What’s a Protestant like me reading the autobiography of a Catholic monk for? To be fair, I’ve benefited from Merton’s writings ever since a professor recommended one of his books to me in seminary. And given Merton’s ecumenical inclusivity, my suspicion is that this is the kind of cross-examining question raised more by my fellow Protestants than the Catholics who claim Merton. Nevertheless, this is a question I’m not much interested in answering. There is simply something about Merton I find edifying, uplifting, and inspiring—some of which I want to explore here in this engagement with his autobiography.
It may come as a surprise to some who know me that I’ve never actually read this book. It’s one of the hallmarks of spiritual writings in the 20th century, and any dignified person of spiritual and literary depth must surely have it listed among their Facebook page’s “favorite books” list. But, as I mentioned, I didn’t become familiar with Merton until grad school, at which point I learned that he somewhat disavowed this book later in his life. So at 462 pages in small print I was happy to bypass it for more expedient access to Merton’s thought.
Recently I’ve had the chance to engage Merton for other projects and thought his might be a good time to actually read this book. So I’ve done it. God bless me, I read all 462 pages; cover to cover. Cross this one off the old bucket-list.
I certainly came to realize why he disavowed the book later in life. The Merton of Seven Storey Mountain is a still-recent convert to Catholicism and even more recent initiate into the Trappist Order for whom the grass is still fairly green on the other side he just entered. That is to say, you’ll find a lot of condescension toward anything that isn’t Catholic and even a hint of derogation toward other monastic Orders. There’s also a marked difference in spiritual thought between this early work of his and more mature works like New Seeds of Contemplation. I think it would be interesting to explore how Merton changed over time, and perhaps ways in which he did not so much change as deepen and mature in some of these areas. I think it would be helpful because I, myself, have once or twice thought and written things that were less than ideal—not anymore, of course! But I would like to think I can somehow do penance and make good on past leaps in logical and spiritual depth.
There are a lot of things to appreciate and engage about Merton’s autobiography. I read this book slowly, letting myself relax and enjoy it rather than speed through it to meet some deadline. In this way I was able to savor it—and I’d recommend this strategy to anyone else looking for a book to lose oneself in and relax for a little while. The thing I’d like to focus on here is one of his many critical reflections on his past life that seemed particularly relevant to my own. I’ll cite the majority of the relevant text here:
Where was my will? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” ‘and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses. .. . . Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet—at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings for fruit at all.
In a sense, all of Seven Storey Mountain is Merton’s quest to find his vocation. A vocation is not just a matter of finding an occupation, it is finding one’s place in the will of God, which is a matter of saturating one’s work and play and rest—one’s whole life—in the love of God.
A major part of my vocation is communication: written, oral, and pastoral. As I read these words quoted above it made me realize that most of my aspirations for writing and speaking were unreflectively self-centered. Or perhaps a combination of self-centered egotism and the natural graces God gave me as gifts intended to glorify him.
Some of this is tied to future plans and goals; further education, different kinds of jobs, dreams of being well-known, or known at all. I think in some ways God knows we will idolize ourselves, and gives us grace as we combine the gifts and talents that make us who we are with less-than-honorable motivations. But as we grow to recognize and distinguish these kinds of things, the time comes to figure out how to transfigure our gifts and desires into things that displace our own love of a false self and replace this with our true self at rest in God.
So the question before me is this: how do I do the things I love to do–and am gifted to do–in a way that is not just self-aggrandizement? How do I love God in my reading and writing and talking? How does this goal change the direction of my life? Do I need the PhD, do I need to climb some kind of occupational ladder? Perhaps these questions are still missing the point, centering as they do on my own person.
But how, then, again do I do what I feel I am meant to do in a way that appreciates any kind of personal developments in the service of God rather than the gratification of my ego? These are the questions I’m left with, acknowledging Merton to be correct; just not knowing what to do with it.