The Spiritual Autobiography

Article, Film, May/June 2019, Memory, Non-Fiction

How does your position in the present affect your memory of the past? This question must weigh heavily on the mind of any person writing their autobiography. Doubtless, our values in the present predicate how we assess our childhood, our adolescence, and afterwards. But the subjectivity inherent to the autobiography is not a problem for the genre. Rather, the autobiography’s subjective quality is precisely what makes the genre worth reading. It means something unique to hear a person tell their own story. Three such stories are The Confessions of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s memoir Seven Story Mountain, and Terrence Malick’s semi-autobiographical film Tree of Life. 

Because these works are about spiritual conversions, the authors’ perceptions of their pasts are affected even more by the authors’ identities in their present. The individual described at the start of each book or depicted on film is a radically different person from the author or filmmaker who is writing.

In Merton’s case—conversion from a man of the world to a Trappist monk—the autobiography’s subject and author no longer share the same identity: it is in a certain sense Father Louis (Merton’s religious name) writing about the life of Thomas Merton. The same can be said for Augustine who criticizes the sins of his adolescence with a harshness entirely foreign to the person he was at the time. Malick’s journey is less clear. The Tree of Life’s storyline is not so much a conversion as an ongoing conflict for Jack (the boy the film follows, and likely a representation of Malick in his boyhood) between the “way of grace” (i.e. love) and the “way of nature” (i.e. selfishness). However, there is an internal recollection occurring in the film. The adult Jack and the child Jack we see with his family in a 1950s Texas suburb have little connection between them. Scenes shift back and forth between settings and time periods like flashes of memory, suggesting that adult Jack is reckoning with how his past, however distant, informs his present. The dilemma between grace and nature that he became of aware as a child is a dilemma he still has to confront.


Still from Malick’s “Tree of Life”

The authors of Confessions, Seven Story Mountain, and Tree of Life come from dissimilar time periods and countries. The books’ and film’s structure and form reflect these differences. Augustine’s Confessions chronicles the 4th century bishop of Hippo’s life from childhood to his conversion to Christianity. Augustine wrote Confessions with multiple purposes in mind. The chapters are written as inquisitive prayers. The book also served as polemic against heresies like Manicheanism, a dualist philosophy of Augustine’s time. Adjacently the bishop wrote Confessions to defend himself against church members who criticized him for the wrongdoings of his past. Two-thirds through, the book dramatically shifts from narrative into theological treatises on memory, the subconscious, time, eternity, and allegory in the creation story of Genesis. While these two sorts of writing may seem disparate, they connect Augustine’s concern for the theological with his concern for the personal.

Merton’s Seven Story Mountain recounts the writerly monk’s journey from passionate and worldly student to a secluded Monastic. The famous monk begins with his earliest memories as a child in France, and brings the reader along his journeys throughout Europe, his tumultuous time at Cambridge (where he was expelled), his eventful years at Columbia studying English, to his baptism in the Catholic Church, and finally his monastic calling. Seven Story Mountain reads like a novel, wearing its literary influences on its sleeve.


Trappist monk Thomas Merton

Merton tracks his spiritual development through the authors and poets he encounters: Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The memoir served as an outlet of creative expression for the secluded monk and a sermon to those outside the monastery, calling them in. Published in 1948 soon after the ending of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the book spoke into a world disillusioned but searching for meaning.

Malick’s film Tree of Life defies simple description. The director’s magnum opus follows a young boy with his family in a 1950s Texas suburb. The film is at once a dream-like collage of childhood memories, symbolic psychological imagery, an adult’s extended prayer mourning the loss of his brother, and a retelling of the creation and apocalypse of the world. A film so expansive marks the culmination of Malick’s filmography and also his turn into a more experimental style. In each of his films from Badlands (his first film) to Song to Song (his latest), Malick concerns himself with the places where the intricately personal meets cosmic grandeur. In Tree of Life, images of the milky way are interposed with scenes of family life in the Texas suburb, leaving you with a renewed sense of smallness—how insignificant we each are in the grand scope of the universe. But even more powerfully, Malick communicates how meaning, grace and wonder fill our lives. In Tree of Life the wrinkles on an infant’s foot are as marvelous as the expansion of galaxies. Malick draws from filmmakers like the expressionist Andrei Tarkovsky and the elaborate perfectionist Stanley Kubrick to connect these two worlds: the personal and the cosmic.

With the benefit of retrospect, Augustine, Merton, and Malick are able to explain the ways they perceive the hand of God at work in their past. In Tree of Life a voice whispers in the dark “Mother, brother, did you send them to me?” the question, voiced by Jack, is posed to God. Only after his childhood does Jack realize that God used his mother and youngest brother, R.L., to speak to him. His mother is loving, kind and playful in contrast with Jack’s domineering father who masks dictatorial authority with joviality. The two parents pull Jack in opposite directions: the mother toward the “way of grace” and the father toward the “way of nature.”

