Monday, June 30, 2014

A book review, more or less

I just finished reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. It's one of those books that gets mentioned fairly often as one of the most influential works of the 20th century so I decided what the heck, everyone should read the autobiography of a Trappist monk at least once in their lives.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I missed something by not being a Catholic, but what I got out of the book wasn't some lost soul's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. It was more like Merton yammering on and on about how special he was and waiting for God to tap him on the shoulder in confirmation of his narcissism. But then a lot of religious teaching and prayer strikes me that way: "I'm so special I'm being singled out for special grace." Which, come to think of it, is a basic tenet in Calvinism: there are the chosen elect who are going to glory no matter what crappy thing they do on earth and then there are the rest of us, the poor schmucks who are going to fry no matter how much time we spend in church or on our knees. "Jesus loves me, but he can't stand you." But back to Merton.

For those not familiar with Merton, he was the older son of two artists, Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins. Merton was born in France during World War I and shuttled between France, the United States, and England as a child and young man. Both of his parents died young; Merton was barely six years old when his mother succumbed to cancer and was a college student when a brain tumor killed his father. Raised as a nominal Protestant but not particularly religious, while he was in college he began drifting towards Catholicism. No doubt a Freudian analyst could have a field day with the motherless Merton's growing fascination with a religion that at times seems to emphasize the Mother of God more than God himself. Merton certainly provides a ton of material with his lengthy meditations on the Holy Mother and various female saints.

Eventually, in his early twenties, Merton takes instruction in the Catholic faith, is baptized, and takes communion. He becomes a fervent Catholic, sometimes attending mass multiple times in one day, and begins going on religious retreats, including one to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he later decides to apply for admission to as a novice. A naturally gifted writer, Merton had once harbored ambitions to be a poet and novelist. It is his intention when he enters the monastery to give up writing and become a simple cloistered religious: a monk who spends his time either in the hard physical labor needed to keep the monastery functioning or in contemplation and prayer. The Trappists (more accurately,the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) are considered the most ascetic of the religious orders; the monks observe a rule of silence in the monastery, they are limited in their personal possessions, and they have little contact with the outside world. I get the distinct impression that not only was Merton seeking something his life had lacked -- a place where he could feel like he belonged, complete with some nice rigid structure -- he was hoping to turn off his brain. He'd just sink into the monastic life, let the rules of the Order guide him, and he'd never have to think again.

Unfortunately for Merton, upper management at the monastery had different ideas. Merton was well-educated, literate in several languages, and had taught English and composition at the college level. The Cistercians weren't going to waste his talents by having him spend all his time as a field hand cutting hay or picking beans. He did his share of physical labor as a novice, but found himself assigned to the scriptorium pretty quickly. He translated religious materials from French, he wrote pamphlets, and eventually he began his autobiography. At the time it was published, he'd been a monk for 7 years.

In looking at reviews of The Seven Storey Mountain, it appears the book caught a lot of people by surprise. It became a best seller, has gone through multiple editions, and continues to sell reasonably well today, almost 70 years after its original publication. I can see why -- Merton does a lot of self-flagellation over his misspent youth and his avoidance of God, but eventually does find salvation. It helps that Merton can write. I may have been skeptical while reading The Seven Storey Mountain, but I wasn't bored.

On the other hand. . . I am definitely skeptical when it comes to Merton's motivations. Call me a cynic if you will, but there's just something a little too coincidental about Merton having a crisis of conscience and impulsively heading for the cloistered life when it's 1941, World War II is raging in Europe, and he's just gotten a notice to report for a second military draft physical. The military rejected him the first time he reported because he was missing too many teeth, but as war drew closer, they got less picky. He's a healthy single male, he's appalled by the thought of fighting in a war, and even the notion of serving as a medic was losing its charm -- the monastery must have looked really good. Did he consciously draft dodge? I doubt it, but you never know. The speed with which he got himself behind the monastery walls when he got the notice for a second physical was rather dazzling.

That said, whatever Merton's original motives may have been or how much his choices were influenced by his traumatic and unhappy childhood, once he decided he had a religious vocation, he didn't waver much from it, although I've no doubt his other writings include a lot of musings on remaining strong in the faith. In addition to his autobiography, he cranked out a zillion (okay, a couple dozen or so) books on spirituality, philosophy, and religion. Are any of them worth reading? I don't have a clue. I do know that Merton quotes show up in Facebook memes fairly often, so apparently there are some decent aphorisms lurking in his prose. Will I ever read any other books by Thomas Merton? Probably not. One dip in the pool of egoistic religiosity was enough; I've no desire to read anymore.

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