Weird Weighting of Topics.
A book ostensibly about monastery spends very little time on it, but still a relatable and good book.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #70/100
I struggle with the idea of faith about every week or so. I yearn for a more mystical aspect of my life, but my rational mind can’t open up to stories that are literally false even if they may contain metaphorical truth. Every few months, I open a bible and read some of the lines imbibing the feelings of meaning and purpose only an ancient text can satisfy. It starts to crumble soon, however, when I start realizing I’m trying to find solace in a 2000 year old book fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies authored by illiterate people who could not pass elementary science class.
Seven Story Mountain is a retelling of Thomas Merton’s spiritual journey which starts much like my own: yearning for that mystical meaning and direction, he tries to figure out himself. He tries a few different sources (politics, hedonism, intellectualism) but still finds an empty hole in his heart. He eventually fills it with Catholicism. My favorite quotes of the book echo my own sentiments about meaning in the modern world even if our solutions diverge quite drastically. There is much more to bring us together than separate us, though I’m not sure he would agree.
What I don’t understand is why this book is pegged as a look into Monastery life. This is a misleading focal point of the book cover, preface, and online commentary. Merton’s book is really one puff of air on being a monk and a full exhale on his life before hand. This did disappoint: his quotidian life as a youth overstayed its welcome while the exotic life of the monastery was never fully explored.
The publication is a bit of a winding road. Pre-monk, Merton wrote novels and poetry with friends that never got published, but he made several connections in the industry. After some abbot suggests writing about being a Trappist Monk, Merton writes an autobiography that gets picked up and green-lighted for distribution. It was a surprise smash, ending up as a best seller.
If there is one thing Merton captures, it is the nihilism that is so easy to succumb to in contemporary living.
Hedonism is Not Meaningful.
I know that my death is my future, so why continue to work hard on building skills and being a better person? One of the fallacies I disavowed was that the frivolous college years were an apex. Come to find out, this immense amount of freedom and debauchery does not equal a meaningful life:
“So there I was, with all the liberty that I had been promising myself for so long. The world was mine. How did I like it? I was doing just what I pleased, and instead of being filled with happiness and well-being, I was miserable. The love of pleasure is destined by its very nature to defeat itself and end in frustration.”
There is something that changes mid-twenties. I no longer feel complete satisfaction with playing video games, eating ice cream, and vegging out. These have become secondary or tertiary activities that only compliment my life as an award when I accomplish a more meaningful goal.
A Substitute for God.
A recent thesis that’s been thrown around is that people have replaced a belief in the higher power with a political party. We no longer worship Jesus but Conservatism or Liberalism (note: USA demarcations which are different than the rest of the world). That’s the reason for the recent, nasty political discourse.
Merton found evidence for this in his own life:
“It was an easy and handy religion [communism] – too easy in fact. It told me all the evils in the world were the product of capitalism. Therefore, all that had to be done to get rid of the evils of the world was to get rid of capitalism.”
It’s easy to see why political tribalism is such an easy replacement: it brings together like-minded people for a sense of purpose directed at one goal. It has its own dogmas and rules to follow. It checks the box for many of the things we are yearning for in life.
I think this is good reminder that the idea of worshiping political identity did not start within recent history but has probably been with us since the very beginning. Sorry Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson — “identity politics” goes way beyond some recent progressive left movement. For as much as Ben Shapiro espouses the dangers of identity politics, he never misses a chance to reaffirm his Jewish & Conservative identity. Both of these are fine things to do, just don’t get mad when others do the same.
Rationality Can’t Explain It All.
Where the Enlightenment assumed everyone was full of agency and rational, contemporary studies have shown just how much aren’t in control. The works of Khaneman and Tversky proves that there are many ways that we can reframe questions to make us go down illogical rabbit holes. Simple variations in wording and framing make us act in contradictory ways leaving us to wonder how much free will we really have.
This is one of the reasons why I think rationality cannot be the full answer; best answer – yes, complete answer – no. Merton captures this problem with objectivity:
The intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to use with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda.
This is not a new idea. Psychologist Jon Haidt believes that humans are moral intuitists: we first begin with an emotion of right and wrong and work our way towards that conclusion with logic. The fact that are emotional centers light up before our logical ones when making decisions is a difficult one to square when it comes to discussing us as only rational creatures.
I’m just going to leave this one here:
“Spanish is never a weak language, never sloppy, even on the lips of a woman.”
No wonder he ended up living with a bunch of guys.
We Only Exist in Comparison to Others.
Here is a neat idea that isn’t original to Merton but brings up something I haven’t thought much about: we really only exist in the minds of others.
“The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinion and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real.”
Which is the more true you: 1) the one who lives in isolation able to live out the personality that is most innate? 2) the one who lives in a community and morphs and changes his personality to suite others?
I think the book The Stranger by Albert Camus explores this realm when a man does not exhibit the suspected responses at a funeral. Merton believes that being in a Monk alleviated him from these external pressures, allowing him to reveal the actual personality God gave him.
Very relevant and applicable even for the non-religious (i.e: me), I just wish there was more pages about the Monastery.
Other People’s Takes
- Introvert Apologetics: “He had never imagined that people could speak of God in such a compelling and intellectually satisfying way. What he found most specifically was the idea of God’s aseity, God’s capacity to exist through Himself.”
- Byzantium on Brew: “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.”
- Biblical Spirituality Press: “As far as the literary worth of the book is concerned then, even non-Catholic readers can profit from it. They, especially the writers, can learn from Merton’s outstanding style of writing. Moreover, the book can be an inspiration for moral living.”
The first Christmas my now-husband and I spent together, he gave this book to my then-High Church Episcopalian/Anglo-Catholic self.
Like you, I suppose I’d have been keener on hearing more about the monastery life and such. I thought many of his conclusions were strange. I’ve seen several spiritual journeys that echo Merton’s: people find themselves existentially dissatisfied with the secular world (or some such underlying philosophy or another), have some kind of mystical or contemplative experience that drives their search into traditional religious territory, and somehow arrive at the conclusion that one religion or another’s dogma has a one-to-one correlation with Absolute Truth. That’s the point where I take issue- I can’t make myself believe something that I don’t OR something that could have a better interpretation.
As far as the Bible itself goes: I’ve found it’s much more interesting to study it from a historical-critical/literary analysis perspective, but that’s probably just me.
I’ve read a few of Bart Erhman’s books, and while they have several themes repeated word-for-word across them, it does give me some kind of inlet to the historical aspects.
What made you change to your current religious beliefs?
Apologies for taking so long to respond; and a further twist is that a comment space isn’t really large enough to discuss my own conversion experiences as there are too many details and twists that I’m not even sure I could remember.
Interesting write up and fair play for giving it a read — I would have stopped firmly short on the ‘autobiography of faith’ part
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The ONLY way it worked was the he captured some of the same feelings that I think most share about the meaning of life. That’s why I wrote the entire review from that angle — it’s the only thing I could care about!
You did well with it for sure
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