On October 11, 1948, Harcourt Brace Publishers released a book called The Seven Storey Mountain. So this coming Wednesday marks that book’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
Chances are, most people who read this blog are quite familiar with Merton and probably with The Seven Storey Mountain as well. But in case you aren’t: this book is the memoir of a young man, the child of two artists who lived free-spirited lives traveling the world, although not without tragedy: both Merton’s parents died before he turned 16. He went on to study first at Cambridge and then at Columbia University in New York. Like so many youth, his was a worldly and hedonistic life, but the influence of friends and faculty mentors and an interest in medieval philosophy lead to his surprising decision to become a Catholic at the age of 23. Three years later he apparently threw away a promising career as a writer and college professor to enter the mysterious, cloistered world of a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, where he embraced an austere and penitential life, seeking only union with the God who for him could only be found in the depth of prayerful silence.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound like the most barn-storming of books, and the story goes that the publisher (a college buddy of Merton’s) released the book mostly as a favor to his old friend. But The Seven Storey Mountain racked up over 20,000 pre-orders before it was even published, sold over 100,000 copies in its first sixth months, and eventually went on to sell over three million copies. For a non-fiction book on contemplative spirituality, those are impressive numbers.
The book’s unlikely success was due in part at least by how beautifully written it is, and while Merton does come across as a bit arrogant in his faith (a quality of this book that he would later regret), he also seems to be enough of an average Joe that his ascetic, medieval journey seems, well, accessible (indeed, Trappist monasteries had a surge in young people entering in the years after the book was published, which may not have been directly caused by this book, but no doubt Merton’s popular book helped make the monastery seem more attractive).
I think it’s also significant to consider that this book was published at a truly meaningful time. America, like most of the world, was still reeling from the horrors of World War II: the atrocities of the Shoah, the carnage of D-Day, the unthinkable destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some scholars have speculated as many as sixty million people were killed during World War II (military and civilian deaths combined; we know that six million of those were Jews in the Holocaust, and perhaps as many as a quarter million in the atomic blasts). World population at the time was about 2.3 billion, so that means about one out of every forty persons lost their lives during that horrific time. It makes me wonder: isn’t it possible that so much of the cynicism and despair in our world today is rooted, at least in part, in the trauma of WWII? Imagine what the world must have been like in the fall of 1948 — the war still fresh in everyone’s memory; and while the economy boomed at the end of the war, by 1948 a minor recession had set in. Uncertain times, indeed.
So here comes the voice of an articulate, confident young Catholic writer, who dares to offer a radically different vision of what a good life looks like. Perhaps war, racism, holocaust and nuclear devastation are not the final words on our culture; perhaps the ancient faith that God is real, God is love, and real embodied union with this God-of-Love remains possible, even following the horrors of WWII. I suspect for some people, this was the nerve that The Seven Storey Mountain struck, and no doubt that contributed to the book’s unlikely success and its legacy as a harbinger of the contemplative renaissance in our time.
Harbinger of a Changing World
The world did indeed change in the 20 years between the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain and Merton’s untimely death in 1968. Although nobody could have guessed in the fall of 1948 when the book was far outselling the publisher’s estimates, in retrospect it’s easy to see how this book represented an early sign of the spiritual renaissance that would emerge in the 1950s and 1960s.
I don’t want to oversimplify things, but let me point to at least a few significant shifts that took place during that time. First was the arrival of psychedelics. LSD had been accidentally synthesized in a Swiss lab in 1938 and its psychedelic qualities discovered a few years later; by the 1950s and early 1960s, research was being done both in nefarious ways (the CIA looked into how they might weaponize the drug) but also more positively, exploring the therapeutic and spiritual potential of psychedelics. Meanwhile, plant-based entheogens like psilocybin were being studied by researchers like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at prestigious institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Eventually, these substances leaked out of research facilities and became widely embraced by the 1960s counterculture (before they were criminalized by a frightened establishment, unfortunately setting back creative psychedelic research by almost 50 years). Other writers and researchers who explored the link between entheogens and mysticism included Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Walter Pahnke. Meanwhile, the hippie counterculture drew its own conclusions about the spiritual power of psychedelics; whatever you may think about the recreational use of such powerful drugs, it’s clear that as these substances became widely available in communes and college campuses across the land, for many they represented an initiation into a more spiritual way of seeing the world.
