Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Seven Storey Mountain catapulted Trappist monk Thomas Merton into the literary world as a writer whose works on the contemplative life, civil rights, the arms race, and the Vietnam War were widely read and broadly influential. His 1948 work remains in print.

Summary of Event

The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, became an international best seller when it was published in 1948. The book has been translated into fifteen languages, and it remains in print. The Seven Storey Mountain details Merton’s early life, his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his eventual entry into the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance Monastic orders (the Trappists) at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani Our Lady of Gethsemani, Abbey of in Kentucky. Seven Storey Mountain, The (Merton) Autobiographies Christianity;literature [kw]Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) [kw]Spiritual Autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton Publishes His (1948) [kw]Autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton Publishes His Spiritual (1948) [kw]Seven Storey Mountain, Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The (1948) Seven Storey Mountain, The (Merton) Autobiographies Christianity;literature [g]North America;1948: Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain[02250] [g]United States;1948: Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain[02250] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1948: Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain[02250] [c]Philosophy;1948: Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain[02250] [c]Literature;1948: Merton Publishes His Spiritual Autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain[02250] Merton, Thomas Stone, Naomi Burton Waugh, Evelyn

Merton was born in France, the eldest child of the painter Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins. His mother died when he was six years old and, after a short time in Bermuda and France with his father, he lived in Queens, New York (Douglaston), with his mother’s parents until his adolescence. Raised largely by his grandparents in a household without strong religious allegiances, Merton attended an Episcopalian church only occasionally in those years with no sign of a monastic vocation. Only after boarding school in Great Britain and a dissolute year at Cambridge University did he begin to feel the stirrings of a religious conversion while at Columbia University, where he was a student of poet and scholar Mark Van Doren Van Doren, Mark (with whom he would remain a close friend).

Merton had tried a career as a writer while teaching at St. Bonaventure University in New York with little success or satisfaction. After joining the Trappists at Gethsemani Abbey in 1941, Merton continued writing. Even before The Seven Storey Mountain reached bookshelves, he had published a collection of his poetry and two books from inside the monastery. The enormous success of his autobiography not only brought him international acclaim but also quelled any hesitation in the minds of his religious superiors about whether a monk should also be a writer.

The Seven Storey Mountain was finished in only six months, a testament to Merton’s devotion to the project and to his abilities as a writer. The original typed manuscript numbered 650 pages, all of which had to be written while immersed in the strict regimen of monastic life. In this early period of his cloistered life, Merton was allotted only two hours per day for writing.

Both apprehensive and excited about his work, Merton approached James Laughlin Laughlin, James , his editor at New Directions Press New Directions Press , which had published his earlier books, to see if New Directions was interested in publishing the manuscript. However, on advice from his literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, Merton sent the manuscript instead to Robert Giroux Giroux, Robert at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Harcourt Brace Jovanovich . The change of publishing houses occasioned some embarrassment for Merton, though he continued to publish with New Directions and remained friends with Laughlin until the end of his life. Giroux, who had rejected several Merton novels before 1941, received this manuscript enthusiastically and circulated early proofs among notable Catholic literary figures to garner feedback and generate excitement for the work. Bishop Fulton Sheen compared the manuscript favorably to Augustine’s Confessions, Graham Greene contributed a blurb that appears on most editions five decades later, and Evelyn Waugh persuaded a publisher to secure the British rights to the work. Waugh edited the British edition, which was titled Elected Silence.

The Seven Storey Mountain sits in a well-established literary category of spiritual autobiography. Merton, in his earliest correspondence with Laughlin about the book, compared it to Dante’s Purgatory, to Franz Kafka, and to a “medieval miracle play.” Whether the book is more Augustine or Kafka is a question of less importance than the aggregate effect of all of these influences that include ancient, medieval, and twentieth century philosophy, making Merton’s book one of the most successful spiritual works of the twentieth century. The first printing of five thousand volumes quickly proved to be inadequate because Merton’s worked seemed to tap into an emerging “Catholic moment” in American life and culture. Historians have identified the middle of the twentieth century as a “triumphal” moment in American Catholicism, with the descendants of Irish and Central European immigrants having established themselves and garnered cultural acceptance in the years following World War II. The Seven Storey Mountain tapped that burgeoning cultural trend as much as it also fed it. American Catholics read Merton’s book by the millions, and, in turn, American monastic establishments found themselves inundated by new postulants, influenced by Merton’s spiritual journey.

