Book Review: The Seven Storey Mountain

I gotta say – I miss fiction. It feels like I’ve been immersed in monks and heretics and religious history for ages, and my brain is weary. There is a stack of fiction books waiting for my attention, but before I even get to those, Chuck’s insisted I read One Second After, which he says will turn me into a full-time apocalypse prepper. (Summer hobby?)

seven storey mountainLast night I finished Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. He’s a lengthy writer and seems to leave no word unsaid. However, inside those long paragraphs and chapters is an intimate and critical look into his early life and eventual conversion from no belief system to making a lifelong vow to the Catholic church as a Trappist monk.

The book was published in 1948, just a few years after Merton took his vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where I’ll be going for a weekend retreat in July). The time frame is important because much of Merton’s life was lived in pre-war France and New York, so there was a constant, ever-present threat of the war that we all know eventually played out. Merton was called up in the draft but was turned away for medical reasons.

More than a dozen pages of this book are dog-eared because Merton wrote something that I need to re-read and consider. Such as:

  • We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against His grace — and yet He continues to speak to us: and we say He is without mercy! (page 143)
  • I think one cause of my profound satisfaction with what I now read was that God has been vindicated in my own mind. There is in every intellect a natural exigency for a true concept of God: we are born with the thirst to know and to see Him, and therefore it cannot be otherwise. (page 191)
  • All our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things. (That is why the whole economy of the Sacraments, for instance, rests in its material element, upon plain and ordinary things like bread and wine and water and salt and oil.) And so it was with me. Books and ideas and poems and stories, pictures and music, buildings, cities, places, philosophies were to be the materials on which grace would work. (page 195)

Though his conversion story is interesting on its own, my favorite part of the story is when he finally submitted himself to the contemplative, quiet life of a Trappist monk. He spends several pages describing the peace and solitude of the abbey, how the silence enfolded him, how the liturgy brought him to tears, to his knees. I am entirely fascinated by the idea that someone would walk away from life – unload all possessions, ideas, and expectations – and commit to a life of service, labor, study, and prayer. Merton suggests that it is the prayers of these few faithful who help keep God’s grace and mercy upon us:

“The eloquence  of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.” (page 356)

Buy The Seven Storey Mountain here. 

Update on Lenten reading

For Lent I give up fiction in exchange for theological books – works that make me question and wrestle with matters of faith and scripture. This may not seem like a true sacrifice compared to life-and-death sacrifices other people make, but it’s not meant to. Swapping fiction for nonfiction is next to nothing, after all. However, this is a Lenten practice that replaces satisfaction with discomfort, so in that regard, it’s a practice I’ll continue each year.

lent books

This year I’m reading two books. The first is The History of God  and it’s the harder of the two, for sure. I don’t know if I’ll finish it by Easter. It requires all of my brain power to understand Karen Armstrong’s train of thought and language, particularly since she tends to jump around in ways that don’t always feel natural to me. The subject matter is fascinating, though, particularly when you start to understand how three of the world’s biggest religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – were born out of the same small region.  The research is dense and expansive and stretches well beyond the scope of my personal and academic experience. When Armstrong starts talking about mysticism, I have to muster concentration.

But I press onward.

The second book, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, is a delightful read so far. It is a memoir sprinkled with bits of wisdom that spotlight Merton’s slow build to devout religious conversion. He is an insightful and fervent writer, quite humble and honest.

One of my favorite blocks of wisdom so far follows the part after teenage Merton visits his dying father in the hospital. Death is eminent and he’s grappling to understand the weight of it. At this point in his life, Merton has no working faith at all. To him, God was an abstract idea brought to life by society’s need for tradition. Much later in life, underpinned by Christian devotion, Merton looks back at how he handled his father’s illness and offers readers a snippet of sincerity:


Thomas Merton“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out; and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against themselves.”


Gosh, such truth there. We are so often our worst enemy.

Lent Reading 2016

A few years ago, when we joined a Presbyterian church, we began acknowledging the liturgical calendar. Beforehand, we had Christmas, Easter, and, depending on the church, a loose reference to Palm Sunday. Now we view these holidays as part of a larger tradition that incorporates four weeks of anticipating the birth of Christ (Advent) and the 40 Days leading up to Holy Week (Lent), which begins this Wednesday.

When it comes to observing Lent, religious and cultural traditions usually have us giving up something we enjoy – a specific food or habit. Some give up meat or caffeine, some go dark on social media or turn off their television for a few weeks. Those are all well and good, and if you are replacing that deficit with something spiritually edifying, all the better.

My way of participating in Lent is to suspend my beloved fiction and instead read books that provoke thought and teach me something about the history and significance of Christianity. I realize most people do this without needing a religious holiday to propel them, but I only dabble in nonfiction occasionally. I prefer the escapism of fiction.

In recent years I’ve read books about baptism, women in church leadership, homosexuality and the church, the history of the church, contemplative prayer, the physical and metaphorical interpretations of hell, and so on. Each book has either challenged or solidified a previously held belief or planted a new idea for consideration.

This year I have two books (though I’m on the lookout for a third – suggestions?):  A History of God by Karen Armstrong and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Lent reading 2016

I also intend to finish Gilead, which I’ve been reading slowly. Considering it’s subject matter, I suppose it fits in nicely with Lent anyway.