As Jack continues to mature, his relationship with his family indicates his spiritual position along the ways of grace or nature. While Jack is innocent and unaware of evil, he can accept the love of his mother and revels with his two brothers’ in rowdy games. But after witnessing a boy his age drown in a public pool Jack hardens his heart. “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” he asks God. Jack’s actions become destructive; he begins to take pleasure in others’ suffering. Imitating his father Jack bullies and belittles his younger brothers. He breaks windows, tears apart gardens, pesters stray dogs, and tortures small animals with his brothers and friends.

Jack’s sins isolate him. “I can’t look at you” he tells his mother after committing an evil so small and so large it is unspeakable, as if he alone has just eaten fruit off the forbidden tree in the garden. When Jack asks R.L. for forgiveness, the scene brims with tenderness. One can feel the pride that is at stake for both of them, the two boys’ awkward and playful avoidance and then confrontation and reconciliation. In Tree of Life the dynamics of Jack and his family contain the whole of the creation, fall, and redemption story.



Still from Malick’s “Tree of Life” (Photo by Cottonwood/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Merton also describes his family as crucial to his spiritual development. Both his parents were painters. His mother was an American and a Quaker; his father, a member of the Church of England. From his mother, who died when he was young, Merton inherited a dissatisfaction for the world as it was, and from his father he received a contemplative and honest sensibility. 

But for Merton perhaps even more influential than his parents were the places he traveled and the books he read. Merton recounts the churches and monasteries God placed along his journey. In Prades with his family Merton finds comfort in the ancient cloisters of Saint Martin-du-Canigou and Saint Michel-de-Cuxa. When in Rome the Catholic mosaics, shrines and holy relics of the city form Merton’s concept of Christ. 

During his time at Cambridge and then Columbia, Merton tracks his spiritual development through the authors he reads along with the ideologies he falls into and gradually becomes disillusioned with. During summer before college he devours novels by Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence. At Cambridge he discovers the psychoanalysis of Freud, Jung and Adler. At Columbia he becomes a zealous Communist. After this phase Merton begins to write his thesis on the poetry of William Blake whose dense and obscure pomes awoke his soul to the mystery of faith. Merton writes that, “The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul—in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures.”

Augustine, the African saint, wrote his self-narrative as a prayer. The Confessions are investigative and self-critical. Augustine praises the God who directed his paths but wonders at his inability to express the nature of this God through words. “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” reads his book’s most famous lines, encapsulating how Augustine intertwines the personal with the theological. Like the instrumental influence of parents in Seven Story Mountain and Tree of Life, Monica, Augustine’s mother, resides over the Confessions with her loving presence and constant prayers for Augustine’s soul. “I believed you [God] were silent, and that it was only she who was speaking, when you were speaking to me through her” he reflects. Augustine too, traces the growth of his soul by the influences on his worldview—his years as a Manichean, the wise sermons of St. Ambrose, and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus which suffuses the language of the Confessions.


“The Conversion of St. Augustine” by Fra Angelico

For Augustine, Merton and Malick, an action is never just an action. It has the potential to change the order of the universe and to determine the destiny of one’s soul. The theft of a pear for Augustine becomes a symbol of original sin. He writes describing the reason for his theft, “I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.”

For Merton and Malick their sin separates them from their brothers. As a child Merton ignores and patronizes John-Paul his younger sibling, despite his brother’s obvious love and admiration. In retrospect for Merton this sin was the “prototype of all sin,” to reject love simply because we do not want it. Moreover, as the threats and skirmishes of the Second World War (which would take John-Paul’s life) begin, Merton identifies the sins of his life—self-interest, pride, envy, vapidity—as the cause. The war was a product of the times, forged out of the world’s sinfulness in selfish actions and ideologies to which Merton in his own estimate contributed no small part. In Tree of Life Jack’s path away from grace culminates when he shoots his brothers finger with a BB gun. Jack betrays his brother’s trust in him, and his betrayal reveals his position along the way of nature: self-serving, manipulative, domineering. For this sin in particular Jack has to ask for forgiveness, to switch paths.

These three autobiographical works press at the seams of their mediums, stretching their capacity. The Confessions begins with a meditation on the inadequacy of words to accurately express the nature of God. Augustine recognizes the futility of his project, that what his book is trying to express is beyond articulation. Like the Confessions, Tree of Life expands the borders of its genre by touching on the deeply personal and the cosmological. Scenes of childhood, adulthood, a symbolic desert journey, and the creation of life on Earth are interleaved, defying clear narrative structure but always remaining emotionally intuitive. Merton’s Seven Story Mountain is a bundle of contradictions: a Trappist monk vowed to silence writes a best-selling memoir; the man who withdrew from the world became through this book a religious celebrity. But Merton argues that silence can take many forms, and for himself, his writing was his way of keeping the monastic vows.

Augustine, Merton, and Malick remembered their lives from specific points of vantage. As we walk through their recollections, we discover things about each author’s present. The way only he could describe himself in such a way at a particular time and place. Through Confessions, Seven Story Mountain, and Tree of Life we find that the story of one soul contains all the grandeur of cosmic history. Counterintuitively we realize from the autobiographies that the way forward is the way backward. When we peer into the past we learn about the present. 


Joseph Reigle is an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying City and Regional Planning.

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