seven-storey-mountain

Not too long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife after Mass and she told me that I seemed restless. I agreed, and when we started to dig down into the reasons why, one of them was the kind of “dumbed down” Catholicism that Bishop Robert Barron criticizes so eloquently on his YouTube channel.

I sometimes sit in Church on Sunday and listen to our priest deliver the same New York Jets joke that he has used at least three times in the last 18 months. I’ll hear another priest tell well-prepared homilies that seem to concentrate on feel-goodisms (e.g., “Make someone smile and you’ll bring them closer to God”), instead of anything substantive. It’s maddening to know that there is a wealth of intellectual treasures in the Catholic Church, but for some weird reason priests never seem to challenge people in the pews to pick up a good book and read.

It boggles my mind that I have never — in nearly 38 years — heard a priest on Sunday tell me to read Saint Augustine’s ConfessionsC.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, or a whole host of intellectual giants who have helped me over the years to understand my faith on a deeper level — and to cogently share it with those in my circle of friends. I searched out the above-mentioned authors because at some point in time I realized that I had to take as much personal responsibility with my spiritual health as I have with my physical and mental development over the years.

And it is here, dear reader, where Trappist monk Thomas Merton enters the equation. Long story short, his autobiography is a must-read for anyone who has drifted away from the Church because they received too many helpings of “dumbed down Catholicism” without realizing how much stimulating content was within reach.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of Saint Augustine’s Confessions and now they know that I fully endorse Merton. But what they don’t know is that one of the reasons these men resonate with me is because the flaws they both acknowledge — their spiritual deficiencies — have been my own.

Merton says:

“Where was my will? ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,’ and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses and in order to have these pleasures I did not hesitate to place myself in situations which I knew would end in spiritual disaster — although generally I was so blinded by my own appetites that I never even clearly considered this fact until it was too late, and the damage was done.

Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet — at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings forth fruit at all,” (Merton, Thomas. 253).

Who knew that a deceased monk could peg me to the wall and make me weep like no man who walks the earth? You exposed me to all the world, Thomas Merton. Touché! But I thank you, because I am better for it.

The point here is not so much to treat this blog as a confessional booth (although in many ways it is), but to point out just how imperative it is to read the best and the brightest that has ever been written. If you really want to see spiritual growth, then you must put in the same type of time and effort that you do with any other endeavor deemed important.

If you are a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic, then I highly recommend Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. If you are not Catholic but you are interested in exploring this kind of subject matter, then I would start out with C.S. Lewis since it’s easier to step into a warm bath than a brisk pool.

Regardless which route you take, the point remains: Get reading!

Related:

Americans need to read more Saint Augustine and listen to less Mike Huckabee

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics’: Pay a small price for the work of an intellectual giant

G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’ — perfect Easter reading

‘Letters to a Young Catholic’: George Weigel hits a literary home run

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

18 comments

    1. “I’m a Baptist, but my favorite theologian is Augustine. But I’m more of a City of God man, even though the Confessions are a towering achievement.”

      I enjoyed City of God as well. 🙂 It’s a very good read.

  1. Amen! Something that often frustrates me about our modern feel good Christianity is the lack of meat and substance. While an encouraging sermon is all well and good, there is nothing quite so encouraging as reading the words of someone who has the same questions about faith that you do, who suffers from the same weaknesses. CS Lewis is one of my favorites, but there are a whole slew of really interesting Christians to read and discover.

    I like what you said about taking personal responsibility with my spiritual health. Precisely, or rather open up and let God do His work within you. LOL, I’m pretty sure it’s God at work directing my spiritual health or I’d be a mess indeed, but same idea.

    1. “I like what you said about taking personal responsibility with my spiritual health. Precisely, or rather open up and let God do His work within you. LOL, I’m pretty sure it’s God at work directing my spiritual health or I’d be a mess indeed, but same idea.”

