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Timothy Jones


The Uncensored Merton

One March, not long after we were married, my wife put on her birthday wish-list The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of the late Trappist monk and social activist Thomas Merton. I can't recall what prompted Jill's sudden curiosity; perhaps a friend or a reviewer had commended the book. Perhaps hours at home each day listening to the babbling of a toddler (our first child) made her hungry for more challenging fare.

Soon I stood in Waldenbooks, scribbled list in hand, considering my purchase. While I had recently finished three years at Princeton seminary, I registered only faint recognition of Merton's name, and I felt little inclination to read a chronicle of an intellectual-atheist turned Catholic priest, despite Graham Greene's cover endorsement of it as an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for all of us. I had, after all, thrown myself into my first pastorate in a rural Virginia Church of the Brethren, from which Merton's world seemed very far removed indeed. But this was Jill's wish-list, not mine. I got the book, in scribed and wrapped it, and gave it to her when her birthday rolled around.

Jill enjoyed the book, but she didn't seem overwhelmed by it. Still, knowing of my budding interest in spirituality, she told me I should read it. "You'd probably like it," she said.

In fact I found it slow going. Merton's depiction of a childhood spent with a wandering artist father and an emotionally distant mother failed to capture me. His youthful struggles seemed tedious, those of a person in a bygone era. Twenty pages into The Seven Storey Mountain, I gave up, mildly mystified by Merton's exalted reputation. This was a book, after all, that reviewers had likened to Augustine's Confessions! A classic it might be, one of those important works I should read, but I wasn't inclined to do that anytime soon.

Then something, long lost to memory, drew me back. How glad I now am. This time through I could hardly stop. And this time I found myself awed by Merton's ...

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