Book Review – Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

I love hearing other people’s testimonies. You will never hear two the same. Every Christian has a unique story of how they came to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. I think that’s so amazing. Testimonies continuously remind me of God’s love for us, individually.

So I like reading testimonies too. I appreciate when authors are honest and forthcoming with their faith stories. The tagline on Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace & Co, 1948) is “an autobiography of faith”. And that’s exactly what this is. Merton leads us through his life from birth to shortly after he enters a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He gives a lot of detail about his life, his family, his education, and his slow transformation from a moderate Protestant to a Catholic priest. He doesn’t tell us everything but almost everything when it comes to his spiritual history.

I’m not Catholic. Thomas Merton was. At the core of everything, I think Merton and I believe the same things when it comes to God and I’ll see him in Heaven. There were many passage I agreed with in Seven Storey Mountain. There were parts that challenged me and parts that seemed to echo my own walk of faith. And there were parts that I disagreed with. Catholic parts.

Historically, there have been great divisions between Catholics and Protestants. I feel no need to go into that history here except to say that those divisions sadden me and I believe there are believers and non-believers in the Catholic church, just as there are in any Protestant denomination. Catholics have customs I like, customs I don’t understand, customs I personally wouldn’t follow. So do Pentecostals. I believe there are Jesus-loving, God-fearing, Bible-believing, Heaven-bound Christians in the Catholic church and the Protestant church. And, sadly, I’m sure most churches also have those who don’t accept or don’t understand the grace of God. Countless churches have “cultural Christians” in their seats. People who think coming from a Christian family or showing up on Sundays is enough. None of our churches are perfect.

It was good to be reminded by Merton’s words that we worship one God.

All that said, I have to admit my major complaint with Seven Storey Mountain was Merton’s comparisons of the Catholic church to other denominations. Some Protestants may have ignorant and hateful perspectives on Catholics, but Merton demonstrate that attitude can go both ways.

Merton shares stories of visiting different churches as a child and when he begins to search after God. Unfortunately, he had many poor experiences. He continuously found himself pulled to the Catholic church. I have no trouble believing that he visited churches without life and passion and any real display of who Jesus is. Sadly, they’re far too common. For someone searching for faith and genuine answers, a church of “cultural Christians” will never be satisfactory.

I wish though that Merton wouldn’t draw such large conclusions based on his small sample size. From his poor experiences in Protestant churches he seems to make a leap to the general “wrongness” of the non-Catholic church. So while I may expect to see Thomas Merton in Heaven, I was left with the impression that he will be surprised to see me there.

As Merton turns to Catholicism, he embraces the saints and the role of Mary wholeheartedly and speaks emphatically about their importance. Yet he never delves in to whether the concept of sainthood in the Catholic church was easy for him to accept. He goes straight to, “This is how it is and if you’re a Christian, you’ll be praying to Mary and the saints.”

This is, of course, a major difference between Catholic and Protestant churches. I don’t pray to saints. I’ve never prayed to Mary. Quite frankly, I don’t understand why I would. When I can pray directly to my God and Creator, why spend time talking to a mortal who there is no evidence can hear my prayers?

Seven Storey Mountain isn’t a book of apologetics and so, as much as I  would like an explanation, Merton doesn’t offer one. Insteads, I’m left to feel a little bit judged but with no greater inclination to turn toward Catholicism.

It’s probably the way a lot of non-Christians feel in the face of Christianity.

A couple of quotes I appreciated from Seven Storey Mountain:

“By the gift of faith, you touch God, you enter into contact with His very substance and reality, in darkness: because nothing accessible, nothing comprehensible to our senses and reason can grasp His essence as it is in itself. But faith transcends all these limitations, and does so without labour: for it is God who reveals Himself to us, and all that is required of us is the humility to accept His revelation, and accept it on the conditions under which is comes to us: from the lips of men.

“When that contact is established, God gives us sanctifying grace: His own life, the power to love Him, the power to overcome all the weaknesses and limitations of our blind souls and to serve Him and control our crazy and rebellious flesh.”

And the moment when Merton finally lets himself go and finds freedom in God’s plan for him:

“I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself; and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it. What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in His hands? The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one’s self, one’s will. The rest was only accidental.”

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