Thomas Merton’s ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ a classic for the well-read man of faith

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

Easter is here — that wonderful day when Christians rejoice and atheists shake their head and ask, “Why the heck are we still talking about that guy Jesus after 2,000 years?!” That is a fair question, which is why today seems like an ideal opportunity to revisit G.K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man.”

“If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the two extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate.

Take a thing like the point of the parable of the tares and the wheat. It has the quality that united sanity and subtlety. It has not the simplicity of a madman. It has not even the simplicity of a fanatic. It might be uttered by a philosopher a hundred years old, at the end of a century of Utopias. Nothing could be less like this quality of seeing beyond and all round obvious things, than the condition of an egomaniac with the one sensitive spot in his brain. I really do not see how these two characters could be convincingly combined, except in the astonishing way in which the creed combines them.” — G.K. Chesterton.

Every year countless YouTube videos pop up by wannabe Joe Rogans, who blast the so-called “fairy tale” known as Christianity. They go apoplectic over said “fairy tale” and its longevity. Generation after generation after generation picks up the Bible, studies it, and then billions of people conclude that Christ was exactly who he claimed to be.

The reason for this, as Chesterton points out, is that Christ spoke with authority while simultaneously being “exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge.”

The Jesus of the New Testament seems to me to have in great many ways the note of something superhuman; that is of something human and more than human. But there is another quality running through all his teachings which seems to me neglected in most modern talk about them as teachings; and that is the persistent suggestion that he has not really come to teach.

If there is one incident in the record which affects me personally as grandly and gloriously human, it is the incident of giving wine for the wedding-feast. That is really human in the sense in which a whole crowd of prigs, having the appearance of human beings, can hardly be described as human.

It rises superior to all superior persons. It is as human as Herrick and as democratic as Dickens. But even in that story there is something else that has the note of things not fully explained; and in a way there very relevant. I mean the first hesitation, not on any ground touching the nature of the miracle, but on that of the propriety of working any miracles at all, at least at that stage; ‘my time is not yet come.’

What did that mean? At least it certainly meant a general plan or purpose in the mind, with which certain things did or did not fit in. And if we leave out that solitary strategic plan, we not only leave out the point of the story, but the story.

The imitation Joe Rogans often preface their derision of Christianity with lines like, “I went to Catholic school” — as if they weren’t like every other high-school kid who slept through classes, wrote notes to girlfriends, and generally just goofed around with buddies for four years. The same people who cannot understand basic economics in their 40s would have us believe they fully understood Christianity by age 16, but I digress.

The more one studies the Bible, the more obvious it becomes that Christ was unlike any man who walked the earth up until that time — and that He maintains that distinction to this very day. All the “flying spaghetti monster” jokes in the world cannot diminish the genius and goodness dispensed by Christ in ways, as Chesterton says, “more than human.”

Christ was born. His primary purpose in life was to die a horrible death — and then rise again. He did.

Chesterton states:

“I willingly and warmly agree that it is, in itself, a suggestion at which we might expect even the brain of the believer to reel, when he realized his own belief. But the brain of the believer does not reel; it is the brains of the unbelievers that reel. …

I care not if the skeptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. 

Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion, the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world.

If it were an error, it seems as if the error could hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside.

Happy Easter, everyone. I am grateful for all of you who regularly give me precious time out of your day and I pray for your regularly.

Best,

Doug

Scupoli’s ‘Spiritual Combat’: Advice from 1589 for modern men seeking virtue

Spiritual Combat

It has always been my belief that the vast majority of men, if not all men, have seriously wondered at some point how they would fare on the field of battle. War, for all of its wretchedness, offers men a clear picture of their inner virtue — or lack thereof. These “What if?” games are unnecessary, however, as Dom L. Scupoli Apulia’s The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul demonstrates.

The Italian author pointed out in 1589 what many men in 2016 fail to realize — bombs are already dropping all around us. Spiritual warfare rages in all directions. A man not only can be a war hero, but he must — his very soul depends upon it.

What men often fail to realize is that they are stuck in a no-man’s land reminiscent of World War I. This is a bad place to be. Man’s rational faculty is called from both sides in the only war that matters: “God moving it by His grace, and the flesh by its appetites.”

Being “neutral” in this war is not an option, and since tomorrow is never guaranteed it is best to pick a side now.

Fully mastering patience, humility, obedience and numerous other virtues is a difficult task. Scupoli details a few of the stumbling blocks we experience:

There are some who are so overwhelmed by their sins that they never even consider the possibility of breaking their chains. Others want to free themselves from this slavery, but they do nothing to accomplish this. Some think they are secure, and for that very reason are very far from being so. Others, after attaining a high degree of virtue, fall all the more heavily.

When the devil has enmeshed the soul in sin, he uses every means at his disposal to distract its attention from anything that would enable it to recognize the terrible condition into which it has fallen.

The devil is not content to stifle every inspiration from Heaven, and to suggest evil thoughts in their place. He endeavors to plunge it into new faults, either of the same or a more vicious nature by supplying dangerous opportunities to sin.

Thus the soul, deprived of Heavenly guidance, heaps sin upon sin, and hardens itself in its evil ways. Floundering in the mire, it rushes from darkness to darkness, from one pit to another, always moving father from the path of salvation and multiplying sin upon sin, unless strengthened by an extraordinary grace from Heaven.” (Scuplio, Dom. The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul. Tan Classics, 2010. 89-93)

In many ways the soul is the beacon which directs a man towards virtue. If a man is not careful, a sinful calcification can take place around the soul. It soon becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hear or see the beacon and before long the captain of the ship “rushes from darkness to darkness.”

If you seek to become a virtuous man or woman, then The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul is a must-read. If you are a Christian who has ever wondered, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God foist trials and tribulations upon me?” then Scupoli’s work is for you. I would rank it with Francis De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and Saint Augustine’s Confessions as an essential addition to your library.

Editor’s Note: I will send a copy of “The Spiritual Combat and a Treatise on Peace of Soul” to the first regular reader who asks.