The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Book Notes
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  • The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it.
  • Not that we ever had any money: but any fool knows that you don’t need money to get enjoyment out of life.
  • Here was a will, neutral, undirected, a force waiting to be applied, ready to generate tremendous immanent powers of light or darkness, peace or conflict, order or confusion, love or sin.
  • Since no man ever can, or could, live by himself and for himself alone, the destinies of thousands of other people were bound to be affected, some remotely, but some very directly and near-at-hand, by my own choices and decision and desires, as my own life would also be formed and modified according to theirs. I was entering into a moral universe in which I would be related to every other rational being, and in which whole masses of us, as thick as swarming bees, would drag one another along towards some common end of good or evil, peace or war.
  • It is a law of man’s nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity.
  • And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.
  • The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows; not by clarity and substance, but by dreams and the creature of psychosis. And men are so poor in intellect that a few could chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about anything.
  • What is the good of religion without personal spiritual direction?
  • We give ear and pay at least a partially respectful attention to anyone who is really sincerely convinced of what he is saying, no matter what it is, even if it is opposed to our own ideas.
  • …that envy and hatred try to pierce our neighbor with a sword, when the blade cannot reach him unless it first passes through our own body.
  • They were saints in that most effective telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity.
  • Every religion was good: the all led to God, only in different ways, and every man should go according to his own conscience, and settle things according to his own private way of looking at things.
  • …we take what is substantially a deep and powerful and lasting moral impetus, supernatural in its origin and in its direction, and reduce it to the level of our own weak and unstable and futile fancies and desires.
  • 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 is it 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.
  • A soul is an immaterial thing. It is a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle.
    • It is the life of the body, and it must also have a life of its own. But the life of the soul does not inhere in any physical , material subject.
    • So to compare a soul without grace to a corpse without life is only a metaphor. But it is very true.
  • …it would be madness to look for a group of people, a society, a religion, a church from which all mediocrity would be absolutely be excluded.
  • We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.
  • However, if you are wrong, does that make me right? If you are bad, does that prove that I am good?
  • And yet it is still just as naïve to suppose that members of the same human species, without having changed anything but their minds, should suddenly turn around and produce a perfect society, when they have never been able, in the past, to produce anything but imperfection and, at best, the barest shadow of justice.
  • All wars was simply unjust, and that was that. The thing to do was to fold your arms and refuse to fight. If everybody did that, there would be no more wars.
  • I had at last become a true child of the modern world, completely tangled up in petty and useless concerns with myself, and almost incapable of even considering or understand anything that was really important to my own true interests.
    • What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear.
  • God created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude.
    • The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in the darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.
    • So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.
  • God is the pure act of existing.

The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. – St. Paul

  • Even the people who have always thought he was “too impractical” have always tended to venerate him – in the way people who value material security unconsciously venerate people who do not fear insecurity.
  • Not only was there such a thing as a supernatural order, but as a matter of concrete experience, it was accessible, very close at hand, an extremely near, an immediate and most necessary source of moral vitality, and one which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.
  • We cannot use evil means to attain good end.
  • [Asceticism]…this negation was not something absolute, sought for its own sake: but that it was a freeing, a vindication of our real selves, a liberation of the spirit from limits and bounds that were intolerable, suicidal – from a servitude to flesh that must ultimately destroy our whole nature and society and the world as well.
    • Once the spirit was freed, and returned to its own element, it was not alone there: it could find the absolute and perfect Spirit, God. It could enter into union with Him…a matter of real experience.
  • The life of the soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings – by which man becomes one with God.
  • The artistic experience, at its highest, was actually a natural analogue of mystical experience.
    • Art was contemplation, and that it involved the actions of the highest faculties of man.
  • The intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passions, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our absolute infallibility. The desires of the flesh – and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgment, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.
    • And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.
  • Why do you spend money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which doth not satisfy you?
  • I had lived for the satisfaction of my own desires and ambitions, for pleasure and comfort and reputation and success.
    • How could I love God, when everything I did was done not for Him but for myself, and not trusting in his aid, but relying on my own wisdom and talents?
  • There is nothing wrong in being a writer or poet…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.
  • I devoured books making notes here and there and remembering whatever I thought would be useful in an argument – that is, for my own aggrandizement, in order that I myself might take these things and shine by their light, as if their truth belonged to me.
    • [Books] make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all.
  • Whoever you are, the land to which God has brought you is not like the land of Egypt from which you came out. You can no longer live here as you lived there. Your old life and your former ways are crucified now, and you must not seek to live any more for your own gratification, but give up your own judgment into the hands of a wise director, and sacrifice your pleasures and comforts for the love of God and give money you no longer spend on those things, to the poor.
  • If you don’t want the effect, do something to remove the cause.
  • My mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words, “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
  • These words I underlined, although they amazed and dazzled me with their import, were all too simple for me to understand. They were too naked, too stripped of all duplicity and compromise for my complexity, perverted by many appetites.
  • The heights that can be reached by metaphysical speculation introduce a man into a realm of pure and subtle pleasure that offers the most nearly permanent delights you can find in the natural order.
    • In such an event, you get, not contemplation, but a kind of intellectual and esthetic gluttony – a high and refined and even virtuous form of selfishness. And when it leads to no movement of the will towards God, no efficacious love of Him, it is sterile and dead, this meditation, and could even accidentally become, under certain circumstances, a kind of a sin – at least an imperfection.
  • What I needed was the solitude to expand in breadth and depth and to be simplified out under the gaze of God more or less the way a plant spreads out its leaves in the sun.
  • And already my selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this whole vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world.

