Here is the opening few paragraphs of Chapter 2. I write and read this now, wondering if I will find any of the France that gave Merton such a rush.
How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in
western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for
ferocity, hatred stupidity, craftiness, lust and brutality – how did it happen
that, from all this, there should come Gregorian chant, monasteries and
cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede, the
Moalia of Gregory the Great, St. Augustine’s City of God, and his Trinity, the
writings of St. Anselm, St. Bernard’s sermons on the Canticles, the poetry of
Caedmon and Cynewulf and Langland and Dante, St. Thomas’ Summa, and the
Oxoniense of Duns Scotus?
How does it happen that even today a couple of ordinary French stonemasons, or a carpenter and his apprentice, can put a dovecote or a barn that has more architectural perfection than the piles of eclectic stupidity that grow up at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campuses of American universities?
When I went to France, in 1925, returning to the land of my birth, I was also returning to the fountains of the intellectual and spiritual life of the world to which I
belonged. I was returning to the spring of natural waters, if you will,
but waters purified and cleaned by grace with such powerful effect that even the
corruption and decadence of the French society of our day has never been able to
poison them entirely or reduce them once again to their original and barbarian
And yet if was France that grew the finest flowers of
delicacy and grace and intelligence and wit and understanding and proportion and
taste. Even the countryside, even the landscape of France, whether in the
low hills and lush meadows ad apple orchards of Normandy or in the sharp and
arid and vivid outline of the mountains of Provence, or in the vast, rolling red
vineyards of Languedoc, seems to have been made full of a special perfection, as
a setting for the best of the cathedrals, the most interesting towns, the most
fervent monasteries, and the greatest universities.
But the wonderful thing about France is how all her perfections harmonize so fully
together. She has possessed all the skills, from cooking to logic and theology,
from bridge-building to contemplation, from vine-growing to sculpture, from
cattle-breeding to prayer: and possessed them more perfectly, separately
and together, than any other nation.
Why is it that the songs of the little French children are more graceful, their speech more intelligent and sober, their eyes calmer and more profound than those of the children of other nations? Who can explain these things?
France, I am glad I was born in your land, and I am glad God brought me back to you, for a time, before it was too late.
-Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”