1945 saw the publishing of The Seven Storey Mountain written by the very young Thomas Merton, at the behest of his Abbot at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. He recognized his exceptional gifts as a writer and wanted his story of conversion told.

Its title references the Purgatorio, the seven-tiered mountain in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a course Merton followed when a student at Clare College, Cambridge. Although he was still enmeshed in riotous living, he did glimpse Dante’s poetic synthesis of scholastic philosophy, critical for his later conversion to Catholicism.

And An Autobiography of Faith, the book’s subtitle, frames Merton’s unique approach to his material. Its beginnings suggest the components of memoir: lush descriptions, dialogue, humor, and honesty that carry his formative influences, all the while surrounded by sparring partners, intelligent beyond description.

Always a voracious reader, Merton later stumbles upon significant philosophers, Aldous Huxley, Etienne Gilson, Leon Bloy, Jacques Maritain; upon British poets, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins: upon Eastern and western mystics and many others. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton coalesces their teachings like autobiographical stepping-stones that eventually lead him to enter Gethsemani—Such that it mirrors Augustine’s Confessions in importance.

By the time of his final profession as a Trappist, 1944, he wrote: I decided that I no longer knew what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and after that I was expected to follow along with the others and do what I was told and things would begin to come clear.

Upon such radical surrender to God, Merton revisioned the practice of contemplative prayer, worldwide. He continues to teach, despite his 1968 untimely death.