Learning from Thomas Merton’s early experiences: ‘living as if … for temporal favours’

The Seven Storey Mountain is (for me) a wonderful book to return to, either to re-read or to dip into from time to time. Admittedly the late Merton contains the deep understanding of his mature spiritual thinking but there is much to be learnt from Merton’s early insights.

One that has resonance is linked to the time of Merton’s realization that he could not join the novitiate and become a Franciscan. For those who may not remember this is a little while before Merton goes to the Abbey of Gethsemani and enters the Trappist order. It is in the summer of 1940 when Merton muses on what he might be called and how he will be as a Franciscan:

‘I would come humbly along the corridor in my sandals – or rather our sandals – with my eyes down, with the rapid but decorous gait of a young Friar who knew his business: Frater John Spaniard. It made a pleasant picture.’

And so the summer months pass before his planned autumn departure to join the Franciscans and it is only looking back that Merton can see that God wanted to ask more about this vocation – one which Merton can admit attracted him because of the teaching and writing and the surroundings where he would probably live. The questions were raised when Merton was reading the bible – chapter 9 of the book of Job. Merton quotes parts of the chapter, here from verse nine:

“‘Who maketh Arcturus and Orion and Hyades and the inner parts of the south…”

There was something deep and disturbing in the lines. I thought they only moved me as poetry: and yet, I also felt, obscurely enough, that there was something personal about them. God often talks to us directly in Scripture. That is, He plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton says he didn’t at that stage have the art of reading in that way but the following words began to burn and sear within him:

“If he come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart, I shall not understand … If He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say, why dost Thou so?”

From the grace of such reading came the realization of,

‘an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities. I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’.