When I first started engaging in Catholic culture, I wondered why there weren’t any current Catholic books or musicians or artists. Then I realized that there are plenty — you just have to get out there and find them! Now I’m reading them and taking notes to pretend I’m back in college or reading for a living. Here you go:
The Catholic Hipster’s Catholic Book Cover Up kicked off my hunt for good Catholic books to read, but The Seven Storey Mountain is a random pick I selected from falling in love with the following Thomas Merton quote:
“As long as I assume that the world is something I discover by turning on the radio or looking out the window I am deceived from the start.”
As it turns out, that quote is only the tip of the iceberg for Mr. Merton (or, Father Louis, the name he took in the abbey). But even though quote is not from The Seven Storey Mountain, it’s still a great summary of the kind of peace Merton gave me through this book — the reassuring peacefulness of the spiritual, contemplative life, even in the face of the loud, angry, “this is real life” vibe we get from secular culture.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt like Internet roadkill for the past year or so. It’s not 100% to do with the election, it’s more a reflection of how much time I spend online reading articles and headlines I disagree with and “keeping up” with my industry. This book was a welcome invitation to step back, to stop considering the Internet “reality,” and get on with the most important work of all: listening to what God is actually asking me to do rather than what I think I should do.
My Personal Reaction to The Seven Storey Mountain
Right away, I’d say this book deepend my appreciation of the Blessed Sacrament, the prayer life, and the human attempt to make sense of God, who can’t be made sense of. Merton’s journey from the height of secular glory (being super well-educated, attractive, and intelligent) to finding his real life in God (and giving up all that secular stuff) was inspiring, but also humbling. It really gave perspective to living a life that asks questions, that responds to God’s calling, and seeks the Truth.
Even deeper in, it gave me perspective of what it feels like to have a vocation to the priesthood. The way he described his journey to being a monk was absolutely beautiful, filled with moments I’ve never had in mass or in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. It was like peeking into the heart of someone with this calling.
Selfishly, my favorite part of this book is that the night I finished reading it (after reading several chapters of Merton describing rapturous moments with the Eucharist), I had a series of simple, beautiful dreams about a bright white and silver tabernacle. They’re the most peaceful, simply-beautiful dreams I’ve ever had, and it was really special to wake up after that.
Amazing Quotes and Ideas from Book Title
I sticky-tabbed the crap out of this book, but here are the three moments and ideas that really stood out:
- This world is not enough. I grew up Catholic, but if we’re being honest, the emphasis was on, in this order: following rules, having good looks, getting a fancy education, and getting money/success. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that your soul would be fine as long as you followed “the rules,” so it was just as or more important to get good grades, perform well in sports, get into a great college, get a great job… everything the secular world lines up as ideal.
But you know what? I did all those things, had all those things… and I was miserable. If all you need to be happy is to have sex with whoever you want and have a lot of money, why are celebrities the most (self-proclaimed) depressed and messed up people in the world? The world says we need those things… but what we really need is God. Like Saint Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Like it or not, fight it or not, run from it or not… none of us will be happy when we’re beautiful, rich, and free if we choose all those things over God.
Merton explores all this through his journey of going to Oxford and Columbia and getting more and more educated and “elite,” only to be more and more miserable. This one early quote sums it up, but it’s a unending theme throughout the book:
“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.”
- Conversion is total. A Christian’s conversion is never over — we should always be growing deeper and stronger in faith, because there’s so many different ways God reveals that faith to us. That said, there also must be one total, complete conversion moment where you really decide to try to live the life God asks you to live.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we have to become the new man in the new way, not simply the old man in the new way or the new man in the old way. It’s hard — it’s nearly impossible — and that’s why we pray and ask for God’s grace and consolation to help us take supernatural action to change. Anything less, and we’re just trying to pass off the old man in the new way, or the new man in the old way, and it’s just skin deep. Merton tackles this idea with his own series of half-hearted conversions, until that one Big One knocked him on his butt:
“I made the terrible mistake of entering upon the Christian life as if it were merely the natural life invested with a kind of supernatural mode by grace. I thought that all I had to do was continue living as I had lived before, thinking and asking as I did before, with the one exception of avoiding mortal sin.
“It never occured to me that if I continued to live as I had lived before, I would simply be incapable of avoiding mortal sin. For before my baptism I had lived for myself alone. I had lived for the satisfaction of my own desires and ambitions, for pleasure and comfrot and reputation and success. Baptism had brought with it the obligation to reduce all my natural appetites to subordination to God’s will…
“… The wistom of the flesh is a judgement that the ordinary ends of our natural appetites are the goods to which the whole of man’s life are to be ordered. Therefore it inevitably inclines the will to violate God’s law.
“…[In] actual fact, since my life after my baptism was pretty much what it had been before baptism, I was in the condition of those who despise God by loving the world and their own flesh rather than him. And because that was where my heart lay, I was bound to fall into mortal sin, because almost everything that I did tended, by virtue of my habitual intention to please myself before all else, to obstruct and deaden the work of grace in my soul.” p252
- If you try to avoid suffering, more and smaller things will cause you to suffer. Especially considering the political climate that we live in this year, this idea jumped off the page as an explanation for why people are so angry all the time and why we find it so hard to be grateful for what we have. We try to control so much our lives and make so many things “perfect” that our tolerance for what is not perfect gets smaller and smaller.
When Merton’s mother dies, he arrives at that realization. Without God, without context for suffering, life seems excessively painful. And when it’s painful without context, you retreat away from the pain at all cost, until your whole life is a cramped-up ball of fearing pain, trying to avoid pain, and seeing all things as pain. It’s a nasty way to live, but I think we’re all falling for it:
“[At the death bed of his mother…] What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death…. Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you couldn’t avoid it anymore. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.
Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest tortures. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning the against ourselves.” p91
Get it on Amazon for about $10
Tangents Inspired By Book Title
Merton is one of those writers who makes me feel like I have permission to guard myself from this world. It sounds wacked-out crazy to say it, but while I read this book I could feel myself getting more sensitive to the messages in the TV shows we watch around our house, like 30 Rock and Frasier. All these shows have funny, redeeming moments, but every inappropriate joke felt more offensive than ever, and I came away feeling like I was covered in a sticky web of grossness — I just didn’t like it.
Maybe God wants other people to have more tolerance for that kind of stuff so that they can better relate to people who aren’t religious yet, but it’s becoming clear to me that God wants me to pass on it all. Reading Merton (who has a charming disdain for the “disgusting” entertainment of the 1930s) made me feel like it was okay for me to opt out without freaking out about everyone else opting out. I would still put up a great argument against television for anyone who wanted to talk about it, but Merton’s journey re-personalized the personal journey for me, if that makes sense.
I’m also pretty darn excited to discover a Cistercian abbey in Virginia that accepts guests — so in early December, I’ll be driving a few hours away for my first 2-day silent retreat. I’m terrified, but also eager to get in there and just think and pray for a few days.
If You Only Get One Thing Out of It….
God wants a deeply personal, spiritual relationship with you. And when you finally decide to stop and let him lead it, God’s vision for your life will astonish you with how perfect it is and how different it is from anyone else’s.
Merton’s story gives you a completely human landscape of what that might look like without ever implying that his way is the way God wants all people to go — only ever emphasizing that the only thing we have in common is the deep, innate need to learn to listen to God and then to follow him.
Don’t Stop Here!
Like the man said, if you don’t read good books, you’ll read bad ones. Here are more Catholic book reviews to keep you busy: