July 12, 2017

There is doubtless some truth to these conjectures. The Jesuit scholar Mark Massa comes closest in identifying Merton as a "great individual" whose struggles represented those of countless people of his generation in a time of drastic change. As Merton described his entry into a monastery, a place where few readers, even Catholics, had gone, the reader identified with him, all the more so because of the book's chatty and deprecatory style, through which Merton confided in the reader as a person like himself.

But even this view misses the essential spirit of The Seven Storey Mountain. The book became a best-seller because it was a religious book, not in spite of the fact. It is an account of religious experience, the first book to speak with authority about American Catholicism, which Merton seems to know inside and out. At the same time, it is a firsthand account of one person's religious experience, the aspect of religious life so many books about American Catholicism left out of the story. Not only does Merton tell about what life is like behind the walls of a cloistered monastery; he tells what it feels like to be in the grip of God. And he does so in such a way as to make the reader feel not only that such an experience is real and possible, but that it is necessary, vital, and attractive, the center of life, just as the Catholic tradition insists it is.

The Latin motto he uses to close the book--SIT FINIS LIBRI, NON FINIS QUAERENDI--makes his point clear. Let this be the end o f the book, not the end of the search. Merton's search will go on--and so, it is hoped, will the reader's, as the reader takes the book's insights beyond the book and into his or her own life.

The spirit of the age; the nature of the church; postwar anxiety; divine providence--these abstractions pale in light of the personal challenge Merton makes to the reader of his autobiography. God exists, he insists. The way to seek God is firsthand, through religious experience. So I have done. Here is the story. Now go and do likewise.