Cliffs Notes on The Seven Storey Mountain

This installment of TSP’s ‘Cliffs Notes’ isn’t like our previous ones. It’s not a breakdown of the entire book but rather just some quotes that I found insightful. Also, this is the first case that the subject is a book rather than a papal document. Many Catholics are familiar with Thomas Merton’s epic tale of conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain. It is often described as the modern-day version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

This book is easy for people who have abandoned their Catholic faith in their teenage and, especially, collegegriffin_-_dp_13 years to connect with. There were times I looked up from the book briefly and reflected on how it seemed like Merton was describing a past version of myself as he meticulously chronicled the story leading up to his conversion home to the Church. The book follows Merton through his childhood all the way to the Trappist monastery where he wrote the book. For those who are not familiar with the Trappist order of priests, they are probably the most disciplined order of Catholic monks that exists. Thomas came from an apathetic and anti-Catholic protestant family and, although well educated and cultured, was dissatisfied with the way he was living his life. As he realized more and more that only God could fill the empty part of his life, he was drawn closer and closer to the Catholic Church. The book was published in the mid-40’s and the terror of World War II plays an important role during his search for truth.

I am not going to review the entire book but Merton’s contemplative and philosophical musings on God, mankind, and the Church in this book are too rich to ignore. The following are all quotes from The Seven Storey Mountain with the page number cited at the end of each:

On Protestantism/Conversion

Another thing which Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic Church. The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.

What a revelation it was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another: not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one. For even those who might have been there for no better motive than that they were obliged to be, were at least free from any of the self-conscious and human constraint which is never absent from a Protestant church where people are definitely gathered together as people, as neighbors, and always have at least half an eye for one another, if not all of both eyes.

[After attending my first Catholic Mass, a]ll I know is that I walked in a new world. Even the ugly buildings of Columbia were transfigured in it, and everywhere was peace in these streets designed for violence and noise. Sitting outside the gloomy little Childs restaurant on 111th Street, behind the dirty, boxed bushes, and eating breakfast, was like sitting in the Elysian Fields.

But the conversion of the intellect is not enough. And as long as the will, the domina voluntas, did not belong completely to God, even the intellectual conversion was bound to remain precarious and indefinite.

On the Soul

Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if the are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.

[A]ll men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power, cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness.

The life of a soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings–by which man becomes one with God.

On Salvation

The mere realization of one’s own unhappiness is not salvation: it may be the occasion of salvation, or it may be the door to a deeper pit in Hell, and I had much deeper to go than I realized.

On the Nature of Mankind, God

It is only the infinite mercy and love of God that has prevented us from tearing ourselves to pieces and destroying His entire creation long ago. People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no merciful God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice, spawned and bred by the free wills of men, the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity, How could all this be possible without the merciful love of God, pouring out His grace upon us?

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.

There is a great paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.

It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs: for this is only another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God–acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him…

When the Spirit of God finds a soul in which He can work, He uses that soul for any number of purposes: opens out before its eyes a hundred new directions, multiplying its works and its opportunities for the apostolate almost beyond belief and certainly far beyond the ordinary strength of a human being.

It is only when we refuse His help, resist His will, that we have conflict, trouble, disorder, unhappiness, ruin.

Mary, The Saints

Glorious Mother of God, shall I ever again distrust you, or your God, before Whose throne you are irresistible in your intercession? Shall I ever turn my eyes from your hands and from your face and from your eyes? Shall I ever look anywhere else but in the face of your love, to find you true counsel, and to know my way, in all the days and all the moments of my life?
As you have dealt with me, Lady, deal also with all my millions of brothers who live in the same misery that I knew then: lead them in spite of themselves and guide them by your tremendous influence, O Holy Queen of souls and refuge of sinners, and bring them to your Christ the way you brought me. Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte, et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis ostende. Show us your Christ, Lady, after this our exile, yes: but show Him to us also now, show Him to us here, while we are still wanderers.

People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are. And the greatest saints are sometimes the most obscure–Our Lady, St. Joseph.

She was the Virgin who stood in the doors of the medieval cathedrals. She was the one I had seen in all the statues in the Musée de Cluny, and whose pictures, for that matter, had decorated the walls of my study at Oakham.
But that is not the place that belongs to Mary in the lives of men. She is the Mother of Christ still, His Mother in our souls. She is the Mother of the supernatural life in us. Sanctity comes to us through her intercession. God has willed that there be no other way.

The discovery of a new saint is a tremendous experience: and all the more so because it is completely unlikethe film-fan’s discovery of a new star. What can such a one do with his new idol? Stare at her picture until it makes him dizzy. That is all. But the saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakeable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them.

On Suffering

Indeed, 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 suffer the 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.

The Church

Christ established His Church, among other reasons, in order that men might lead one another to Him and in the process sanctify themselves and one another.

[The intellect] is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of [our] passion[s], and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility.

What are your favorite quotes from Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain?

It also must be noted that Thomas’ best and most “Catholic” work was done before 1960. As he entered the 1960’s he started flirting with Eastern religious theories and Buddhism that can be questionable. Catholic Answers has more on that here.

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