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Church Central to Town

In the opening chapters of his autobiographical classic The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton offers a unique look at the church's place in society. After his mother died, his father, an artist, traveled the world with Thomas often in tow. Religion had a more peripheral presence in young Thomas's life, but at one particular place of residence in France—the small town of St. Antonin—the church was suddenly front and center. Literally. The striking presence of the old, gray building in the center of the town made an impression on Merton—even more than he knew at the time. He writes:

Here, everywhere I went, I was forced, by the disposition of everything around me, to be always at least virtually conscious of the church. Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the church. Every view of the town, from the exterior hills, centered upon the long grey building with its high spire…
The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God…
Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!

In the midst of his reflection, Merton then turns his attention to whomever may be reading his words in The Seven Storey Mountain—most notably those who may be unbelievers just as he was at the time of his living in St. Atonin. He writes:

I did not even know who Christ was, that he was God… I thought churches were simply places where people got together and sang a few hymns. And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst…it is he alone who holds our world together, and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction.

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