Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet
The Seven Storey Mountain
Love and Living
George Woodcock and the late Thomas Merton are both of them copious and fluent writers and their coming together in Woodcock’s study of Merton seems appropriate in many ways. Woodcock, not a Christian, is predisposed by his gentle anarchism (Kropotkin rather than Bakunin) to be a sympathetic expositor of Merton’s religious and moral views. He is far enough away from his subject not to fall into hagiography and he has enough feeling for Merton’s spiritual style to make us trust the exposition. If he is, as I shall suggest, too relaxed in his judgments on the quality of Merton’s work, his fault is a generous one.
In the United States the churches tend to be known and judged in the persons of those of their members who come into prominence. This is true even of Catholicism. Whereas in the rest of the world it is hard to find a representative human being to stand for the Church of General Franco and Julius Nyerere, Konrad Adenauer and Heinrich Böll, in the United States Catholicism immediately calls up the thought of the late Cardinal Spellman and of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen; but for some of the generation now growing old or middle-aged American Catholicism also means Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
With the publication in 1948 of his immensely successful autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, a book praised by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons, Merton achieved a fame he never lost. It is hard to read it again, after many years, without feeling slightly embarrassed. It has a generous rush of high spirits. The early Merton is like a young horse galloping round a field: it is a wonderfully invigorating sight but it has a peculiar pathos for the observer, who knows the bit and bridle and the harness have already been prepared. He is very knowing—too knowing—about ideas and writers he has come across in his growing-up. He is especially absurd on D.H. Lawrence, whom he took to be a worshiper of what he calls “the sex instinct” and a proto-fascist. In his account of his conversion to Catholicism and his later conviction that he has a calling to the life of a Trappist monk he is inclined to turn what is in any case dramatic into melodrama, and there is a touch of morose pleasure in some of the accounts of his inner turmoils. Neither Catholicism nor the calling to so hard a form of the religious life as the Trappist (at least, as it then was: Woodcock suggests that the rule is now more relaxed) need be blamed for the slightly self-indulgent soliloquy Merton goes in for—nothing could be more inept than Bishop Sheen’s comparison of The Seven Storey Mountain to Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
His later life and writings make it plain that beneath what is too easy in the autobiography there is a sane, serious,…
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