When I first met the girl who was to become my wife I was trying to live as a monk in an old house owned by a Southern Baptist church in Chico, California. My room was in back, and on weekends my brother hosted all-age indie rock shows in the living room. I worked part-time as a caregiver for children with developmental disabilities, and I subsisted mainly on ramen noodles and microwave popcorn. I bought books when I was flush and sold them back when I was broke. I made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but the vows were easy: I had no money, no mate, and only myself to answer to. I was only too happy to exchange a different set of vows with Kate Stokes in November 2002.
My adventures in monkhood can be traced back to early encounters with Rich Mullins and Thomas Merton. Rich Mullins was a Christian singer-songwriter I still admire. He was drawn to St. Francis, and he incorporated certain monastic principles into his own life. Mullins died in a car accident in 1997, one month shy of his 42nd birthday.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who died of accidental electrocution in December 1968 at the age of 52. He wrote more than fifty books in his lifetime, including two autobiographies, collections of poetry and essays, and books on contemplation, the Church, the Bible, Eastern religion, and current events. The twentieth-century was a golden age for spiritual memoir and autobiography. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain stands above them all.
Part of what makes The Seven Storey Mountain so interesting is how unlikely it is the book ever came to be. Merton was on track to be the quintessential twentieth-century man-of-the-world. He was born in France, and raised in Bermuda, England, Long Island, and the French countryside. His mother was American; his father was an Englishman who grew up in New Zealand. Both parents were artists.
As a youth, Merton wanted to be a sailor and dreamed of a life always on the move, “a constant running away from subjection, towards the freedom of my own ever-changing horizon.” He carried this ideal with him through boarding school and on to university–Cambridge (for one disastrous year) and then Columbia University in New York City.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy that the fairy stories of Scottish writer George MacDonald “baptized” his imagination and prepared it to receive the gospel. Thomas Merton’s imagination was baptized by Dante, William Blake, James Joyce, and Catholic philosophy. He converted in September 1938. Three years later, on December 10, 1941, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Merton gladly gave up a promising literary career when he became a monk, and he had no plans to continue writing at Gethsemani. He was concerned that writing promoted individuality when what he wanted most was to disappear. “Excellence, here [in the monastery], was in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished.”
But the abbot believed writing would be helpful for Merton’s spiritual growth. He encouraged Merton to write his life story. Merton obeyed and The Seven Storey Mountain was published by Harcourt & Brace in 1948. The initial print run was only 7,500, but 600,000 copies were eventually sold in hardcover, making it one of the best selling books of the year. The book appeared in the wake of World War II, and at the dawn of the Cold War and the nuclear age. As one reviewer put it, perhaps Americans were ready to read about conversion.
Merton writes at the end of The Seven Storey Mountain about the paradox of monasticism: a monk enters the cloister to be less himself and ends up becoming more himself. Merton was a living example of that paradox. He became fully himself only under the strictures and stability of community. He could have been a poet, writer, artist, journalist, teacher, or priest. These things were given up to follow God’s call. Merton ended up getting all of that back and more.
Note: This is adapted from an essay I wrote in my first book, Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture [IVP | Amazon | IndieBound]. This essay is one of several I’ve compiled in a short e-book on eight books every Christian should read. It also includes short essays on Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Saint Francis, Annie Dillard, and more. Check it out here.