James K.A. Smith @ GoodReads

Well, I've been horribly delinquent over here at "What I'm Reading." I have a long shelf of books above my desk here that I've been meaning to blog about, but just haven't found the time--probably because I've lapsed into thinking each post needs to be a "review" rather than just an off-the-cuff take on what I've been reading.

As a way to get away from that, I've just signed up for a GoodReads account and will hope to post more regularly at www.goodreads.com/jkasmith. (This is as close as I'm going to get to anything like Facebook!)


The Bookish Beware

"How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all. I remember how learnedly and enthusiastically I could talk for hours about mysticism and the experimental knowledge of God, and all the while I was stoking the fires of the argument with Scotch and soda."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 224


The Impiety God Loves

What a marvelous description Merton gives us of his friend Bob Gibney:

"Gibney was not what you would call pious. In fact, he had an attitude that would be commonly called impious, only I believe God understood well enough that his violence and sarcasms covered a sense of deep metaphysical dismay--an anguish that was real, though not humble enough to be of much use to his soul. What was materially impiety in him was directed more against common ideas and notions which he saw or considered to be totally inadequate, and maybe it subjectively represented a kind of oblique zeal for the purity of God, this rebellion against the commonplace and trite, against mediocrity, religiosity."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 200-201


Merton on Columbia

While Merton would praise some of his teachers at Columbia, he has this to say about the institution as a whole:

"Poor Columbia! It was founded by sincere Protestants as a college predominantly religious. The only that remains of that is the university motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen--one of the deepest and most beautiful lines of the psalms. 'In Thy light, we shall see light.' [The verse, incidentally, inscribed above the entrance of Calvin College's chapel.] It is, precisely, about grace. It is a line that might serve as the foundation stone of all Christian and Scholastic learning, and which simply has nothing whatever to do with the standards of education at modern Columbia. It might profitably be changed to In lumine Randall videbimus Dewey."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 194


In Covert Praise of Socrates

Merton recounts an influential teacher and mentor, Mark Van Doren, and in doing so, sketches what I still aspire to (though often failing) in terms of pedagogy--the great tradition of the Socratic method:

"Mark would come into the room and, without any fuss, would start talking about whatever was to be talked about. Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had 'educed' them from you by his question. His classes were literally 'education'--they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas."

~Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 154


Beware of Metaphysics!

"Fortunately, this was one of the matters in which I decided to ignore his advice. Anyway, I went ahead and tried to read some philosophy. I never got very far with it. It was too difficult for me to master all by myself. People who are immersed in sensual appetites and desires are not very well prepared to handle abstract ideas. Even in the purely natural order, a certain amount of purity of heart is required before an intellect can get sufficiently detached and clear to work out the problems of metaphysics. I say a certain amount, however, because I am sure that no one needs to be a saint to be a clever metaphysician. I dare say there are plenty of metaphysicians in hell."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 104


The Psychology of Comfort

[Resuming a series on Merton's Seven Storey Mountain after a hiatus over Lent.]

Merton offers a concise but insightful take on on a feature of our collective psychology which has only increased since he made the observation:

"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 suffers 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. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 91


Faith, Hope, and "Gentlemanness"

In England Merton was enrolled at Oakham, a second-tier English public school in the Midlands. There he continued to encounter the strange blend of religion, nationalism, and lingering aristocracy that he associated with the Church of England. This becomes sadly humorous when he recalls the theological vision of the chaplain at Oakham:

"His greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians--and a wonderful chapter indeed. But his exegesis was a bit strange. However, it was typical of him and, in a way, of his whole church. "Buggy's" interpretation of the word "charity" in this passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for "all that we mean when we call a chap a 'gentleman.'" In other words, charity meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad or a bounder.

There he stood, in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats, and said, 'One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word "gentleman" for "charity" wherever it occurs. "If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal...A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up....A gentleman never falleth away"...'


The boys listened tolerantly to these thoughts. But I think St. Peter and the twelve Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 81-82


Merton goes Orwellian

In his critique of the Church of England, Merton's prose brings to mind Orwell's stinging critique of class in The Road to Wigan Pier. Pointing out the conflation and assimilation of the "established" church, Merton writes:

"The Church of England depends, for its existence, almost entirely on the solidarity and conservativism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of criticket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roast-beef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of a warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 72


Ordinary Saints, Unsuspecting Evangelists

Merton's prose ripples with hagiographic energy when he recalls the influence of a humble French family, the Privats in Murat, remembering "their kindness and goodness to me, and their peacefulness and their utter simplicity. They inspired real reverence, and I think, in a way, they were certainly saints. And they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, santified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within."

Staying with them for a few weeks as a boy, the now-boy-become-monk considers the weight of their impact on his life:

"Those were weeks that I shall never forget, and the more I think of them, the more I realize that I must certainly owe the Privats for more than butter and milk and good nourishing food for my body. I am indebted to them for much more than the kindness and care they showed me, the goodness and delicate solicitude with which they treated me as their own child, yet without any assertive or natural familiarity. [...] I was glad of the love the Privats showed me, and was ready to love them in return. It did not burn you, it did not hold you, it did not try to imprison you in demonstrations, or trap your feet in the snares of interest. [...]

