Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Part 1, Chapter 1, Prisoner's Base

The Seven Storey Mountain is well-described by the book's subtitle: An autobiography of faith. It is the story of Thomas James Merton's life from his birth in 1915 until his vow-taking at a Trappist monastery in 1944.

It tells the story of a somewhat vagabond and restless youth searching for meaning on two continents and among a constantly-changing world stage. But while the story's setting is expansive and vividly-described—from cathedrals in Rome to cabins in up-state New York, from peaceful, isolated villages in Southern France to Allied bombing over Germany—the setting seldom carries or even affects the thrust of the narrative.

The essence of Seven Storey is Merton's slow progress of philosophy and allegiance, in stages, from narcissism to communism to Catholicism to monasticism.

The book's first line reveals the kind of solid, but image-rich writing with which Merton will tell his story: "On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in the year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world".

Merton was born Prades, France. His parents were artists and endeavored to raise him without entanglements of wealth and possessions in order to live an independent, free, and expressive journey. Their dislike of anything bourgeois may have laid the foundations for Merton's eventual attraction to the monistic life.

As Merton remembers, "neither of my parents suffered from the little spooky prejudices that devour the people who know nothing but automobiles and movies and what's in the ice-box and what's in the papers and which neighbors are getting a divorce".
In November 1918, Thomas' brother John Paul was born, making the family four, though that wouldn't last.

Merton's mother was a tightly-wound American perfectionist whose world and family were well-ordered. Merton remembers her as worried, but her memory and influence is limited because she died in 1921 of stomach cancer.

Merton's father, Owen Merton, has a much larger influence on the life in question. In fact, he is probably the most important and best-known character in the story other than the author.
Owen Merton was a New Zealander who was left to raise Thomas and John Paul after his wife's death, though he certainly shared that responsibility with friends and family members, many of whom house one, two, or all three of the Merton men.

Owen Merton's parents, who were called Pop and Bonnemaman by their grandchildren, lived in Douglaston, New York, and Owen took the boys there when they were young and their mother was sick. Merton remembers his father giving him a note which was, essentially, his mother saying goodbye—telling him that she was dying and that she would never see him again.

Following her death, the Merton men seemed to split up—Owen to various places around the world to paint landscapes and the boys to various family members for schooling, although seldom together. These arrangements never struck Merton as odd.

It was the only way of life he knew—sometimes living with his father, sometimes with strangers.
Merton's childhood memories of John Paul include oft-repeated scenarios when the younger brother would try to tag along with Thomas and his friends.

The older boys would build forts out of scraps of wood and defend them against John Paul's advances with rocks and sticks. He remembers John Paul standing at a distance, desperate to be with his brother, but held at bay by the threat of thrown rocks, sad but unwilling to leave.

While Thomas and John Paul lived with Pop and Bonnemaman on Long Island, Father was abroad, mostly in Africa. Word came that he was seriously ill. The family feared he would die, but he pulled through. Then he went to an exhibit, made a good deal of money (his painting had improved) and returned to America to retrieve Thomas.

Merton's father was probably the most important and best-known character in the story other than the author. He held the largest influence over Merton's life and character. He is introduced with glowing praise and forms; in a way, he provides the foundation for the rest of Merton's life. Merton never says a negative word about his father, and never even points out a foible or struggle. Merton never criticizes his father.

Merton's father was his hero. It was from him that Merton received an artistic soul, a mind capable of critical thought, an appreciation of virtue and beauty, and a dislike of anything bourgeois.
His father's example may have laid the foundations for Merton's eventual attraction to the monastic life.

This chapter contains the first visit of death to Merton's life and he receives it with innocence and curiosity. He understands what the note about his mother's death means but he seems not to have the capacity yet to grieve deeply.

In the chapters to come, many of the members of Merton's family die, and he remembers vivid details about each death. The deaths affect him deeply but don't leave him despairing. They form a unique relationship that he carries with the idea of death.

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