peace." So do we all, we sinners, but can he never crack that smile at himself? As a very young man he bowed his head before his generation's wholesale, amorphous guilt at the coming of World War II. It was the inevitable wages of their evil. He was in his early twenties. But then he had to think very hard about whether or not he was willing to be drafted and serve. Odd logic, no? And why do anguished pacifists always want to be stretcher bearers? There is the Quartermaster's Department. Ask around. My father did.

And what of the great sin in his life? -- the one that got him rejected from the Franciscans and that you cannot find in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain? The one you have to go to Wikipedia, for example, to sniff out? Apparently he had an affair and got a girl pregnant in England when hardly out of his teens. He was swiftly bundled up and shot off to America, to live with, or at least near, Pop. Of mother and child nothing was ever known. They "may have died in the London Blitz." "The child has never been identified." It was as if Merton was a wayward prince and heir, desperately requiring all this protection.

What bothers me (about this episode) is the way Merton harps (throughout) on the theme of the evil and filth of his early life. Because he cloaks the actual event, but we know from other sources that this is the big one, we are left to presume (unless we hear of something worse) that by filth he is talking about a girl he once loved and about a son or daughter who is his. As the abbess interviewing a postulant remarks in the novel In This House of Brede, " 'A cold heart is no good for a religious.' " And what also bothers me is that all the fine people Merton went on to meet and, some of them, to draw into the Church after his example, "Lax" and "Rice" and Mark Van Doren and Bob Giroux and the Baroness and all the rest, never not a one of them said you know Tom, the better part of faith might be to go back to England and find that girl and at least be a father to your child. The only one who comes close, and it is to Merton's credit that he chronicles this, is the priest in the confessional in New York who lambastes the weeping man after the Franciscans reject him. "He gave me to understand I was wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self pity in his confessional." You cheer for that priest.

Now, who knows? The woman herself or her family may have had so much of the future Father Louis' annoyances that they were glad to hand him his walking papers and shrink into anonymity from him. But by now my impression of the writer is of a rudderless, unhealthy personality, and I am only halfway through. And the book is said to be a spiritual classic.

While finishing it I cheated and looked ahead, as you see, at Wikipedia's article on the whole life of Thomas Merton. I learned he "battled" with his abbotts at the monastery he had been so happy to enter, about being allowed to leave, rather frequently it seems, to travel and live out the famous writer's life of scholarly correspondence and conferences that his books had earned him. Just turned fifty in 1966, he also undertook a serious love affair with a young woman who was his nurse when he was hospitalized for back surgery. Forays into Zen and American Indian mysticism -- in general the hunt for mystic experiences and the freedom they give the community of mystics above religion, since who is to say what God may not vouchsafe to his best creatures? -- that is my judgment of what he  was looking for -- these explorations continued apace. He foreshadowed them when he described his first few nights in Our Lady of Gesthemani at the age of 25. (His life is so full of genuine adventure we forget how young he is throughout.) Disappointed at the "icy" reading material he is given, which prudently discourages the newcomer's hope of any "summits" or otherworldly contemplative joys, he writes,
...I was left with the impression that contemplation in a Trappist monastery was liable to be pretty much secundum quid [i..e., true or fruitful sometimes, as far as it went], and that if I had a secret desire for what the lingo of the pious manuals would call 'the summits' I had better be cautious about the way I manifested it."   
Here the former lycee schoolboy also objected to bad transliterated French, particularly the word "vouchsafe." On top of everything else Merton knew full well, and he was told by people who knew, that his vocation was writing first. The writer wants quiet and solitude -- a little hermitage -- the writer wants to have or invent experience -- travel, mysticism, love affairs -- the writer has almost an extra organ where is housed lack of charity, which he needs to look askance at the world and chronicle it with his precious comments added on, unlike any other writer's: so Merton sneered at ordinary people's "unsophisticated" taste in movies, or at his grandmother's wasting her life putting on cold cream, because she hadn't got grace, or at his fellow postulant "Fat Boy," who couldn't hack the Trappists and returned to the world. True, Merton is young all during a lot of this. Some writer once said the young are righteous.

I would not for a moment want to give the impression that I dislike The Seven Storey Mountain because it shows the author was imperfect, or chose the wrong path in life. He may stand among the greatest saints of heaven. And I must disclose some small prejudice against him, as he disclosed the angry priest in the confessional. Years ago I wrote an article lamenting my spotty Catholic education, and I mentioned that I knew nothing of one "Thomas Merton." An old lady wrote me in the days of letter writing still. She exclaimed with underlining, "Thomas Merton was a devil! He turned Buddhist ...." I never forgot her vehemence.

I dislike it because the author seems to me such an unlikable man. Here is someone who, for all the beautiful prose, knows in his bones that he is on his own and so is everyone else. Well, alone except for God, who, on the last pages, offers to Thomas Merton a sort of grand doxology, in italics. You have to read it to believe it. " 'You will be praised, and it will be like burning at the stake ....' "

The Seven Storey Mountain was offered for sale on Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire website. But in one of his many excellent YouTube videos, the Bishop once said that religious journey memoirs are not very interesting in general because they are all the same. The convert, the returning soul, whoever, are all "influenced by" this book or that, this teacher, that friend, this mysterious "pull," this set of coincidences (frankly) or some other. The theme of all of them must be, here I am, a brand plucked from the burning; aren't I marvelous, and aren't you glad? Though the writers of religious journey memoirs will not like to hear it, it's Christ who is interesting, not us.

In a way it's easy to write a brand-plucked-from-the-burning memoir. Merton shows how: word-painting about landscapes and some blushing acknowledgement of past foolishness. But that leaves another category of book, the true spiritual classic, which I submit The Seven Storey Mountain, religious journey memoir and a cagey one at that, is not. So then what really is? 

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