The second significant “megatrend” in the post-war years was an acceleration of interest in eastern philosophy and spiritual wisdom. There are many possible lines to follow here, so I’ll only mention a few. The Beatles popularized interest in the east with their short-lived but highly publicized relationship with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation. Richard Alpert, disillusioned with what he saw as the limitations of psychedelic research, went to India and traded in his LSD for devotion to a guru, and took on the new identity of Ram Dass. Meanwhile, a variety of Hindu and Buddhist teachers came to the west, or western seekers found them in the east and brought their wisdom home, all contributing to a blossoming of interest in practices like Zen, yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, insight meditation, Advaita Vedanta, and so forth. Of course, the interaction between western seekers and eastern teachers pre-dated World War II — Merton himself talks about encountering the Hindu monk Mahanambrata Brahmachari in New York in 1938, who had come to North America to participate in the World Fellowship of Faiths in Chicago. But the 1950s and 1960s became a time when eastern wisdom became much more visible in western society, impacting youth culture in a manner similar to the impact of entheogens.
While neither the psychedelic movement nor the immersion into eastern spirituality ever became truly mainstream — both were, and remain, essentially countercultural elements in our society — they became widely recognized as touchstones of our society’s deep spiritual hunger and yearning for an alternative to the horrors of war, the mindlessness of consumerism, and the creeping cynicism of our entertainment culture. But what about Christian spirituality — what were Christians doing in response to the spiritual hunger of the time?
From the earliest years of the twentieth century, Christianity experienced its own spiritual renaissance via the Pentecostal/Neopentecostal/Charismatic movement. This movement, originally occurring on the fringe of the evangelical world, became more mainstream after World War II as Christians in mainstream denominations embraced this joyful spirituality marked by dancing, ecstatic praise and speaking in tongues. But charismatic Christianity, from the beginning, was hobbled by a narrow, dualistic theology that emphasized fear of the devil almost as much as it celebrated God. Charismatic Christians all too often settled for a narrow theology where there is only one correct way to be spiritual — and that anything different (whether it be non-Christian spirituality, secular psychology, or new age practices) was rejected as “demonic.” (As someone who explored charismatic Christianity during my adolescence, I do believe there is real potential for inner transformation in that world, but the rigid/patriarchal theology that often accompanies it means that this movement often quenches the very Spirit it seeks to embody).
Back to Thomas Merton. His book came out in 1948 — before the modern charismatic movement went mainstream, before the psychedelic movement or the encounter with the east entered the cultural zeitgeist in any significant way. The spiritual vision he offers is different from the free-wheeling world of countercultural spirituality, but also quite different from the dualistic nature of charismatic experience. Merton plugs in to the ancient tradition of Christian contemplation, which for too long had been kept hidden in monastic cloisters. And while he wasn’t the first author to suggest that contemplation belongs to everyone, not just monks or nuns (Evelyn Underhill and Rufus Jones predated him by almost 40 years), the success of The Seven Storey Mountain meant that Merton became the face of monastic/contemplative spirituality for his time.
Merton and His Legacy
The success of Merton’s book meant he became a monk-celebrity, which is in itself something of a contradiction in terms. For Merton this meant he devoted the rest of his life to writing, journaling, correspondence, and reflecting on the “silent life” of the cloister. Merton’s writings cover a wide terrain, from poetry to devotional writing to social criticism and interfaith dialogue. Some of his books, like New Seeds of Contemplation and The Inner Experience, do attempt to invite the reader into contemplative practice, but The Inner Experience makes it clear that Merton, whose own experience is so fully shaped by the structure of monastic life, is somewhat at a loss about how to encourage non-monastics to enter the silent path. It would be the generation after Merton: writers like Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault, along with others like John Main and Laurence Freeman, who would more definitively make the case for contemplative practice outside of monastic settings.
