Since 1949, millions of people have read Thomas Merton's famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain (SSM), a compelling account of the gifted wordsmith's pre-monastic years. The book became a New York Times bestseller with more than 600,000 copies sold in the first year alone. During the sixty-plus years since the book's debut, it has become a classic, with some critics calling it one of the 100 greatest books ever written.
Unfortunately, Merton's story, as portrayed in the book, was not the whole truth, but instead a watered-down version of what really occurred during his pre-Gethsemani years. And the misrepresentation was intentional - the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of a plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.
Why is SSM not a "whole truth" account of Merton's early years? The answer lies in a quiet conspiracy, a cover-up if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy, stretching from the United States to the Vatican. Abbot Frederic Dunne, Merton's literary agent, and his publisher, neither of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual, even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton's true story, omitting critical information about him. His readers were hoodwinked, and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not "that bad" of a sinner despite having been a drunkard, a womanizer fathering an illegitimate child, an adulterer, and a draft dodger, facts all left out of SSM. Merton himself wanted to revise his book, but was not permitted to do so, telling brother monk Father John Eudes, "it doesn't belong to me anymore."
Through the false impression presented in the book, an act of omission just as severe as one of commission, readers were, and are today, left with a portrayal of Merton as a poor, lost soul who was converted to Catholicism and entered the monastery seeking salvation. In fact, he was a sinner of the first degree who was never held responsible for more serious conduct that would have tarnished the Merton "image" being promoted. Based on this motive, a cover-up was necessary so the Catholic Church and Gethsemani would not be embarrassed over Merton's pre-monastic conduct, which was, as the complete truth indicates, reprehensible at best, and downright despicable at worst. Protecting the image of the church thus remains, whether it is covering up sexual abuse, clamping down on dissent, or perpetuating the image of its public figures like Merton, saintly in nature. Secrecy and denial still exist, causing concern as to whether incidents of sexual or mental abuse continue to this day, because less than complete safeguards are in place to prevent reoccurrence. In effect, a code of silence exists, one reprehensible in nature.
Lack of candor, together with secrecy, are the bywords in what author Russell Shaw [no relation] calls "clerical elitism," triggering a belief among bishops and priests that they are "intrinsically superior to the other members of the church and deserve automatic deference." Shaw traces this disease back to days before Vatican I on through Vatican II, where openness and honesty were replaced with deception and cover-up, resulting in scandals caused by the church's "attempting to control access to truth." Nowhere is this more evident, Shaw believes, than in the sexual predations of priests that caused the dam of secrecy to break. This was due to the church's placing priests on pedestals; causing an atmosphere similar to the one where portions of Merton's book were censored in what may be characterized as a rather usual course of doing business, never give it a second thought-type of mindset.
The fact that SSM was heavily censored is a given. Its editor, Robert Giroux, admitted it; official Merton biographer Michael Mott corroborated it; and fellow monk Father Basil Pennington, with apparent direct knowledge, confirmed it. Most important, longtime Merton friend and confidant Edward Rice criticized the publication of SSM by questioning its legitimacy when he exposed the cover-up in 1970, two years after Merton died. He reported that after Merton's draft was submitted for publication, "Then came the immense job of editing--and castrating-- the manuscript. During the year before publication a large portion, perhaps as much as one third, was either seriously altered or literally thrown away on the insistence of the Trappist censors." This prompts the view that while the book is regarded as a classic, all copies must be recalled immediately by the publisher, Harcourt Brace, until a disclaimer is included indicating to readers that the book they are reading is less than truthful. Such a disclaimer could parallel the one inserted in A Million Little Pieces, the fiction mixed with fact debacle written by James Frey.
Two important notes of interest - each distasteful. First, despite knowledge that SSM is less than truthful, those who worship Merton, including members of the International Thomas Merton Society, the Merton Legacy Trust, and others in the Catholic Church hierarchy, continue to embrace and applaud the book as a spiritual guidepost despite its deceptive nature. And two, even though Merton has been dead more than forty years, his work is still being censored today. When his private journals were published in the mid-199s, certain words in Volume Six, the chronicle of Merton's erotic love affair with student nurse Margie Smith, were cut, an appalling act condoned by editors who knew Merton wanted every word in his journals to be published. What shame; what disrespect these conspirators show and, worse, for a man all say they truly admire and love.