2017-07-12
An excerpt from "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" by Paul Elie.

Dorothy Day wrote: "Today the Commonweal came with a chapter from Thomas Merton's book in it about his entrance into the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. He mentions the need we have in our religious life for a formal observance of prayer, the need for ritual."

She was keeping a journal of the year 1948 and planned to publish it. In bringing out "On Pilgrimage," as she called it, from Catholic Worker Books, she hoped to earn some money for the movement, and probably wished to give her son-in-law a book to sell through the mail from the Distributist Bookstall he had started. But she was doubtless motivated by literary ambition as well. Ten years had passed since From Union Square to Rome had come out. She was better known as an organizer and a pacifist than as an editor and a writer.

The excerpt from "The Seven Storey Mountain" spoke to her main concern that year: the struggle to cultivate the interior life amid the life of poverty. Although the abbot of Gethsemani had told her the Catholic Worker was "a companion order in the world," the Catholic Worker life as she found it was far from contemplative, and Merton's account of Trappist life in Commonweal doubtless made it seem even less so by comparison.

Merton described Trappist poverty as a means to detachment, which would free the monks for the interior life. Day had the same idea of "holy poverty," but in 1948 poverty seemed to her to get in the way of interiority. Everywhere she looked she saw obstacles. Banks and insurance companies "dispossessed the poor man." Advertisers stirred "his useless desires .... Loan and finance companies have further defrauded him. Movies, radio have enslaved him. So that he has no time nor thought to give to his life, either of soul or or body."

The clearest instance of the trials of poverty was the life of her daughter, Tamar. Whereas Day, the Tolstoyan, had chosen the life of poverty as a religious discipline, Tamar was simply poor, like a peasant wife out of Dostoevsky. She and her husband had bought a farm in Stotler's Crossroads, West Virginia--the money had come from the sale of Day's cottage on Staten Island--and Day spent much of 1948 there, helping them out after the birth of their third child. The farm had no electricity or running water. The porch was collapsing. The cellar was flooded. The firewood had to be chopped and the pipes kept warm in winter, lest they freeze. "What kind of an interior life can a mother of three children have," Day asked, "who is doing all her own work, on a farm with wood fires to tend and water to pump? Or the grandmother either?"

At the farm, surrounded by poverty, with the nearest church along a country road and far away, Day found ritual observance in the journal she was keeping, a deep sounding of her interior life. "How to live the heart to God, our first beginning and last end, except to say with the soldier about to go into battle, 'Lord I'll have no time to think of Thee but do Thou think of me?'" she asked. The answer, she found, was to sit down and write.

"The Seven Storey Mountain" was published October 4, 1948. The occasion passed without acknowledgment in Merton's journal, as it did in the outside world. Three book clubs had opted to offer the book to their members; celebrity Catholics had sent words of praise--Fulton J. Sheen calling it a modern "Confessions," Graham Greene "a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one's own"--but the book did not begin to sell until Christmastime. Then it began to sell strongly: 31,000 copies in December, 60,000 in January, with 10,000 sold on one singularly lively day. "The Seven Storey Mountain" was a best-seller, but at first the New York Times refused to list it as one, on the grounds that it was a religious book, like the Bible.

Why was the book such a best-seller? Most explanations are variations on the idea that Merton was the right man at the right time. One view is that 20th-century America was ready for a searching spiritual autobiography, and Merton, in this account, anticipated the craving for order and stability that would characterize the 1950s; his disgust for the American century gave voice to public doubts about the nation's ideals, prosperity, optimism, and military might, and his flight to a Trappist monastery, a world where order prevailed and life made sense, proposed a striking alternative.

Another view is that the book captured a "Catholic moment." American Catholics had escaped the confines of parish and ghetto and entered the middle class and the wilds of postwar America. They were going to college and reading for pleasure. The war had confirmed them as patriotic Americans. To them Merton's book suggested that the Catholicism they had grown up with and taken for granted was not to be despised. A European, an Ivy Leaguer, a convert, a poet, Merton was a Catholic they could boast of and expect Jews and Protestants to admire.

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.



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