I have not read a book this hard to describe since The Gospel According to John. I think it’s fair to call both of these books “mystical,” but not in the sense that you think when you hear “mystical.” They are both accessible, easy to read stories, one event after another, of a tale you heard before. It’s just there are these.. oddities… these signs you are missing something
Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
If what most people take for granted were really true — if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pg 3
That which is mystical is not mystical.
John is an account of the life of Jesus from his youngest disciple. There is an unstated but real sense of distance between John and the others. Both of these are visualized in John’s smooth facial features. John stands apart, and remember’s Christ’s questions of why others have faith.
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
I turned around. At the end of the long nave, with its empty choir stalls, high up in the empty Tribune, John Paul was kneeling all alone, in uniform. he seemed to be an immense distance away, and between the secular church where he was, and the choir where I was, was a locked door, and I couldn’t call out to him to tell him how to come down the long way ’round through the Guest House. And he didn’t understand my sign.
At that moment there flashed into my mind all the scores of times in our forgotten childhood when I had chased John Paul away with stones from the place where my friends and I were building a hut, And now, all of a sudden, here it was all over again: a situation that was externally the same pattern: John Paul, standing, confused and unhappy, at a distance which he was not able to bridge.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 437-438
That which is shown as proof is not needed as proof.
Which brings us to The Seven-Story Mountain. I’m not sure how to handle this book. On its face its straightforward: a modern-ish version of Confessions, written by someone with the same birth year as my grandfather. A rich kid with a lot of discretionary money burns out on material things, seeks happiness in the trends of the day (Manichaeanism for Augustine, Communism for Merton), and then converts to the Catholic faith. Augustine became a bishop, Merton a monk. Augustine attempted to situation hsi conversion within the broader secular currents of the age. Merton rejoices in seeking another age. If anything, Seven-Storey Mountain is an improvement.
Yet as John subverts the common Christian story to share a deeper Christian message: all of those miracles and signs and symbols everyone is paying attention to is besides the point — Merton subverts what you expect in a Confessions clone. Unlike Augustine, who begins Confessions with a formal prayer and clearly writes from the perspective of a bishop, Merton begins Seven-Story Mountain secularly…
Merton, rather than being a unified voice in Seven-Story Mountain, is the editor of earlier voices. There’s an interesting progression of how venial sin is treated in the work, but this is made explicit in a quote by the author in the forward:
Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a storyteller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only. I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, “Introduction”
The narrator is not the narrator.
But this is not enough for Merton. The next target of deconstruction is the sort of book that Seven-Story Mountain supposedly is: an autobiography of a man who ascends from sin to live his vocation. The book starts typically enough, and teases an escape from the “image of Hell.”
Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, p. 3
But an escape into what?
By the time I made my vows, I decided I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not b sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.
There’s no doubt that St. Augustine, whose Confessions, knew exactly what a Bishop was and the power one had as he became one. But Merton’s embrace of his own life as a monk is more qualified. Likewise, Merton intentionally creates distance between his own conversion and Augustine.
Like Augustine, Merton begins as a rich playboy. Like Augustine, Merton becomes curious about the faith and converts over an extended period of time. Augustine finished his work.
And I resolved in Thy sight, not tumultuously to tear, but gently to withdraw, the service of my tongue from the marts of lip-labour: that the young, no students in Thy law, nor in Thy peace, but in lying dotages and law-skirmishes, should no longer buy at my mouth arms for their madness. And very seasonably, it now wanted but very few days unto the Vacation of the Vintage, and I resolved to endure them, then in a regular way to take my leave, and having been purchased by Thee, no more to return for sale. Our purpose then was known to Thee; but to men, other than our own friends, was it not known. For we had agreed among ourselves not to let it out abroad to any: although to us, now ascending from the valley of tears, and singing that song of degrees, Thou hadst given sharp arrows, and destroying coals against the subtle tongue, which as though advising for us, would thwart, and would out of love devour us, as it doth its meat.
Confessions, Book IX
While Merton broke with his.
After that, things began to move fast.
On the day before Thanksgiving I abandoned my Freshman class in English Composition to their own devices and started to hitch-hike south to New York.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 393-394
What we are to make of this is never said.
The genre is not the genre.
For what it’s worth, the title Seven-Storey Mountain comes from a description of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. An unstated implication of the title is that Purgatory extends into this world — at least into Merton’s own life. This is similar to both the description of the afterlife in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and my own thoughts in “Fire of the Angels“.
We may, in our own lives, see the Everlasting Fire.
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
May we not stay in it long!