Truly Bad Films

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Book Review

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

One of the opening sentences of this book, the forth in fact, goes like this:

"Not many hundred of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and the ruined seventy-fives, in a forest of trees without branches, along the river Marne."

This sentence makes the hair on my neck stand up and tremble. Thomas was a true poet, and a mystical soul. His writing is not all as flowery and encompassing as the example above. Most of it seems simple on the surface, but it is the kind of simple you achieve only after years of rehearsal.

His story is the one of his journey from a child to a man, and from a lukewarm Protestant to a devoted Catholic monk. He talks about the terrible troubles he got into during his teen years, which composed the springboard for him to make radical changes in a life he felt he was living in an unworthy manner. But he is never specific about his misconduct.

Apparently, his superiors in the Church didn't want him to dwell in depth on his misadventures, but leaving them out, sadly, hamstrings the emotional power of his story. It leaves a reader today wondering if his immoral conduct was anything worse than vomiting on the school's lawn. I learned by web surfing that it is believed that he got a girl pregnant while he was in college the first time. If so, how much more effective his story would have been if he'd been allowed to talk about his regrets and his pain.

But, it was not to be. He never dwells on difficult or negative moments. And he most certainly is not a sensualist. Yet his writing is lyrical and moving and it swept me along in the embrace of his story. He lets himself preach just a bit now and then, but mostly he chronicles changes that came over him as he moved closer and closer into relationship with God.

I enjoyed this book. It is a marvelous peep into a life lived in the early 20th century, in New England and France. It was especially provident that I chose to read it back to back with Swann's Way, which gave me an insider's view of that same France, from just a few years ahead of Thomas' time. For those who like histories, religious writing and autobiographies, I highly recommend it.


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