Thomas Merton tried his hand at writing from his college years on, but his books were never publishable until he wrote the account of his life leading up to his conversion to Catholicism and his subsequent decision to take monastic vows at the age of 34.
Beginning with his childhood, Merton traces a meandering path to his embrace of the Catholic faith and, soon after, a monastic life. Merton makes his readers feel as though they are witnesses to every hour of his life. His language is beautiful and versatile, easily shifting between conversational and esoteric.
He lingers on the years of his boyhood and steadily quickens his pace as he goes through his young adulthood, mimicking the lazy but often interminable length of years to a child and the hurried confusion of time to a young adult.
The confusion is heightened by a sense of rootlessness in the text. Merton grows up in France, attends Cambridge in London before dropping out and enrolling at Columbia University, but he remains uncertain which he considers his true home, feeling the strain of attachment pulling him in three different directions.
Sometimes a travel narrative rhapsodizing about the lesser-known wonders of Europe, sometimes a personal devotional offering anguished prayer and awed worship, sometimes a nostalgic memoir of college days, sometimes a philosophical treatise dissecting the meaning of Western culture and of life, Merton’s autobiography always has the imprint of his life of contemplation; the reader can see that the paths of thought Merton leads him have been well-trod by the author.
Ultimately, Merton wrote his autobiography to answer the question that tormented his generation: What were all the dreams of modern man of a progress and prosperity worth if they ended in the awesome destruction of the world wars?
He was a rare voice in his generation who discovered that the material world disappointed his generation because they had abandoned the higher reality that truly satisfied. Merton says at one point that a man may be able to do good without God, but he can never be happy.
As a young man, Merton tried to find the answers in the political activism of the Communist party, in helping the black communities of Harlem rise above the injustice of racism and the culture of poverty, in the simple pursuit of daily pleasure wherever he could find it.
In the end, he concluded that all his and anyone else’s efforts to achieve those ends would always come to nothing without God. He found that by sacrificing everything he had but his writing and his deep desire to commune with God, he could make the greatest difference in the ills of society.
Something in Merton’s account must have resonated with his generation because his autobiography became the most widely read Catholic literature in America. In a country that had been hostile to the very idea of monasticism from its conception, Merton awakened both an interest and appreciation for his calling.
For the modern reader, Merton’s autobiography provides an unusual perspective on his time period, but it is unlikely to transcend its period as a work of great literature. Many a reviewer compared The Seven Storey Mountain to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but the latter will surely outlast the former. We can still appreciate Merton’s story, however, for its celebration of the contemplative life.