      Thanks! Yes, basically, I was just saying for us to use our free will to direct it towards God and then hope that through His grace our spiritual understanding expands and deepens. 🙂

  2. I’m pretty lapsed. I was raised in the church, but did not understand my faith. However, while I was in the Corps, I had plenty of time to read (on duty) and I was often challenged in my childhood faith. being an atheist at the time, I had plenty of criticisms and embarrassingly condescending opinions on a variety of Christian beliefs. It would be too long to describe how I came back, suffice it to say that reason alone would have had me die an atheist, and it was love that brought me back. I got hooked on Dave Armstrong’s apologetics, then I was reading Chesterton, and the next thing you know, I was dragging my evangelical wife to Mass. So effective was I intellectually converted, that I managed to covert my wife, we both went into CCD together, and she was confirmed.

    Our former priest was an intellectual…he recommended Heideggar, Keirkegaard and Kant…I read their work and found it interesting, but I felt it did more to obscure faith than enlighten it. When I told him I was reading Chesterton and Augustine, he remarked that I was going Conservative on him.

    Going to church broke me. I’m not saying it should have, in fact, I truly believe that my inability to get my fire back to attend mass is a personal failing. But every sunday, day of obligation and the other time we would attend just slowly hammered me out. I loved the liturgy I read about, that I thought I did as a child…but it was better to read about than do at this place, I would often look for other places that did it better. Having a parishioner nearly run us over when Lisa was pregnant with Patrick, than everyone giving us the evil eye when he would cry (I insisted on sitting in front) and some of the disgraceful way certain people would act at the church really was a big blow. Honestly, I let myself be deluded into a church that I imagined, vs. the real thing, and I wasn’t prepared to live in the real thing. The last straw was when little Patrick reached for the Eucharist in my arms and the new priest jerked it away and gave me and him a severe look. I guess I’d been pretty pissed off that day, but I told him “Know what? fuck you man.” which made a few people gasp in line, and I took Patrick, collected Lisa and left. For a second…when Patrick reached, I thought it was the most beautiful, natural thing…than this guy does a ‘this is MY God!” thing and I just reacted. We didn’t come back. (I eventually attended Mass again, but here in Phoenix). We had enough of feeling like we didn’t belong, and it was painful for me, because I was trying so hard.

    Since then, I seem to have trouble finding the will again. I still pray, even the rosary. Once in a while I’ll come back on my own, but it’s hard to bring the whole family. Lisa even went back to the evangelical church, and honestly, I’m happy with that. I’m just finding my way back and it’s hard, lonely and long.

    I think it’s pretty clear that I’m suffering from a self idolatry. I want a Church that will give me what I want, and it was wrong for me to react the way I did. I need to attend Mass not to be ‘happy’ but to celebrate and worship Christ, who has given me more than I ever thought I could have or deserve. It’s so easy to know…so hard to feel and apply.

    Suffice it to say, I don’t think finding your blog after being upset over Iceman getting the gay makeover was an accident, nor the fact that your a committed Catholic…like I used to be so long ago. Perhaps this is yet another light on the way back.

    1. Sorry for the delay, Chuck. I was running around this morning and wanted to give you the response you deserve.

      “Our former priest was an intellectual…he recommended Heideggar, Keirkegaard and Kant…I read their work and found it interesting, but I felt it did more to obscure faith than enlighten it.”

      Indeed! What the heck kind of priest goes to those individuals first?! That makes no sense. Was he some sort of atheist plant? He sounds like the possessed priest from Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil.” Yeesh.

      “When I told him I was reading Chesterton and Augustine, he remarked that I was going Conservative on him.”

      Translation: “You’re going Christian on me.” My goodness…

      “We had enough of feeling like we didn’t belong, and it was painful for me, because I was trying so hard.”

      One of the things that is tough to get over is the difference in quality people get from parish to parish. When I moved to Washington, D.C., I used to go to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral and the priests that you get there versus what you’ll get in a small down…is often quite jarring. You get spoiled. I kind of didn’t want to go back to the tiny little churches with the ugly carpets and the priest who probably should be retired. But then I would have to remind myself about the real reason I was there, which has nothing to do with architecture and really awesome choirs and sharp young priests.

      “I’m just finding my way back and it’s hard, lonely and long.”

