Merton, his “Mountain,” and me

It started with a pocket watch.

In 1994, after my mother’s funeral, my sister, an aunt and I spent a few days in my mother’s apartment sorting through her things and dividing up what would go where.  We came across a jewelry box, buried in a dresser drawer. I popped it open and inside was a small round object in a velvet bag.  I looked inside; it was a silver pocket watch.  Inscribed on the back were the initials: “Bro. J.”  I showed it to my aunt.  “Any idea where this came from?,” I asked.

She nodded.  “That was your father’s,” she said.  “I remember when he got it.  They were gifts for all the brothers one Christmas.”

Now, I had known that my father had been in the Christian Brothers for a few years shortly before the start of the Second World War.  But the details were always sketchy.  “But why does it say ‘Bro. J.’?,” I asked her.

“That was his name,” she replied.  “Brother Jerome.”

Well.  I turned the watch over in my hand and processed that bit of information.  Brother Jerome. I wound the stem.  It began ticking.  It still kept perfect time.  I slipped it back in the velvet bag and stashed it away with my things.  I wanted to keep it.

And I wanted to know more about the mysterious life my father had led back in the 1930’s.  What was it like to be a brother back then?  How did he live?  And why was a man born “George” known for several years as “Jerome”?

A few days later, over coffee, I mentioned the story of the pocket watch to my father-in-law, and he asked me if I’d ever read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton.  I told him no.  He explained that he had read it in high school, back in the 1950s.  It described this swinging young bachelor’s conversion to Catholicism and how he finally decided to become a monk.  “He was even a communist for a while,” my father-in-law said.  “It’s a great read.”  I told him I’d check it out.

Well, he decided to make it easier on me.  A couple weeks later, he sent me in the mail a paperback edition of “The Seven Storey Mountain.”  Not long after, I sat down started the first page.

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.  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.”

I was hooked.  I continued reading.  And in some ways, I’ve never stopped.

Nearly 20 years later, the book remains a touchstone in my life, and I’ve read and re-read and marked up that copy of the book at least a dozen times.  Every reading brings me something new, throws a bright light on some other corner of my life, and puts my own faith journey into context.

Now, I’m happy to see it’s been included in the compendium of “25 Books Every Christian Should Read,” now being discussed in the Patheos Book Club. Thomas Merton thus joins such lofty company as St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Blaise Pascal and St. Benedict.

Why does Merton’s book have such a hold on me? Part of it, I know, is because his story is so modern and so relatable.  I’ve told more than a few people: “Under only slightly different circumstances, that could have been me.”  The book recounts how this jazz-loving, girl-chasing pseudo-intellectual hotshot was climbing the literary ladder and working on his Master’s at Columbia when he discovered, to his astonishment, the writings of William Blake.  He began delving more deeply into the Catholic Church.  In 1939, he converted, and two years later, he joined the Trappists – giving up everything to live in a world with nothing, embracing as he put it “the four walls of my new freedom.”  He never thought he’d write another word again.  But he did – beginning with the story of his conversion, “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

The book became a sensation – the first religious book to hit the New York Times bestseller list – and spawned hundreds if not thousands of vocations in the 1950s.  I am convinced it also helped ignite my own vocation to the diaconate, spurring me to discover more writings by Merton and take some private retreats at Trappist monasteries, where I began to hear God’s whispering call with greater clarity.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The book, I think, came into my life at a moment when God knew I was ready for it. It just speaks to me.  And I’ve been only too happy to listen.

Merton has fallen out of favor with some Catholics these days, who see him as a little too eager to do things like converse with Buddhists and study Zen.  But the fact that his landmark memoir is included in the “25 Books Every Christian Should Read” gives me hope.  He will endure.  His voice will continue to be heard.  He may even inspire more vocations like my own, stirring undiscovered yearnings and shocks of recognition among young men who encounter in Merton someone very much like themselves.

Thank you, Thomas Merton.  Thank you, also, to the editors of “25 Books.”

And thank you, of course, Brother Jerome.