After all, this going to Murat was a great grace. Did I realize it? I did not know what grace was. And though I was impressed with the goodness of the Privats, I could not fail to realize what was its root and its foundation. And yet it never occurred to me at the time to think of being like them, of profiting in any way by their example. [...]

Who knows how much I owe to those two wonderful people? Anything I say about it is only a matter of guessing but, knowing their charity, it is to me a matter of moral certitude that I owe many graces to their prayers, and perhaps ultimately the grace of my conversion and even of my religious vocation. Who shall say? But one day I shall know, and it is good to be able to be confident that I will see them again and be able to thank them."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 62-65


The Architecture of Grace

Reflecting on St. Antonin, Merton's French hometown during his formative youth, he observes:

"Here, everywhere I went, I was forced, by the disposition of everything around me, to be always at least virtually conscious of the church. Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the church. Every view of town from the exterior hills, centered upon the long grey building with its high spire.

The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility. Its presence imparted a special form, a particular significance to everything else that they eye beheld, to the hills, the forests, the fields, the white cliff of the Rocher d'Anglars and to the red bastion of the Roc Rouge, to the winding river, and the green valley of the Bonnette, the town and the bridge, and even to the white stucco villas of the modern bourgeois that dotted the fields and orchards outside the precinct of the vanished ramparts: and the significance that was imparted was a supernatural one.

The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God. We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man's reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole.

Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative!"

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 41.


Paradoxes for a Francophile

In chapter two of Part One, we find the young Thomas Merton returning to France, the land of his birth. It opens with this musing from the older Merton, in puzzled recollection:

"How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust, and brutality--how did it happen that, from all of this, there should come Gregorian chant, monasteries and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede, the Moralia of Gregory the Great, St. Augustine's City of God, and his Trinity, the writings of Anselm, St. Bernard's sermons on the Canticles, the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf and Langland and Dante, St. Thomas' Summa, and the Oxoniense of Duns Scotus?

How does it happen that even today a couple of ordinary French stonemasons, or a carpenter and his apprentice, can put up a dovecote or a barn that has more architectural perfection than the piles of eclectic stupidity that grow up at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campuses of American universities?"

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 33


Brothers: Elder, Prodigal, and Otherwise

"I suppose it is usual for elder brothers, when they are still children, to feel themselves demeaned by the company of a brother four or five years younger, whom they regard as a baby and whom they tend to patronise and look down upon. So when Russ and I and Bill made huts in the woods out of boards and tar-paper which we collected around the foundations of the many cheap houses which the speculators were now putting up, as fast as they could, all over Douglaston, we severely prohbitited John Paul and Russ's little brother Tommy and their friends from coming anywhere near us. And if they did try to come and get into our hut, or even to look at it, we would chase them away with stones.

When I think now of that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother John Paul is this: standing in a field, about a hundred years away from the clump of sumachs where we have built our hut, is this little perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of a leather jacket, standing quite still, with his arms hanging down at his sides, and gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stones, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow. And yet he does not go away. We shout at him to get out of there, to beat it, and go home, and wing a couple of more rocks in that direction, and he does not go away. We tell him to play in some other place. He does not move.

And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad. And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut. And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away. The law written in his nature says that he must be with his elder brother, and do what he is doing: and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 25-26


The Best Laid Plans...

Continuing to meditate on the milieu of his parents' predictably unconventional sensibilities, Merton reflects:

"If we had continued as we had begun, and if John Paul and I had grown up in that house, probably this Victorian-Greek complex would have built itself up gradually, and we would have turned into good-mannered and earnest sceptics, polite, intelligent, and perhaps even in some sense useful. We might have become successful authors, or editors of magazines, professors at small and progressive colleges. The way would have been all smooth and perhaps I would never have ended up as a monk.

But it is not yet the time to talk about that happy consummation, the thing for which I most thank and praise God, and which is of all things the ultimate paradoxical fulfillment of my mother's ideas for me--the last thing she would ever have dreamed of: the boomerang of all her solicitude for an individual development."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 12-13


Bohemian Monks

"My father and mother were captives in that world, knowing they did not belong with it or in it, and yet unable to get away from it. They were in the world but not of it--not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Harcourt, 1998, p. 3.

Here Merton, the writer, presages in a mirror his own struggles as an artist who, by the end of this journey, will also be trying to detach himself from the world by entering the cloister. Both the monk and the artist enact a bohemian refusal of "success" as dictated by bourgeois expectations.

Blogging Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain"

Over the holidays I finally began reading Thomas Merton's classic, The Seven Storey Mountain (in a lovely 50th anniversary edition that my gracious neighbors gave me several years ago). Reading it was just what I had hoped: a veritable retreat between two covers, the itinerary of a soul in the best Augustinian tradition. (Indeed, while Merton talks more about Thomas and his neo-scholastic heirs, Gilson and Maritain, it seems to me he absorbed an Augustinian sensibility--the parallels to the Confessions are striking.)

This was a significant book for me, so I'm going to try a little experiment here: blogging The Seven Storey Mountain as a way of revisiting it and paying homage to the book. My goals are quite minimal: simply to highlight some passages of Merton's charmed writing, with little if any commentary, across the sweep of the book, over the next several weeks. I hope these snippets might be an invitation for others to pilgrimage with Merton's masterpiece.