      I feel ya, man. You might enjoy St. John of the Cross as much as I do. Haha. 🙂 But on a serious note, I’m always an ear if you want to talk about this stuff. It’s good to have someone to lean on or to simply share ideas.

      “I think it’s pretty clear that I’m suffering from a self idolatry. I want a Church that will give me what I want, and it was wrong for me to react the way I did. I need to attend Mass not to be ‘happy’ but to celebrate and worship Christ, who has given me more than I ever thought I could have or deserve. It’s so easy to know … so hard to feel and apply.”

      Bishop Barron talks about how love is an act of the will instead of just a state of being. I really like that because if we really love something we will put the often times hard work into making it last and grow and flourish.

      “Suffice it to say, I don’t think finding your blog after being upset over Iceman getting the gay makeover was an accident, nor the fact that your a committed Catholic…like I used to be so long ago. Perhaps this is yet another light on the way back.”

      I do not believe in coincidences. Every person (i.e., “neighbor”) who comes into our lives teaches us how in some way, shape, or form how to become closer with God. We don’t always take advantage — or even comprehend — the graces offered to us through these encounters, but they’re still there. If I can be an instrument of God’s will, then that makes me happy. Likewise, I mean it when I say that I am grateful for all my readers because I know there is something each and every one of them has to teach me about better honoring Christ.

      Side note: I keep referencing Bishop Barron because I read Merton based on his recommendation via YouTube.

    2. Awesome, watched the whole thing.

      That’s always sustained me, I said earlier I was alone, but I never am. My wife and I live a life under God, a we understand our relationship just as the Bishop describes.

  3. Douglas, as a conservative American aren’t you at all put off by the blatant liberalism preached by the Church? The Pope dictating border policy to America when the Vatican City has stricter immigration laws than we’d ever consider here? Preaching the Jesus as Socialist garbage? Even if I found faith again I would have trouble returning to Mass.

    1. “Which CS Lewis work would you reccomended first?”

      Good question, Eric. How about something more fun? I would suggest The Screwtape Letters.

      Mere Christianity is also a great read.

      Check out the Amazon reviews for those and you’ll probably get a good idea of where to begin. My guess is that you could both of them for a good price.

      Let me know if you have any other questions. 🙂

    2. “Douglas, as a conservative American aren’t you at all put off by the blatant liberalism preached by the Church?”

      The same newspapers/websites that lie and distort what conservative politicians say also lies when it comes to Pope Francis. I have no doubt that his personal politics in the economic sense are more Keynesian, but the catechism of the Church is not liberal. You’ll note that the NYTs doesn’t really focus on the pope’s official stance on abortion, gay marriage, etc., because that is not in line with the Democratic Party’s platform. I would be very wary of translations and reporting on the pope from most mainstream media news outlets.

      “The Pope dictating border policy to America when the Vatican City has stricter immigration laws than we’d ever consider here? Preaching the Jesus as Socialist garbage? Even if I found faith again I would have trouble returning to Mass.”

      Should the pope step in an substantive way into American politics? I think not. But again, you really shouldn’t just throw out charges like “preaching the Jesus as Socialist garbage” without actually quoting the man. It’s hard to really have a conversation like this if you’re not going to cite specific quotes.

      At the end of the day, a random comment by the pope on contemporary politics has nothing to do with official Catholic Doctrine.

      In terms of not attending Mass because you don’t like the pope has said on U.S. immigration policy, you sort of sound like Anne Rice right now. I’ll let Bishop Barron explain why you may want to rethink your position.

  4. Excellent review. The best compliment I can give it is that it has convinced me to read Merton, which I’ve never had the inclination to read before now. In general, I don’t like much writing from twentieth century churchmen.

    1. “Excellent review. The best compliment I can give it is that it has convinced me to read Merton, which I’ve never had the inclination to read before now. In general, I don’t like much writing from twentieth century churchmen.”

      I’ll take it! Let me know what you think after you’re done. If you decide it wasn’t worth your time, then perhaps I can send you a “Doug Prize” to make up for it. 🙂

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