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24 responses to “Merton, his “Mountain,” and me”

  1. I have to admit I have never read “Seven Storey Mountain.” I have, however, visited the Gethsemani Kentucky Trappist Monastery twice and both times prayed at the grave site of “Fr. Louis Merton.” As one might expect, the bookstore there has a LOT off his works.

    What a lot of folks do not know is that nearby Bardstown was really the third diocese created in what is now the United States: (1) Baltimore; (2) New Orleans (already existing as a diocese but by it came into the US through the Louisiana Purchase); (3) Bardstown KY (by alphabetical order of a total of four admitted in the same year — Bardstown; Boston; New York; and Philadelphia). The Bishop of Bardstown was then responsible for all of the Catholics west of the Appalachian Mountains that were not claimed by New Orleans.

    Years later, the Bardstown See was transferred to Louisville KY — but it’s precedence of honor is still recognized. In any parade of precedence of diocesan banners during any meeting of the USCCB, Bardstown/Louisville is #3 in the procession.

    English “Hillbilly” Catholics from Kentucky have a treasured story to tell.

  2. The Seven Storey Mountain served as my keyhole to the Diaconate as well. The faith that was already in my heart was the key, but it was through this book, a random “no reason” gift from a friend, that brought the two things together.

  3. I guess I have read Merton’s autobiography three times over the years. The opening words of “The Seven Storey Mountain” never fail to captivate me:
    “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world….”
    I learned recently that those were not the original opening words of the book, but Robert Giroux, the editor of Merton’s first books, told him to rewrite the opening with something that would capture the reader’s attention.

  4. Dear Greg,

    I, too, have been a Merton “fan” for decades. I suppose you have run across this quote before, but perhaps some of your readers have not.

    In March, 1949, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, Merton wrote:

    “The first thing about the diaconate is that it is big. The more I think about it the more I realize that it is a Major Order. You are supposed to be the strength of the Church. You receive the Holy Spirit ‘ad robur’, not only for yourself, but to support the whole Church.”

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  5. Yes, I do know that one — and it’s inscribed on my heart, along with the passage where he prays to Mary to let him be her deacon. 🙂

    Dcn. G.

  6. I read this Merton book and also have been to Gethsemani and visited the grave site. I think it is interesting how a book can do nothing for you on one reading and then later have a huge impact. Mere Christianity had a huge impact on me and many others who were separated from faith for a while in their life. Also, when I first read the Therese of Liseux The Story of a Soul, I was not impressed but had to go back several times before it hit me converting Therese into one of my favorite saints. Also Dark Night of the Soul has had a huge impact and I was drawn to it by Pope John Paul II saying what a huge impact it had on him and his faith. We are blessed with so much in the Catholic faith from our history and traditions. My library overflows and now I find it is a place where many of the youth I work with come to spend time and borrow. Our Seminary also has a huge amount of material and there is a local second hand book store which has purchased seemingly unlimited books from Catholic locations all over the country where you can get hard to find and amazing Catholic literature very inexpensively if you are willing to search.

  7. I read the Seven Storey Mountain while my husband was in the RCIA in the early 1980s. Inspired by Merton’s attempts to pray the Office on his own, I picked up a copy of the Liturgy of the Hours and began (not a trivial thing to find when you lived far from a major city in those pre-Internet days!). Almost 30 years later I’m still praying the Hours, and now so is my son. That was Merton’s gift to me.

  8. Neat post, Deacon Greg. I’m glad to see that my top-3 of Blaise Pascal, Thomas a Kempis, and Fr. Louis made the top 25 cut. Triple threat! I’ve written about how these three Catholic guys helped to make a convert out of me.

    In my case, Merton’s conversion story especially resonated. Not because of his being a successful writer or professor of English. And definitely not because he was a literary genius. I’m not like that at all. It was the hell-raiser side of him that resonated. I was just like that, if not more. Heck, given half a chance, I bet I could have made Thomas blush, or at least stand back in wide-eyed amazement, at the latest stunt I had pulled.

    But by the grace of God, I snapped out of it, just like Merton and my buddy Blaise. I was led to realize that Frank’s plan was heading to oblivion, and I gave up trying to be the master of the universe and decided to let God handle that task.

