THIS IS an almost overwhelmingly complete biography of the famous Catholic Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton (Father Louis) who in 1948, when he was still a very young man, wrote the autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, "the single most famous book ever written by an American Catholic," a book which launched him on his way to becoming one of the best known if controversial Catholic figures in the modern world.
The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton is unquestionably the "official" biography so designated by the all-powerful Merton Trust and is likely to remain so for some time due to the prodigious, painstaking labors of Michael Mott over a concentrated five-year period of interviews with friends and acquaintances and tireless research in Merton's prolific public and private writings. These writings include some 40 books, innumerable magazine articles published and unpublished, poetry, mimeographed material for underground distribution, years of detailed daily journals and diaries plus mountains of correspondence, worldwide. The marvel is that Michael Mott has somehow managed to find and reveal in all this dense mass of often equivocal material a lovable, living man with all his quirks and paradoxes, inconsistencies and prejudices contained within his one great driving desire to bring himself nearer to God.
It is impossible to do justice to this impressive book in a brief review, for it deals with a character of most unusual versatility and complexity; "a poet, writer, activist, contemplative (explorer of darkness and silence), reformer of monastic life, artist, bridge between Western and Eastern religious thought" -- Merton's many-sided nature often curiously stood in his own way. As Mott tellingly observes, without his 1948 best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain, it is just possible that Merton would have achieved the obscurity and oblivion which is the declared intent of each monk of the order he had joined -- the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, specifically the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
THE REAL DRAMA of this book begins when Merton, the jazz-loving Bohemian intellectual of Columbia, enters the monastic life in one of its strictest forms. His earlier years had been full of varied experiences, wide travel with his somewhat eccentric, gifted parents, an unsuccessful time at Cambridge, other unusual and often missed opportunities -- all of which may well have contributed to his chronic restlessness. None of his brilliant, cynical (although also "searching") Columbia friends were prepared for this drastic decision of Merton's to become a Trappist monk.
Although he had presumably "left the world" when he joined the Order, it is precisely here that the book picks up its striking momentum. Merton's struggles to become what he feels he is, a potentially "fulfilled" monk as well as an influential, successful writer, lead him into constant activity of the mind and the spirit and many lively conflicts with his superiors.
Obscurity and oblivion were hardly in Merton's karma (to use a term that Merton himself came to understand in the years when he began to study Eastern philosophy, in particular Zen Buddhism, and to make close friends of such noted Buddhist scholars as D.T. Suzuki). In choosing the monastic life he could hardly have opted for a less likely spiritual home (for one of his ebullient nature) than the strict Trappists of Gethsemani. Part of the drama of his life in this supposed retreat is set forth in his differences with church authorities (particularly with the abbot, Dom James) and with the various ways he contrived to circumvent rules having to do with receiving or sending letters or communications of any kind. He was indeed a problem to his superiors and although by his vast learning, his sincerity and his irresistible personality he did come in time to fill the high position of Master of Novices, his constant interior dialogues along with his many contentions with the authorities make engrossing reading.
One of the memorable episodes occurred when the monastic authorities agreed that their restless, brilliant monk could well do with some psychological help (an idea which crosses the reader's mind much earlier in Merton's life). The Order's choice for a psychiatrist was another "Catholic culture hero," the famous Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, a recent Catholic convert who had analyzed Hemingway and other noted writers and who asserted that he could analyze Merton just from his writings alone. On his visit to Gethsemani, Zilboorg discouraged Merton from continuing o write at all. Specifically, he attacked an article Merton was hoping to publish, "Neurosis in the Monastic Life." On this reaction of Zilboorg's, Merton wrote candidly and with rather noteworthy detachment to a friend, describing some of Zilboorg's attacks: "It is not intelligence you lack but affectiveness," accusing him of being "verbological," agreeing that he needed some silence and isolation but that it had to rise from his own heart.
This was not to be Merton's last encounter with Zilboorg who not only attacked his writing in general in very caustic terms, but also scorned Merton's deep wish to be permitted to live a hermit's life in a cabin of his own on the monastery grounds. Zilboorg scathingly remarked, "You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying, 'HERMIT.'" Merton was crushed -- but not permanently. His natural ebullience rose again, for he knew in his deepest heart that nothing anyone could say would ever keep him from continuing to write and that through unfaltering persistence he would in time get his now-forbidden hermitage.
THE ZILBOORG episode is only one among many other telling encounters in the years while Father Louis, the Trappist monk, earnestly, avidly and by every means at his command sought to find the peace his soul craved; a peace he continued to shatter by his own unceasing involvement in the forbidden "outside world" and its innumerable causes: the plight of the blacks, the Vietnam War, the hopeful rise of a new ecumenism, the burning of draft cards -- the list is endless. He was not even spared the terrible heartbreak and indecision as to his "right" course that came with his falling desperately in love in middle life and being deeply loved in return by someone we know only by the initial S. Much as he suffered in the years of his secret and rather ambigious relationship, Merton could feel grateful that he had at last known what it was to truly love and to be truly loved in eturn. But in the end he did not leave the monastery to marry.
Merton at last realized a long cherished hope to see the Far East. He was able to interview the Dalai Lama in the sight of the Himalayas; to exchange views with other leading Eastern religious figures; to visit Darjeeling, Calcutta, even Sri Lanka where he had one of the great illuminations of his life (as reported in the last of his many journals) while contemplating a recumbent stone figure of the Buddha in his death sleep.
Merton's life ended with tragic abruptness in a Bangkok monastery. It is believed he accidentally touched a defective electric fan while still damp from a shower. Mott tells us that there are other theories of what actually occurred, including a bizarre and unlikely theory that he had been murdered.
Mott has chosen to end his engrossing book with a poem of Chuang Tzu's, the Taoist sage and poet whom Merton so admired he attempted to learn Chinese to help his comprehension. It seems a fitting choice in view of Meton's enduring interest in Eastern spirituality. The message is plainly Asian in tone as in the final lines: We have seen a fire of sticks Burn out. The fire now Burns in some other place. Where? Who knows? These brands Are burnt out.