September 6, 2011
Every Journey Begins
"The Seven Storey Mountain was published October 4, 1948, . . . but the book did not begin to sell until Christmastime. Then it began to sell strongly: 31,000 copies in December, 60,000 in January, with 10,000 sold on one singularly lively day. The Seven Storey Mountain was a best-seller, but the New York Times refused to list it as one, on the grounds that it was a religious book, like the Bible."
The answer is perplexing, especially given the various insurmountables in place:
Elie's take on the matter?
The book became a best-seller because it was a religious book, not in spite of the fact. It is . . . a firsthand account of one person's religious experience, the aspect of religious life so many books . . . left out of the story. Not only does Merton tell about what life is like behind the walls of a cloistered monastery; he tells what it feels like to be in the grip of God. And he does so in such a way as to make the reader feel not only that such an experience is possible, but that it is necessary, vital, and attractive, the center of life, just as the Catholic tradition insists it is. The Latin motto he uses to close the book--SIT FINIS LIBRI, NON FINIS QUARENDI--makes his point clear. Let this be the end of the book, not the end of the search. Merton's search will go on--and so, it is hoped, will the reader's, as the reader takes the book's insights beyond the book and into his or her own life.Merton, you might say, was launching a shot across the bow of contemporary religiosity. Christian faith is not a static thing, a fixed position or "standing" that one achieves, but rather a journey that one undertakes. This is not a new idea nor a uniquely Catholic one; writers from the foundation of the church to the present have argued and illustrated the pilgrim nature of the Christian faith. But stasis is the constant threat looming on the horizon of any faith practice; meanwhile, any faith that is vital is on the move, entering constantly into the tension of life as it is handed to us, bearing the faith that has been handed down to us.
Merton's book is considered acceptable and orthodox among Catholics, as evidenced by the imprimaturs of his abbot at Our Lady of Gethsemani and of the Archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman included on the copyright page. Imprimaturs scare us; they suggest something asserted rather than embraced. But Merton's book is an example of a faith that is only constrained enough to run free. It declares allegiance not only to the faith once for always delivered to the saints but to the human condition and spiritual quest that all people share. Merton's book, and the books of Elie's other writers, are Catholic, but they are also catholic--universally significant, inviting all with legs to walk on a journey with the God who created them in love, and who loves to recreate them.
Elie ends his assessment of Seven Storey Mountain's successful launch with the agenda of all his Catholic authors, and I would argue, a challenge to all authors with the audacity to think that their book might carry the imprimatur of God's blessing:
The spirit of the age; the nature of the Church; postwar anxiety; divine providence--these abstractions pale in light of the personal challenge Merton [and, by extension, Day and Percy and O'Connor] makes to the reader. . . . God exists, he insists. The way to seek God is firsthand, through religious experience. So I have done. Here is the story. Now go and do likewise.