Thursday, December 24, 2015

Michael Mott's "The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton": Book Review

After a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I wanted to find out more about where Merton had spent half of his life, and how the famous depiction of his first half, in 1948's The Seven Storey Mountain, differed from or confirmed what Michael Mott learned in his diligent research for this 1984 biography. Mott's documentation makes this the authorized biography, for he had access to primary sources and archives which previous scholars and biographers did not, and as he had the cooperation of the Order to enhance the interviews and correspondence he incorporates into a comprehensive representation. Luckily for all involved, this is no hagiography. It fairly analyzes what Merton wrote and what we know, apart his many writings in print or not, as judged in the context of his friends and his lifetime.

Highlights for me began with Mott's eloquent parallel of Merton's troubled year at Caius College, Cambridge, reading Dante with Professor [Edward] Bullough. But Mott does not give the professor's first name, presumably relying only on Merton's unpublished notes, and such small details, despite the meticulous attention the author devotes to his subject, sometimes disappoint slightly. For instance, while this is meant as a biography rather than a critical work, one finds many of the three-dozen-plus titles and countless essays or reviews Merton published in his lifetime mentioned as if in passing. A few gain from Mott's insightful excerpts or summaries, but more context on the rest of them, even if minor by comparison, would have enhanced the value of this book. Admittedly it's already long, but it's not dull or rambling. Snippets on Buddhism, for instance, late in the narrative could have also benefited from elaboration, as Mott compresses complex and disparate intellectual and spiritual contexts which Merton expanded. The shift of Merton towards the East is not an easy one to reduce to a few pages. The focus on main events is understandable, but again, the endnotes could have extended discussion.

He was full of contradictions. Gregarious, he chose a cloister. Restless, he wanted to be a hermit. Affable, he withdrew from a wide circle of friends. Proud, he resented his monastic discipline. Mott handles the tensions calmly, illustrating how Merton's early infatuation with his Trappist community gave way, as he matured, to conflicts with his fellow monks. However, when by the mid-1960s his dream of a hermitage on the property came true, Merton kept appealing for chances to travel, and opportunities to chat with visitors. He swung back and forth, longing for solitude but wandering back to the world, with dangerous results as have been revealed concerning his affair with a student nurse in Louisville when he was around fifty years old. I kept noting how Merton, vowed to poverty, somehow accumulated his beloved LPs by Dylan and Joan Baez and Mozart, so many books he needed a big set of shelves, and beer and brandy (the latter might have been sneaked in by visitors).

Certainly, he felt after a quarter-century of service as novice master, and as a productive if sometimes too prolific author, he generated attention and income indirectly or directly (how did royalties work out? Another area I puzzled over, as I figured the Order garnered the sales but somehow Merton had money to spend inside and outside the monastery during his later years at least there as a hermit...). So, he figured he had earned his keep. But I understood how his fellow monks may have rankled at his barbed wit and quick tongue, and also how Merton tried to make right some of the wrongs he inflicted on his confreres and his friends, given the pressures of living so long in such close quarters.

Mott delves into such difficulties well. "It was a voice breaking the silence to praise silence." (251) As acclaim for Merton made him a celebrity after his autobiography appeared, he sought the attention but also retreated from it, if it was not from those closest to him, perhaps. Some of the liveliest passages here are about the monastic hubbub that ensued when unwanted callers tried to crash in, or apply as postulants, drawn by Merton's fame. For a while, the abbey had to house monks under a circus tent, so great were the numbers. But that passed, and Vatican II itself, with the renewal Merton helped progress, led to the diminution of much that made religious life in the Cistercians so austere.

Social changes drew Merton into the conversation in the rest of the world beyond the walls, as the late-1950s agitation filtered into his reading and correspondence. Marco Pallis and Merton wondered in letters if the atrocities attributed to WWI sparked WWII propaganda, and Mott shows how Merton evolved from a Cold War proponent to a more balanced observer and challenger to capitalist cant. Opposing the Vietnam War, in 1965 he wrote "The Answer of Minerva." If the question is "Why must this pointless war go on?", then the goddess' response is: "You must fight on, for if now you make peace with the enemy, you will offend the dead." (qtd. 416) A perennial, if unfortunate, exchange. 

The reforms that changed Catholicism, I always figured, would have been supported without delay by Merton. But Mott shows more ambiguity in Merton as the 1960s revealed immaturity among clergy freed from restraint, and as a rush to improve liturgy and architecture and ritual threw out some of what made the Church so cherished by many. A letter in 1968 finds him at odds with both extremes. "Paralyzing incomprehension--what does one do when he realizes he is part of an organization whose members systematically try to 'make a fool of God'? I suppose I begin by recognizing that I have done it as much as the best of them." A characteristic note, for Merton in his private journals strives to meet the nuanced note, less combative or preening than some of his public proclamations betrayed.

He took a long time to get over the priggish or self-righteous attitude. After all, he was an intellectual probably more than the playboy his youthful memoir made him out (despite censorship from within or outside himself) to be. He talked his way around and in the monastery, where a promise of stability and discretion overruled his natural ebullience, if not his concomitant despair and self-loathing, the balance between good conduct and righteous morality never lasted long. He lived in tumultuous times, and he continued in one of those years, 1968: "But then a 'God is dead' Church is no better, or are the 'God is dead' Christians are an improvement over the others. Just the same established flippancy and triviality. And even more successful." He ends with "They make a good living out of God's death." (527)  A fitting sample of Merton's ability to turn a phrase, to cut through pretense. 

I liked the hints of how Merton related to his friend, the artist Victor Hammer (whose drawing of Merton graces the back of the dust jacket) as an "unbelieving believer." I would have liked more about this, as to how friends of Merton managed to align their own beliefs or lack of such with his. (Some material here, as in his affair, was redacted or limited, as at the time Mott prepared this, it was less than the quarter-century moratorium that Merton requested for release of his private documents. Since Mott's book, some of the journals and letters have been published, for better or worse, maybe.)

An "existentialist contemplative," Mott avers on the next page, beckoned as ideal. Not only for the hermit-despite-himself, as he prepared to depart for the West Coast and then a tour of the Southeast Asian landscape and monasteries who increasingly loomed as his final set of mountains to argue with, in Mott's construct (playing off of Merton's title and that Dantean depiction of Mt. Purgatory). Merton wanted not only to write about life, but to live it. He wanted to demonstrate his contemplative commitment and to withdraw (at least some of the time, him being Merton), from all the attention. 

In his Asian journal, his last set of writings, he muses over what he has learned after living with himself, itching to travel but insisting he was called to a vocation apart from even his fellow monks. "Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to this action. . ." (qtd. 543)  He was open to this spiritual evolution, and he struggled to progress. 

Mott can lighten the mood. As to the journal Monks Pond in its last year of the monk's life, "Merton made the mistake as editor of including the work both of poets who were friends and of friends who claimed to be poets." (503)  While his last recorded words in public have been taped in Bangkok, that day nearly twenty-seven years exactly from the time he entered the monastic life at twenty-seven, many cite the eerie premonition of the first clause. The second one also shows Merton, in his everyday side, that made him so much a figure of devotion or imitation or even excoriation by many.

"So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something." Then, a "Thank you very much" concludes his final address, preceding his electrocution by a faulty fan's wiring in his hotel bathroom. (564) That "you may know the Christ of the burnt men" in premonitory fashion also serves as the last phrase of his autobiography, another circle rippling across many decades and mountains. (Amazon US 12-17-14)

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