    Thanks for posting this and have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

  9. Put me on the list of folks influenced by “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Over the years, I have found Merton to be one of the most influential writers of my life. I’ve been to Gethsemani many times, the latest about a month ago and even had the opportunity to take a course on Merton’s spirituality with Dr. Lawrence Cunningham. The draw for me was Merton’s humanity. When I was growing up, the lives of the saints we read all were pretty sanitized, creating a spiritual bar that seemed to me to be beyond what the rest of us could do. I first read “Mountain” in high school, and it was the start of my understanding that perfection had nothing to do with holiness. I’m now on my third or fourth copy. Might be a good way to spend part of this weekend, revisiting an old friend.

  10. I enjoyed that pretty well too. I guess he’s more popular with “liberal/progressive” Catholics, which I’m not one of those, but I don’t recall anything in the book that bothered me. And he was a fine writer.

  11. Dcn. Greg,
    Thank you for this particular writing. Thomas Merton is dear to my heart and the Seven Storey Mountain had a very strong influence on me and eventually my journey toward diaconate candidacy. I have been to the Abbey of Gethsemane three times and love being there.

    While participating in our recent “Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue” class, I couldn’t help but think back to Thomas Merton and his quest to find the common link between the monastic communities of different faiths. I think he was very ahead of his time.

    Maybe all people of faith will someday embrace an appreciation for God’s common thread that runs through all expressions and indeed through all mankind and thus have a fuller appreciation for Jesus’ Incarnation.

    God bless

  12. You may be interested to know that at least once a month I get messages from young people at universities or seminaries who have read Merton and want to read or learn more; a new generation has discovered him. Merton himself worried about the popularity of SSM – in my estimation it will be long read despite his own hesitations but the real classics are NEW SEEDS Of CONTEMPLATION and THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE.
    PS: Thanks for this web site which I read faithfully – informative and free of the rancour and part pris one finds in so many “Catholic” sites.

  13. I first read “Seven Story Moutain” about fifteen years ago. I am sure it was an important piece of the deep conversion I experienced that brought me to my ordination as a permanent Deacon in May 2011. After reading SSM I began to make yearly retreats to St. Joseph’s Abbey (trappist) in Spencer, Mass. I enjoyed many conference’s with monks who knew Merton (Fr. Louis) personally. I have read most of his books. One of my favorite’s is “Life and Holiness.” Last year I attended morning Mass at “Corpus Christi” in Manhattan, where Merton was baptized. I asked the sacristan if I could take some pictures in the Church. After some conversation, I found out he was from the same town in NJ where I live….yes, a small world….

    I keep a picture card of Merton in my Divine Office….I often think of the crazy life he once had….and how he laughed at the altar before celebrating Mass, realizing that our Good Lord had forgot all his sins….. I am like Merton in so many ways..

    Many blessings to all !

  14. STEP at Notre Dame has a fabulous course five week online course on Merton’s, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Time expectation is about 2 hours a week and price is $39.00.

  15. I read 7 story eons ago, in the mid 70’s I think, then I read (or tried to) his other’s, Seeds of Contemplation, Mystics & Zen Masters, Contemplative Prayer, & a book put together after he died of his AK – Asia Journal – all fascinating, some a took a while to read, very complex. But I love his attitude, his thinking processes, his love of all mankind. Then my husband discovered & read my 7 Story, & was amazed at how Merton’s life & beliefs evolved.

  16. Thanks for the post! I was an English major so I’m a big fan of books. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain had a huge effect on me and it’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once – a shocking confession for an English major, I know! I first read it as a teenager and I loved it but I don’t think I understood his conversion since I was a cradle Catholic. Reading it as an adult made me appreciate his faith even more. He has a way of making me want to be a better Catholic.

  17. While a college student in 1960, I corresponded with Thomas Merton asking for information on a Church History paper I was writing concerning the Trappist growth in the U. S. He was most generous in his answers. I would say we exchanged about six or seven letters. What struck me most was his willingness to help an unknown college student and the humor in which he signed his letters: “The Mad Monk of Gethsemani”.

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