Ironically, The Seven Storey Mountain became (and remains) a popular book among conservative Catholics, who seem to resonate with its “I once was lost but now I’m found” story arc and how confident the young Merton was in proclaiming Catholicism as the one true faith. But Merton himself would not stay put, spiritually speaking: although he remained a monk until his death, his inner life because increasingly broad-minded, engaged with writers and philosophers of other religious traditions and other philsophical perspectives. As his early writings seemed to embody a more triumphal, traditionalist understanding of Catholicism, by the end of his life Merton’s voice was much more congenial to those who might label themselves as progressive or at least as “Vatican II” Catholics.
Of the three spiritual megatrends I’ve mentioned that became (relatively) mainstream in the decades following TSSM, Merton was perhaps understandably cautious about psychedelics. In a 1958 letter to Aldous Huxley, he expresses concern that equating psychedelics with mysticism could be a confusion of a natural experience with supernatural grace. He also seemed dismissive of Pentecostalism, once remarking that monastic contemplatives “are Pentecostals without necessarily having all the Pentecostal trimmings.” But when it came to interfaith exploration, there Merton proved to be prophetic. His early interest in Brahmachari led to the mature Merton’s interest in the work D. T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and other voices from the east. Even during his lifetime, books like Zen and the Birds of Appetite and Mystics and Zen Masters testify to his abiding interest in interfaith dialogue. Since his death, a wonderful series of books have been published detailing the many dimensions of Merton’s interfaith exploration, with titles like Merton and Buddhism, Merton and Sufism and Merton and the Tao.
December will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of Merton’s untimely death, at the age of 53, in Bangkok. Sobering as it may be to ponder, Merton has been dead longer than he was alive. And in the more than half-century since his death, consider how spirituality in America has played out. Conservative Christianity, in its evangelical and charismatic forms, become politically allied with the Republican party and, more recently, Trumpism. In the last ten to fifteen years psychedelic research is finally happening again, with promising results. Contemplative Christianity has slowly but steadily gained traction thanks to organizations like WCCM, Shalem and Contemplative Outreach, although it is still very much a minority expression of Christian spirituality (I often hear of churches with a thousand members that can attract only ten or twenty people to centering prayer workshops). And interfaith exploration seems to have moved away from traditional religious practice, more embraced by people who identify as “spiritually independent” or “spiritual but not religious” rather than something widespread in Christian circles.
So, back to my question: Does Merton still matter? My friend and colleague Cassidy Hall offered an insightful and challenging response to that question a couple of years ago, with her essay “Maybe It’s Time For Me to Let Go of Thomas Merton.” Hall has served as the secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and directed a short film on Merton’s hermitage years called Day of a Stranger — so no one can accuse her of not being a serious student of the monk. When I first read this article, I reacted defensively — “Merton is too important to ‘let go of’!” or so I thought. But when I took a deep breath and really reflected on what she had to say I found myself agreeing with much of it.
Merton, as a White cis man and vowed monastic in a patriarchal church, perpetuates damaging exclusivity alongside his wisdom… Maybe it is time to acknowledge that my long obsession with the words and wisdom of Thomas Merton did crowd out other voices and other perspectives, preventing me from hearing them fully—including my own.
The older I get, the more I come to believe that everyone (and every thing) casts a shadow, and rarely is anything in life anything other than a fascinating mix of what is good and what is not-so-good, what can lead to liberation and what can get in the way. Like so many contemplative writers of my generation, my debt to Merton cannot be measured. But like Cassidy Hall, I have to wonder if too much Merton isn’t actually counterproductive: that the time we spending listening to his voice just might be time that could creatively be invested in discovering many other voices including voices outside of traditional religious context, and voices that represent positions without the social privilege that Merton embodied.
In the years to come, I think it’s going to be more important to read Merton as a historical voice rather than a contemporary commentator. In that sense, Merton will always matter, alongside Evelyn Underhill, Howard Thurman, Simone Weil, Teilhard de Chardin, and other important twentieth century contemplative voices. But reading them is a way of honoring the ancestors. It’s important that we do it, but we need to pair that honoring with a recognition that the challenges and opportunities of today look a lot different from the world of 1948, 1958 and 1968. Can Merton inspire us, inform us, and even educate us? Yes. But his is only one voice, and we make a mistake if we neglect the diversity of voices from today that can speak to the contemplative call in our present circumstances.