After immersing myself in the world of Orthodox monasticism through my travels and reading, I became curious about how Catholics approached monasticism. For my introduction to this world I selected Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, an immensely popular work that chronicled his path to becoming a Trappist monk in the middle of the 20th century.
Merton’s experiences as a monk were different than what I have been exposed to in Orthodoxy. I found him to be overly sentimental and always looking for signs (of which demons are happy to provide). The weapons he brought into spiritual battle seemed light, which explains how he fell away into secular ways towards the end of his life. All these considerations aside, I did find a number of profitable passages that are worth sharing.
The benefit of spiritual guidance
What is the good of religion without personal spiritual direction? Without Sacraments, without any means of grace except a desultory prayer now and then, at intervals, and an occasional vague sermon?
I do not have a spiritual father to who I am in full obedience. While I regularly consult with my godfather, who is a monk, and many priests, at the end of the day I am in obedience only to myself, and final decisions lie with me alone. To the secular world, there is no problem with this arrangement, but I know that it would be quite easy for Satan to deceive me into making a decision that is detrimental to my salvation.
Love your enemies
[My father] was not afraid to express his ideas about truth and morality to anybody that seemed to need them—that is, if a real occasion arose. He did not, of course, go around interfering with everybody else’s business. But once his indignation got the better of him, and he gave a piece of his mind to a shrew of a French-woman, one of those spiteful sharp-tongue bourgeoises, who was giving free expression to her hatred of one of her neighbors who very much resembled herself.
He asked her why she thought Christ had told people to love their enemies. Did she suppose God commanded this for His benefit? Did He get anything out of it that He really needed from us? Or was it not rather for our own good that he had given us this commandment? He told her that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul, instead of tearing herself to pieces with her own envy and spitefulness. It was St. Augustine’s argument, that envy and hatred try to pierce our neighbor with a sword, when the blade cannot reach him unless it first passes through our own body.
Loving our enemies is perhaps the hardest commandment to follow. Since most of our relationships are transactional in nature, we are constantly mindful of the benefits that others are doing for us. “Chris still did not pay me back for a meal I bought him two years ago. Why should I again treat him kindly if he will never return the favor?” Because Lord Jesus Christ commanded me to do so, and if I love my Lord, I will follow His commandments.
Experiencing suffering when you don’t have faith
What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for 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. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. 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.
…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 torture.
Without faith, the moment you experience suffering, you immediately dedicate all your energy into getting out of it, because what would be the point? I’m in pain and I feel bad. I’m upset and frustrated. I only get one life, and that life is currently unfavorable. Suffering doesn’t feel good, and look at all the people surrounding me who don’t suffer, or who at least conceal their suffering, and brag about their riches and lovers and travel experiences.
The spiritual reality is that suffering is impossible to escape after the Fall, and it’s in God’s great mercy that He allows suffering so that you began to call upon Him for help to develop a real faith that puts you on the path to salvation. The primary reason I came to God was because of the emotional suffering I found myself in after a life of sin and the loss of my sister. If I never experienced suffering at all, I’d still be squeezing blood out of a rock in some foreign land, blaming promiscuous women for all my unhappiness.
“I’m not hurting anyone”
I believed in the beautiful myth about having a good time so long as it does not hurt anybody else. You cannot live for your own pleasure and your own convenience without inevitably hurting and injuring the feelings and the interests of practically everybody you meet. But, as a matter of fact, in the natural order no matter what ideals may be theoretically possible, most people more or less live for themselves and for their own interests and pleasures or for those of their own family or group, and therefore they are constantly interfering with one another’s aims, and hurting one another and injuring one another, whether they mean it or not.
When you seek your own pleasure or gain, you have to lie constantly, whether big lies, white lies, or most commonly, lies of omission. I lied to nearly every foreign woman I slept with and I lied to my family about my real intentions from living the life I did. I lied to just about everyone to maximize my gain and soothe over minor inconveniences and social tensions.
When you’re focused on receiving not what God wants to give you but what you want to receive, you have to lie, and it’s only through living a daily Christian life, and not just one on Sundays, can you break this secular habit.