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life, for my sake, shall save it.

  • Since I was so strongly attached to material goods, and so immersed in my own self, and so far from God, and so independent of Him, and so dependent of myself and my own imaginary powers, it was necessary that I should not enter a monastery felling the way I did about the Franciscans.
  • Only when all pride, all self-love has been consumed in our souls by the love of God, are we delivered from the thing which is the subject of those torments.
    • It is only when we have lost all love of ourselves for our own sake that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame.
  • All that no longer mattered. It was in the hands of One Who Loved me far better than I could ever love myself: and my heart was filled with peace. It was a peace that did not depend on house, or jobs, or places, or times, or external conditions. It was a peace that time and materially created situation could never give. It was peace that the world could not give.
  • And the love of Christ overflowing in those clean hearts made them children and made them eternal.
  • The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!
  • Human nature has a way of making very specious arguments to suit its own cowardice and lack of generosity.
  • It is no profit for a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul.
  • No man goes to heaven all by himself, alone.
  • …we preferred our own comfort: we averted our eyes from such a spectacle [human sufferings], because it made us feel uneasy: the thought of so much dirt nauseated us – and we never stopped to think that we, perhaps, might be partly responsible for it.
  • I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself: and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it.
    • The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one’s self, one’ will. The rest was only accidental.
  • And since God is a Spirit, and infinitely above all matter and all creation, the only complete union possible, between ourselves and Him, is in the order of intention: a union of wills and intellect, in love, charity.
  • The monastery is a school – a school in which we learn from God how to be happy. Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His love.
    • What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God’s likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God.
    • …and in the end, we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…
  • The first and most elementary test of one’s calling to the religious life is the willingness to accept life in a community in which everybody is more or less imperfect.
    • The imperfections are much smaller and more trivial than the defects and vices of people outside in the world: and yet somehow you tend to notice them more and feel them more because they get to be so greatly magnified by the responsibilities and ideals of the religious state, through which you cannot help looking at them.
  • You felt that the best of them were the simplest, the most unassuming, the ones who fell in with the common norm without fuss and without any special display. They attracted no attention to themselves, they just did what they were told. But they were always the happiest one, the most at peace.
  • Was there any possibility of happiness without faith? Without some principle that transcended everything we had ever known?
  • [Contemplation] is the vocation to transforming union, to the height of the mystical life of mystical experience, to the very transformation into Christ that Christ living in us and directing all our actions might Himself draw men to desire and seek that same exalted union because of the joy and the sanctity and the supernatural vitality radiated by our example – or rather because of the secret influence of Christ living within us in complete possession of our souls.
    • Activity will only be more prefect than the joy and rest of contemplation if it is undertaken as the result of an overflow of love for God in order to fulfill His will. It is not to be continuous, only the answer to a temporary emergency.
  • …no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation onto others. And if you cannot do so by words, then by example.
  • In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going.
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