I must admit that until relatively recently I’ve never had much interest in reading Thomas Merton. I had a vague concept of who he was and my impression, again without reading a word written by him, was that he was Catholic monk who believed in some sort of religious syncretism.
With that in mind, when the Catholic university that I work for had a faculty/staff prayer breakfast last November on Thomas Merton entitled, “Thomas Merton: A Mystic and Prophet for our Time” I was not that interested. A few co-workers of mine were and they asked me to join them and so I did. I thought, at least, I would get a good breakfast. The guest speaker, Fr. Daniel Horan, gave a very good talk and challenged us to read Merton. I should also mention that I follow a Merton scholar, Dr. Gregory Hillis, on Twitter who also challenged his followers to read Merton. (Though I initially followed him because he also is a patristic scholar.) Inspired by the talk, I decided to go to the library and read something of Merton’s.
I decided that I would read The Seven Story Mountain, which is the spiritual autobiography of Merton. It took me the rest of November, all of December and the first week of January to finish this modern classic of spiritual literature. It is not a book that can read quickly. It required, as any book worth reading should, a slow and thoughtful pace.
Merton’s life is a story of the grace of God moving the soul towards the all-embracing love of the Holy Trinity. He is brutally honest with his own past and how he was a complete slave to the passions of the world. He experiences loss, with the death of his father, grandparents, and his only brother. He wrestles with the social and political climate of pre-world war II Europe and America. He experiences the rich spiritual power of the Catholic Church and the grace offered through her sacraments but at the same time, he struggles, as most converts do, with shedding off the old man and putting on the new.
It was with this aspect of Merton’s struggles that I related to the most, since from the moment of my conversion to Christ I too struggled with the passions and putting on the new man.
Merton’s story is a modern-day Confessions of St. Augustine. When reflecting on this wonderful book, I think Fr. Louis’ (Merton’s name in the monastic life) heart was restless until it rested in God. My original misconception of Merton changed by reading the book. His love for the Truth of the Faith can be strongly felt (even a bit too strongly at times) throughout the book.
I look forward to reading other works by Merton. I would recommend The Seven Story Mountain. I am glad it was my introduction to the life and works of Fr. Merton. For a suggested reading list of works by Merton, I suggest this post by Dr. Hillis entitled Getting Started with Thomas Merton: A Reading Guide.