Where does pursuing your desires end?
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.
In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear.
The greed of capitalism
It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produce what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there even been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.
Here Merton was referring to many decades ago. How would he describe our modern society? How would he reconcile the growing apostasy, even among self-described Christians? What would he think about our obsession with technology and its promises to alleviate every moment of boredom or mild discomfort? What would he think about the faithless waiting in line at the clinic to be injected with an experimental vaccine that is well-known to cause a myriad of side effects, including death?
The demeanor of revolutionaries
…most Communists are, in actual fact, noisy and shallow and violent people, torn to pieces by petty jealousies and factional hatreds and envies and strife. They should and show off and generally give the impression that they cordially detest one another even when they are supposed to belong to the same sect. And as for the inter-sectional hatred prevailing between all the different branches of radicalism, it is far bitterer and more virulent than the more or less sweeping and abstract hatred of the big general enemy, capitalism. All this is something of a clue to such things as the wholesale executions of Communists who have moved their chairs to too prominent a position in the ante-chamber of Utopia which the Soviet Union is supposed to be.
Revolutionaries are the chief atheists of their times, so we should not be surprised that they are full of anger, wrath, and jealousy while lacking in patience, empathy, and compassion. You can watch as many hours of video as you want of revolutionary protests that happen in America and I challenge you to point out only one face that is displaying a genuine sentiment of love and kindness. You will only find disfigured faces influenced by the demons. There is hatred in those who accuse you of hate, injustice in those who preach justice.
Works without God are dead works
Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers.
When you perform a good deed without God, you are really doing it for your own benefit, even if it’s just for a brief positive feeling. Externally there is a sacrifice, but internally there is none.
Those who go to hell want to go to hell
Why should anyone be shattered by the thought of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God’s. In damning them he is only ratifying their own decision—a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice. Nor will he ever hold our weakness alone responsible for our damnation.
As a neophyte Christian, it is hard for my puny mind to comprehend the severity of being condemned to hell for eternity. Surely those people don’t deserve hell for all time, right? But God is All-Merciful and All-Just, or else He wouldn’t be God, so it is impossible for him to merit out a punishment that is not deserved.
If on earth you choose to live according to Satan, if you accept and act upon his every evil impulse that he puts into your mind, you have made a choice, through an entire lifespan, that you are in allegiance to Satan. Therefore, when you die, God sends you to live with him, the demon that was your lifelong god. You wished for Satan in all that you did in your earthly life, you wrecked other people’s lives as well as your own, and desensitized yourself to the suffering and misery caused by your own hand, so God will give you more of that by placing you in hell. You will then be able to live with Satan and feel more of the suffering which you mired yourself in on earth because of your rejection of God. There is not a single creature that does not deserve the judgment that God gives them.
Did Thomas Merton rush into monasticism?
[The priest] saw that I was only a recent convert, not yet two years in the Church. He saw that I had had an unsettled life, and that my vocation was by no means sure, and that I was upset without doubts and misgivings.
Merton became a monk not long after being baptized as a young man, but his memoir details that even after his baptism, he was prone to serious sin, suggesting that grace was not immediate. Once he rid himself of his most major sins, he rushed into monasticism. Did Catholic elders do him a disservice by allowing him to become a monk so early in his walk with Christ?
Because Merton’s works produced a flood of interest in the Catholic Church, the hierarchy treated him like a rock star by giving him special benefits compared to other monks. Eventually, he strayed from his faith by diving into Eastern religion and engaging in an intimate relationship with a nurse who was a fan of his work (and writing profusely of the love affair’s benefits). To his credit, he ended the relationship and remained a monk. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been as famous if he lived as a lay Catholic, but I wonder if it is unfair that his elders put him in a position that his spiritual state could not handle.
For a 450-page book, there were only a few sections that spoke to me, so I can’t recommend it to Christians who are looking for an insight into monasticism. For Catholics, however, this book may be a necessary read since it serves as a historical document for the development of Catholicism in the United States.
Learn More: The Seven Storey Mountain on Amazon