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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Diary of a Newly Minted Papist

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton is a book I have been meaning to read for years but only got around to these past past few weeks. An autobiography, it is the tale of an itinerant and restless young man's quest for faith in the 1930s, which he eventually finds while a graduate student at Columbia; beginning with his baptism and reception into the Holy Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church, near Columbia (an event that that rarely goes unmentioned in homilies there, even these many years later) and culminating in his answering a vocation to become a monk in the Order of Cistercians, aka Trappists, with whom he spent the rest of his days.

Merton's tale is enthralling and anyone, particularly those considering becoming a Catholic, is well-advised to read it. While he considered himself a poet this autobiography is his magnum opus. The descriptions of his inner turmoil and the interactions between friends and acquaintances, lay and religious, are masterly and captivating. I found much with which to empathize and sympathize.

That said, however, I must confess I find Merton not to be a terribly likable fellow. Despite frequent self-deprecating comments, a rather high self-opinion is still apparent and while he endeavors to portray himself the struggling and penurious writer, that effort is belied by the circumstances of his upbringing: public school in England, college at Cambridge and Columbia. Truth be told, most bohos are of upper-middle class or higher backgrounds and Merton is no exception; living off a trust fund that while not substantial, is adequate enough to ensure his never having to go unfed or untraveled. A character in the book I find much more likable is his Columbia chum and classmate Robert Lax, a non-practicing Jew who also converted to Catholicism and became a fine poet, a better one than Merton, I think (Lax's full story remains to be told and should be; for his poems, get this book, which I believe contains the lot of them).

It is Merton's quest for faith, however, that is the main story in Seven Storey Mountain and a wonderful and inspiring account it is. I wish someone had made me read it when I was wrestling with the decision whether or not to become a Catholic (it was recommended to me at the time by a friend but as my late father once advised, if you want to make sure someone never reads a book, recommend it to him).

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