Thomas Merton and the Ascent to Heaven

As I move into the last 10 pages of Thomas Merton’s autobiography – Elected Silence (also called Seven Storey Mountain in other versions), I realise that it is quite simply the best book I have ever read. Written by Merton in his 30s, Merton describes a his journey from being an ordinary inhabitant of this modern world to being a monk of the Trappist Order in this book.

As a youth, Merton spent a lot of his energies on trying to be a famous writer, on being a communist, on alcohol, on falling in and out of love, and on sex. He did not have a particularly terrible time, seen from a conventional perspective. He did what most of us do, in some way or the other. He was a man who had been an insider in our modern civilisation, tasted its offerings to the fullest and aspired for its most valued goals – fame, perpetual stimulation, a way out of loneliness, and so on.

And then, he moved out. The process was gradual. He became a Christian and a little later,  joined the Fransiscan order of monks who live in the cities, studying and teaching. Eventually, Merton realised that his calling lay in the silent stillness of the Trappists. He went off to the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, USA, where the monks spend much of their time in solitary reflection and in group prayer to God. Talking is kept to its lowest limits, perhaps just a few times in a week. The castle like monastery provides an opportunity to live in undisturbed silence. Without much to distract one from the silence within oneself, this is a lifestyle that brings a person in touch with what lies within, be it beautiful or terrifying. The quietness, the long periods of reflection and the closeness to nature are all meant to develop in the monks a deeper awareness of God and His actions.

The autobiography stops here, but those who know of Thomas Merton know that he did not cease to use his gift of writing. He put it to use in producing a number of works on the contemplative life and on world events, while remaining a Trappist monk. He died in 1966, age 53, being accidentally electrocuted while on a visit to Thailand.

The book is a journey of one man, more an inward journey than an outward one. It exemplifies the breaking through of a higher order of consciousness into an ordinary life, full of it’s own anxieties, ambitions, sorrows, little pleasures. The openings created by this break-through are strong but gradual. They give the person, in this case Merton, a great distance from his immediate concerns. He learns to see his own life and existence in larger terms of the grand, vast universe. His little desires and worries would have no significance in this large order of the universe but the new life that opens up for him gives him a sense of what his significance may be in this tale of aeons upon aeons, galaxies after galaxies, that our universe is. It is this inward aspect of his life that makes Thomas Merton important to all of us. Not all of us may have the calling to be a monk or a nun, but all of us do think about the meaning of everything in life, once in a while.

The autobiography is also known as The Seven Storey Mountain, called so by Merton after the seven storeys of hell in Dante’s poem Inferno, signifying here Merton’s ascent from ordinary, modern-day existence which he perhaps considered the lowest level of hell.

This break-through from a higher level of consciousness – which this book is all about – could not happen by Merton’s own effort, to begin with. It came from outside him. It approached him, like it approaches all of us with different intensities, and Merton was sensitive enough to let it settle down in his soul and change the course of his life. For many of us, this may not be possible. When there is heaps of work to be submitted the next week, there are few who can remain in awareness of the deeper, more humane, loving aspects of us which Merton would call God.

Elected Silence is a testament to a life that all of us have the potential to live. It is a life that only human beings and no other species can have. The flowering of deeper layers of meaning, the illumination of our own destiny, the opening of paths that make the deeper self an active and actual traveller on the road of life, rather than merely an undiscovered potentiality – this is the meaning of the life of Thomas Merton for us. If any of this interests you, please do read the book. It will not change your life, but it will inspire you more than most books can to seek a lasting happiness.

We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

– Thomas Merton

~ by tdcatss on December 2, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: