Thomas Merton was born 31 January 1915, a century ago. As I prepare to begin rereading Dante this winter, I found a note referring to Merton’s studies in Dante at Clare College, Cambridge, from autumn 1933 to spring 1934 and how he drew on the symbolism found there for his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. The Ascent in the Purgatorio gave him a crucial metaphor for his journey to conversion.
The life of the American monk, Thomas Merton, is a story of a continual movement away from inner and outer idols and towards union with the desert God of his Christian faith. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written when he was in his early thirties, he said that “in one sense we are always travelling; and travelling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived.” The very choice of the title from Dante’s imagery of a purgatorial mountain which must be ascended in order to reach the gates of paradise demonstrates Merton’s early awareness of himself as on a long and difficult journey through a dangerous and mysterious geography.
In his initial years as a monk Merton continued to be influenced by Neoplatonic thought and the mystical tradition in Christian history which it greatly informed. The earthly pilgrim was one who sought the ascending path towards the eternal realm of truth, towards heaven, while leaving this world of shadowy existence behind. Dante’s Divine Comedy (with Comedia meaning a story with a happy ending) exemplifies the close connection that Merton saw between the pilgrim and the mystic. Dante’s work begins with himself in a dark woods, unable to climb out and then up a wondrous mountain because of ferocious beasts blocking the way. But the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, appears and tells Dante that only by passing through hell and purgatory can he find his way to heaven. The dark woods can be seen as the dark night of mystical literature and the need to go through hell as symbolic of the mystic’s need to go through the center of that dark night of doubt, despair, anguish and the seeming absence of God. Merton’s idea of the sacred came to demand of him a refusal to escape directly into an abstract, timeless realm of pure sacrality, but was instead a journey into the inner hells and purgatory of his own fears and egoism or self-absorption. Thus, for Merton the image of pilgrimage and mystical quest was indicative of a struggle in the wilderness of solitude and liminality where all the old securities lost their validity. Virgil leads Dante past the gates of hell where it is inscribed: LAY DOWN ALL HOPE, YOU THAT GO IN BY ME.
Merton’s use of the Dantean image of Mount Purgatory for his autobiography is based upon its portrayal of progressive transformation of the sinful self by love. There is suffering, as in hell, but unlike hell the suffering is redemptive because love, not evil, is the meaning of the fire and suffering. Merton’s Virgil can be said to be multi-faced with people like Augustine, Aquinas, Eckhart, Gandhi, Suzuki, Camus, Pasternak, John of the Cross leading Merton through the levels of his hell and purgatory. Even with a medieval-shaped geography of the earth and universe, Dante did not want his work taken too literally, for its soteriological, moral and mystical meanings were central. For Merton the mystic’s pilgrimage is not necessarily through a literal desert, but through the radical emptiness of the self when devoid of its usual distractions and delusions and sins. At the top of the mountain Dante meets Beatrice, his image of love, in whom truth and beauty are united. In one sense Merton’s own self is his Beatrice, an image of God in which the deadening weight is removed. In Dante’s heaven there is room for all who love or seek to love. A white rose symbolizes the divine presence at the center of heaven where the pilgrim says,
Power failed high fantasy here; yet, swift to move
Even as a wheel moves equal, free from jars,
Already my heart and will were wheeled by love
The love that moves the sun and the other stars.