Schoolboy in England

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Ripley Court

 

[This excerpt of Thomas Merton's autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," first appeared in Commonweal in the August 27, 1948 issue]

IT WAS on one of those mornings in Oxford Street, perhaps not the very first one, that Aunt Maud and I had a great conversation about my future. We had just bought me several pairs of grey flannel trousers and a sweater and some shoes and some grey flannel shirts and one of those floppy flannel hats that English children have to wear, and now, having emerged from D. H. Evans, were riding down Oxford Street on the top of an open bus, right up in the front, where one could see simply everything.

      "I wonder if Tom has thought at all about his future," Aunt Maud said and looked at me, winking and blinking with both eyes as a sign of encouragement. I was Tom. She sometimes addressed you in the third person, like that, perhaps as a sign of some delicate, inward diffidence about bringing the matter up at all.

     I admitted that I had thought a little about the future, and what I wanted to be. But I rather hesitated to tell her that I wanted to be a novelist.

     "Do you think writing would be a good profession for anyone?” I said tentatively.

     "Yes indeed, writing is a very fine profession! But What kind of writing would you like to do?"

     "I have been thinking that I might write stories," I said.

     "I imagine you would probably do quite well at that, some day," said Aunt Maud, kindly, but added: "Of course, you know that writers sometimes find it very difficult to make their way in the world."

     "Yes, I realize that," I said reflectively.

     "Perhaps if you had some other occupation, as a means of making a living, you might find time to write in your spare moments. Novelists sometimes get their start that way, you know."

     "I might be a journalist," I suggested, "and write for the newspapers."

     "Perhaps that is a good idea," she said. "Aknowledge of languages would be very valuable in that field, too. You could work your way up to the position of a foreign correspondent."

     "And I could write books in my spare time."

     "Yes, I suppose you probably could manage it that way."

     I think we rode all the way out to Ealing, talking in this somewhat abstract and utopian strain, and finally we got off, and crossed Haven Green to Castlebar Road where we had to stop in at Durston House for something or other.

     It was not the first time I had met Mrs. Pearce, the headmistress of Ripley Court. She was a bulky and rather belligerent-looking woman with great pouches under her eyes. She was standing in a room in which were hung several of my father's paintings. She had probably been looking at them, and considering the error and instability of an artist's way of life when Aunt Maud mentioned the fact that we had been talking about my, own future.

     'Does he want to be a dilettante like his father?" said Mrs. Pearce roughly, surveying me with a rather outraged expression through the lenses of her spectacles.

     "We were thinking that perhaps he might become a journalist," said Aunt Maud gently.

     "Nonsense," said Mrs. Pearce, "let him go into business and make a decent living for himself. There's no use in his wasting his time and deceiving himself. He might as well get some sensible ideas into his head from the very start, and prepare himself for something solid and reliable and not go out into the world with his head full of dreams." And then, turning to me, she cried out: "Boy! Don't become a dilettante, do you hear?"

     I was received at Ripley Court, although the summer term was almost over, more or less as if I were an orphan or some kind of a stray that required at once pity and a special, not unsuspicious kind of attention. I was the son of an artist, and had just come from two years in a French school, and the combination of artist and France added up to practically everything that Mrs. Pearce and her friends suspected and disliked. Besides, to crown it all, I did not know any Latin. What was to be made of a boy who was already in the middle of his fourteenth year and could not decline mensa—had never even opened a Latin grammar?

     So I had the humiliation of once again descending to the lowest place and sitting with the smallest boys in the school and beginning at the beginning.

 Later on, like practically everyone else in our stupid and godless society, I was to consider these two years as "my religious phase."

But Ripley was a pleasant and happy place after the prison of the Lycée. The huge, dark green sweep of the cricket field, and the deep shadows of the elm trees where one sat waiting for his innings, and the dining room where we crammed ourselves with bread and butter and jam at tea-time and listened to Mr. Onslow reading aloud from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all this was immense luxury and peace after Montauban.

     And the mentality of the red-faced, innocent English boys was a change. They seemed to be much pleasanter and much happier—and indeed they had every reason to be so, since they all came from the shelter of comfortable and secure homes and were so far protected from the world by a thick wall of ignorance—a wall which was to prove no real protection against anything as soon as they passed on to their various Public Schools, but which, for the time being, kept them children.

     On Sundays, we all dressed up in the ludicrous clothes that the English conceive to be appropriate to the young, and went marching off to the village church, where a whole transept was reserved for us. There we all sat in rows, in our black Eton jackets and our snow-white Eton collars choking us up to the chin, and bent our well-brushed and combed heads over the pages of our hymnals. And at last I was really going to Church.