The Seven Storey Mountain is remarkable for many reasons, perhaps the most notable being its expression of religious orthodoxy and its emphasis on obedience. These two foci stand in marked contrast to the restlessness Merton experienced with his monastic vows in the last years of his life. That restlessness took many forms, such as difficulty with his vow of stability (a vow literally not to leave the abbey, except in the most exceptional cases) and a short (unconsummated) relationship with a woman in 1966. The restlessness, however, was greatest on the subject of his writing, and a controversy that surrounds The Seven Storey Mountain illustrates the problem well. Merton’s original draft contained frank descriptions of his life in the boarding school and at Cambridge, tales of drinking and sexual relationships that his abbot judged too scandalous for the consciences of Catholic readers. (Merton’s biographer Michael Mott found that he had fathered a child, and the threat of a breach-of-promise suit was the proximate cause of his departure from Cambridge.) Those passages were stricken from the published manuscript by his order’s censors, and Merton had his first encounter with monastic censorship. It would not be his last.

Merton’s final years saw him bristle occasionally at references to The Seven Storey Mountain and its portrait of the serious young monk who desired nothing more than to leave the world when he entered the cloister. His writings near the end of his life affirm what he wrote convincingly in The Seven Storey Mountain—the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani was his home and always would be. Merton had not changed, though the passage of time had led him to a new understanding of his vocation. Merton died suddenly of accidental electrocution in 1968 while attending a conference on monasticism in Bangkok.

Significance

The monastic renewal with which Merton was associated not only touched contemplative establishments but also spread across the world of vowed religious within the Catholic Church, interacting with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In Merton’s mind, this renewal was connected closely to turning religious awareness outward, engaging in and contributing to the world while still praying for it. Merton’s own involvement in the peace movement and his interest in new, experimental monastic communities point toward that focus.

While the young Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain might not have imagined it, it was his international best seller that first opened the door to worldly engagement by many new spiritual seekers. Merton’s religious superiors may have recognized the opportunity that this engagement presented even before Merton did, as the profits derived from Merton’s book sales transformed the abbey of Gethsemani into a relatively wealthy monastery. The book’s influence created an awareness of monastic life that swelled the community of Gethsemani and the community of many other monasteries.

Perhaps more important was Merton’s transformation into a world religious figure and an avatar for contemplative life. Subsequent to the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton enjoyed the permission of his abbots to write widely. His writings ranged across theology, history, philosophy, politics, mysticism, poetry, and other areas. Outspoken, and frequently controversial, Merton’s voice in The Seven Storey Mountain still speaks resonantly among Catholics and others. Seven Storey Mountain, The (Merton) Autobiographies Christianity;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimmage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. An examination of Merton alongside Catholics Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. These writers, taken together, paint a vivid portrait of the “Catholic moment” of the mid-twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merton, Thomas. Cistercian Contemplatives: Monks of the Strict Observance at Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, Our Lady of the Holy Ghost, Georgia, Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, Utah—A Guide to Trappist Life. Trappist, Ky.: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948. Merton’s own history and study of American Cistercian establishments, published in the same year as The Seven Storey Mountain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Journals of Thomas Merton. 7 vols. New York: HarperCollins, 1995-1998. Edited volumes of Merton’s journals, from his entry into Gethsemani in 1941 until his death. A fantastic window into Merton’s life and into the history of the Trappists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Seven Storey Mountain. 1948. New ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998. The fiftieth anniversary edition of Merton’s spiritual autobiography. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mott, Michael. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. 1983. New ed. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1993. The authoritative, 696-page Merton biography. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, and Patrick F. O’Connell. The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. A good resource that outlines Merton’s life and writings in an easy-to-read encyclopedic format. Includes name and subject indexes and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weis, Monica. Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. A pictorial history of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Photographs by Harry L. Hinkle, introduction by Jonathan Montaldo, and a foreword by Patrick Hart. Includes a bibliography.

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