“Under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world,” wrote Thomas Merton in his spiritual autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. “Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born….”
Merton writes that his parents were very much in the world yet not quite of it because they were artists and possessed of an integrity that lifted them up (although it did not deliver them). Merton wrote that his father was painter whose vision was “religious and clean,” allowing creation to reveal itself. Merton believed that he inherited his father’s way of looking at things and some of his integrity and from his American mother he believed he inherited “some of her dissatisfaction with the mess the world is in, and some of her versatility. ” From both he believed he got capacities for work and vision and enjoyment and expression…. “If happiness was merely a matter of natural gifts, I would never have entered a Trappist monastery when I came to the age of a man.”
His path to that Trappist monastery and to true happiness would not begin to be clear for many years (he first actually went to church in Douglaston, Queens). Yet he wrote lovingly of his father and mother and their many friends painting and drinking red wine and gazing out over a valley and at a monastery on the slopes of the mountains. Their were many ruined monasteries in those French mountains and he writes reverently of those “love and mighty rounded arches” and of the monks who might have “prayed me where I now am.” Amazingly, one of those cloisters, St. Michel-de-Cuxa, followed him across the Atlantic a score of years later, “and got itself set up within convenient reach of me when I most needed to see what a cloister looked like…..” The Cloisters, in uptown Manhattan, was not far from Columbia University, where Merton was a bright student and an aspiring novelist before he became a monk.
What traits you have inherited from your father and mother and from your grandparents and farther back? What sights or experiences in your earliest memories color your spiritual landscape? I was born under the sign of the Water Bearer in Watertown, New York. It is about thirty miles from Canada and the St. Lawrence River. I grew up watching ships on the river….