On Sunday evenings, after the long walk in the country, through the lush Surrey fields, we gathered again in the wooden drill-room of the school, and sat on benches, and sang hymns, and listened to Mr. Onslow reading aloud from Pilgrim's Progress.

     Thus, just about the time when I most needed it, I did acquire a little natural faith, and found many occasions of praying and lifting up my mind to God. It was the first time I had ever seen people kneel publicly by their beds before getting into them, and the first time I had ever sat down to meals after a grace. And for about the next two years I think I was almost sincerely religious. Therefore, I was also, to some extent, happy and at peace. I do not think there was anything very supernatural about it, although I am sure grace was working in all our souls in some obscure and uncertain way. But at least we were fulfilling our natural duties to God-and therefore satisfying a natural need: for our duties and our needs, in all the fundamental things for which we were created, come down in practice to the same thing.

*

 Later on, like practically everyone else in our stupid and godless society, I was to consider these two years as "my religious phase." I am glad that that now seems very funny. But it is sad that it is funny in so few cases. Because I think that practically everybody does go through such a phase, and for the majority of them, that is all that it is, a phase and nothing more. If that is so, it is their own fault: for life on this earth is not simply a series of "phases" which we more or less passively undergo. If the impulse to worship God and to adore Him in truth by the goodness and order of our own lives is nothing more than a transitory and emotional thing, that is our own fault. It is so only because we make it so, and because we take what is substantially a deep and powerful and lasting moral impetus, supernatural in its origin and in its direction, and reduce it to the level of our weak and unstable and futile fancies and desires.

      Prayer is attractive enough when it is considered in a context of good food, and sunny joyous country churches, and the green English countryside. And, as a matter of fact, the Church of England means all this. It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of a whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation. That is the principal basis for its rather strong coherence up to now. There is certainly not much doctrinal unity, much less a mystical bond between people many of whom have even ceased to believe in grace or Sacraments. The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake... The English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roastbeef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of inexpressible ache in the English heart.

     I got mixed up in all this as soon as I entered Ripley Court, and it was strong enough in me to blur and naturalize all that might have been supernatural in my attraction to pray and to love God. And consequently the grace that was given me was stifled, not at once, but gradually. As long as I lived in this peaceful hothouse atmosphere of cricket and Eton collars and synthetic childhood, I was pious, perhaps sincerely. But as soon as the frail walls of this illusion broke down again—that is, as soon as I went to a Public School and saw that, underneath their sentimentality, the English were just as brutal as the French—I made no further effort to keep up what seemed to me to be a more or less manifest pretense.

     At the time, of course, I was not capable of reasoning about all this. Even if my mind had been sufficiently developed to do so I would never have found the perspective for it. Besides, all this was going on in my emotions and feelings, rather than in my mind and will—thanks to the vagueness and total unsubstantiality of Anglican doctrine as it gets preached, in practice, from most pulpits.

     It is a terrible thing to think of the grace that is wasted in this world, and of the people that are lost. Perhaps one explanation of the sterility and inefficacy of Anglicanism in the moral order is, besides its lack of vital contact with the Mystical Body of the True Church, the social injustice and the class oppression on which it is based: for, since it is mostly a class religion, it contracts the guilt of the class from which it is inseparable. But this is a guess which I am not prepared to argue out.

     I was already nearly too old for Ripley Court, being by now fourteen, but I had to pick up enough Latin to be able to make at least a presentable showing in a scholarship examination for some Public School. As to the school where I should go, Uncle Ben made a more or less expert choice, in his capacity as retired headmaster of a prep school. Since Father was poor, and an artist, there would be no thinking of one of the big schools like Harrow or Winchester—though Winchester was the one for which Uncle Ben had the greatest respect, having achieved his ambition of sending many of his pupils there with scholarships. The reason was twofold: not merely that Father could not be considered able to pay the bills (although, in fact, Pop was to pay them, from America) but the scholarship examinations would be altogether too hard for me.

     The final choice was regarded by everyone as very suitable. It was an obscure but decent little school in the Midlands, an old foundation, with a kind of a little tradition of its own. It had recently gone up slightly in its rating because of the work of its greatest headmaster, who was just about to retire—all of this was the kind of thing Uncle Ben knew and told me, and Aunt Maud confirmed it, saying:

     "I am sure you will find Oakham a very nice school.”

[This is the first of two extracts THE COMMONWEAL will print of Thomas Merton's forthcoming autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," to be published this fall by Harcourt, Brace & Company.]

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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