The Seven Storey Mountain - Part 1: Chapter 3, The Harrowing of Hell Summary & Analysis

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Part 1: Chapter 3, The Harrowing of Hell Summary and Analysis

In 1929, Merton entered Oakham, a British preparatory school which he liked much better than the Lyce√© or Ripley Court. That year, also, it was discovered that his father had a malignant brain tumor. The story about how Merton learned this is interesting. He was asked to accompany the Oakham cricket team to a match against Durston House as scorekeeper. Uncle Ben had been a headmaster at Durston House and he and Aunt Maude still lived near the school—adjacent to the cricket field, in fact. Somewhere on the bus to the match, it was communicated to Merton that his father was at his aunt and uncle's home and was very ill. That had been the reason he was invited to come along—so that he could run over to the house during the break between innings and visit his father. He did so, and he remembers that his father asked him to pray for him. At the end of the school term, his father wrote that he would be spending the summer in Scotland. Merton went to visit him there and again his father asked for prayer. Then they put him on a train to Middlesex Hospital in London.

Merton says of his father's cancer, "Since those days, doctors have found out you can cut away whole sections of the brain, in these operations, and save lives and minds and all. In 1929, they evidently did not yet know this. It was Father's lot to die slowly and painfully in the years when the doctors were just reaching the point of the discovery."

There was a new headmaster at Oakham during that time named F.C. Doherty. It was he who helped put Merton on an academic track toward Cambridge.

In June 1930, Pop Bonnemaman and John Paul came to visit from America, though this time without the pomp and spectacle of their last visit—the Great Depression hadn't ruined Pop but it had changed the luxury of his travel. With Owen dying, Pop took Thomas alone to talk to him in a way that amounted to an emancipation. He told him that he had arranged for Thomas and John Paul to be taken care of financially after Owen died and, indeed, after he died himself. And he did something else that was equally important to the mind of a fifteen-year-old: He gave Merton permission to smoke.

It was also decided that, instead of spending his school holidays at Aunt Maude's house, Merton would stay with his godfather—a friend of Owen's from New Zealand, now a successful London doctor. The only name he's given in the book is Tom.

Tom and his wife welcomed Merton into their tasteful, artistic, and cosmopolitan world. Tom encouraged Merton in his pursuit of Cambridge and suggested that he should think about pursuing a career in the British diplomatic service.

Merton spent that Christmas in Strasbourg, but he returned to London to visit his father before going back to school. Owen was bedridden and couldn't speak. Then, barely a week after returning to Oakham, he was summoned to the headmaster's study and given a telegram that said his father was dead.

Literature was an important part of Merton's life. In fact, the stage of his journey and many of the major decisions he made are linked in the book to various authors that influenced him. One of the first and most enduring of these loves was for the poet William Blake. During the adolescent years of self-focus and self-discovery at Oakham and later Cambridge, Merton also enjoyed the works of D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, as well as several unnamed novelists whose work Merton says he was too ashamed to describe.

Merton also liked "hot records" which meant jazz and popular music (Duke Ellington is most often cited) and which amounted to something of a rebellion. Now a free young man in his teens, Merton fancied himself quite a rebel. In fact, Merton never admits to any specific debaucheries beyond smoking cigarettes and staying out all night in dimly-lit New York bars. However, there must have been more moral failures than he describes in detail because, later in the book, upon his first attempt to become a monk, he is turned away based on his past. In the fiftieth anniversary printing of Seven Storey from 1998, a note to the reader is included from William H. Shannon, founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society, which explains that Merton fathered a child with an unmarried woman during his time at Cambridge. But while Merton spends page after page bemoaning his life of sin and the debased state of his soul, nothing nearly so illicit as fornication is mentioned in the text of Seven Storey.

Merton was always plagued by dental problems. The first mention of this was during a solo holiday in 1931 when he backpacked the Rhine valley and finished with an abscessed tooth that led to gangrene. It was on that occasion, lying in a hospital at Oakham, that Merton says Death visited his bedside, but that God spared his life. "But I now lay on this bed, full of gangrene, and my soul was rotten with the corruption of my sins. And I did not even care whether I died or lived.

"The worst thing that can happen to anyone in this life is to lose all sense of these realities. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was this consummation of my sins in abominable coldness and indifference, even in the presence of death."

After Oakham, Merton was admitted to Cambridge, an event which Merton remembers having shared with a classmate who also applied at Cambridge—an Englishman named Andrew who isn't given a last name. Andrew is only mentioned in this part of the book. He was not a close friend and is a very minor player in Merton's life. His inclusion seems to point to Merton's pattern—or possibly desire—of experiencing milestones with others. His admission to Cambridge, his entry into the novitiate, his vows—all are remembered with the presence of cohorts who are only acquaintances.

In the summer before entering Cambridge, Merton traveled to Rome where frescoes in ancient cathedrals formed the impetus for his first step toward interest in religion. It was here where he had a sort-of conversion experience in which he sensed the presence of his father, who had been dead for more than a year. It was the first time in his life that he prayed in earnest and it was followed by his first visit to a church for the purpose of prayer. That prayerful visit to a church marked a sort-of surrender for Merton. It was an experience he remembers as important to his conversion.

Merton returned to New York that summer, however, and lost his temporary interest in religion. He started to frequent bars and burlesques. "I was breaking my neck trying to get everything out of life that you think you can get out of it when you are eighteen."

During that summer, a letter arrived from his sponsor saying he should give up any plans for a career in diplomacy and perhaps it would be best if he stayed in America. Apparently, news of Merton's unmentionable debauchery had ruined a possible future for him.

In November, Aunt Maude died and, Merton writes, "They committed the thin body of my poor Victorian angel to the clay in Ealing, and buried my childhood with her." He left Europe for the last time in November 1934.

This is the longest chapter of the book. It seems to drag on and reveals to the reader that this life journey is going to be one of interior struggles rather than outward, material, or relational ones. Merton is full of private misgivings and insecurities and it will be these, rather than career or romantic love or travel or political circumstance, that will form the stuff of his autobiography.

Merton's time at his godfather's house can be seen as his first introduction to a life of order. He read the popular literature of the day and learned the popular gossip. Though this setting wasn't religious, Merton reflects that the need to be versed in popular philosophy and political trends was observed with religious zeal there. It was a sort-of cosmopolitan order where the vows were to artistry and taste and society.

His father's death was certainly the most important event in young Merton's life to this point and one of the most important he would ever experience. He wasn't sure how to experience it. He writes, "The death of my father left me sad and depressed for a couple of months. But that eventually wore away. And when it did, I found myself completely stripped of everything that impeded the movement of my own will to do as it pleased. I imagined that I was free. And it would take me five or six years to discover what a frightful captivity I had got myself into. It was in this year, too, that the hard crust of my dry soul finally squeezed out all the last traces of religion that had ever been in it. There was no room for any God in that empty temple full of dust and rubbish which I was now so jealously to guard against all intruders, in order to devote it to the worship of my own stupid will.

"And so I became the complete twentieth-century man. I now belonged to the world in which I lived. I became a true citizen of my own disgusting century: the century of poison gas and atomic bombs."

In this chapter, too, Merton starts to gain momentum with a tactic that carries throughout the book—that of deriding himself, in hindsight, for his amoral lifestyle. He does this by way of many sideways jabs and sometimes via lengthy sermonettes on the dangers of sin. For instance, during one discussion of his temporary and fruitless interest in philosophy, he writes, "People who are immersed in sensual appetites and desires are not very well prepared to handle abstract ideas."

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(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)
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