Thomas Merton, one of the giants of modern spirituality, died 40 years ago today but his legacy continues to expand.
Check your local PBS listings, because on Sunday (December 14) the national network is airing “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton,” the subject of today’s Conversation. But, as often happens, the network warns that local stations may show the film at various times.
Why is Merton still a giant decades after his passing?
Well, his first claim to fame was in helping to kick off the post-World War II tidal wave of vocations in the Catholic church with his runaway bestseller, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” It was a youthful autobiography about his decision to abandon a well-to-do, fun-loving, cosmopolitan life in New York for the remote austerity of life as a Trappist monk.
But there were many levels to Merton’s life and in later years he was uncomfortable with some things he wrote and said in his youthful enthusiasm. In the 1950s and 1960s, he played a new and catalytic role through his friendships and correspondence with men and women in the civil rights and peace movements.
He also was a pioneer in the modern interfaith movement through his vast correspondence with religious leaders from many faiths and spiritual traditions.
In fact, during the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month in January, Thomas Merton is one of the new list of heroes honored in Volume 2 of the “Interfaith Heroes” book written by Daniel Buttry. (Buttry is the international peace negotiator for American Baptist Churches and is the overall scholar behind the annual heroes project.) Here are just a few lines of what Buttry writes about Merton in his upcoming book:
In the 1950s Merton began a long-term study of other religions: Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and especially Zen Buddhism. He was inspired by the challenge of Gandhi that one can find the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition by becoming immersed in other religions and then returning “home” to see one’s own tradition with a transformed consciousness and awareness. …
He found the 4th Century Christian writer Ambrose affirming this perspective saying, “All that is true, by whomever it is said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Ambrose echoed the Buddhist teacher Bankei who said, “The further one enters into truth, the deeper it is.” …
A paradox that Merton uncovered was that his withdrawal from the world, even living as a hermit on the grounds of Gethsemani monastery for years, drove him toward the world. He found the compassion of God in contemplation that empowered his insights to speak to the sufferings of the world, particularly poverty, racism and war. Though many social and peace activists urged him to leave the monastery, he knew that the power of his writings was fueled by the disciplines of contemplation.
TODAY, our Conversation is with Morgan Atkinson, an author and filmmaker with a longtime interest in Merton and Gethsemani. Atkinson (shown at right) produced the new documentary airing on PBS as well as a stand-alone, DVD-and-book set that’s also called “Soul Searching.” (Click on the Amazon link that appears below to order a copy of the set. And here’s a tip: The DVD version of the film that comes with the book is longer than the PBS-broadcast version, so you’ll get more of Merton if you actually order the set.)
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION:
DAVID: It’s fascinating that Merton today is such a huge figure in contemporary spirituality. As a writer, he ranks right up there with C.S. Lewis in terms of his continuing Christian influence. Yet, Merton in later years seemed to turn away from his biggest best seller, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which has sold millions of copies. It was his most popular success — this autobiography he wrote early in life about his decision to become a monk. Your film and book show us that his life story was far more complex — and far more influential — than that one runaway best seller.
MORGAN: Yes, as he grew older and matured and evolved spiritually, he looked back on “The Seven Storey Mountain” with almost chagrin or bemusement. He said in the foreword of the edition that was printed in Japan, basically: This book is really not me anymore. But it’s not fair to change it. The book has it’s own life, but my life is now separate from that.
He was acknowledging that the book represented an early stage in his life, but I do think it was a book that sometimes caused him embarrassment in later years. He was grateful for all the people “The Seven Storey Mountain” inspired, but he saw it as a departure point for his later spiritual growth.
DAVID: The book did inspire all sorts of people. His own monastery exploded due to the power of his own narrative in “Seven Storey.” Your documentary shows us some interesting scenes about those early years of huge growth at the monastery.
MORGAN: Apparently when the book came out in 1948, it shocked everyone including his publishers who didn’t expect it to be such a big success. It surprised Merton greatly and it certainly surprised his monastery and his abbot. No one foresaw this.
What Merton was speaking to was a search for a spiritual home. There was this widespread search for solid spiritual values that so many people in this country and in the world were experiencing right then. Lawrence Cunningham, the professor from Notre Dame, told me that there were so many feel-good books out there in the late 1940s — like Norman Vincent Peale’s book and others that were so positive – and here was Merton’s book that was a pretty scorching look at modern life. Merton’s book made you examine your values and made you look at what you were doing with your life. This was a much more challenging book than these others that seemed so popular at the time.
DAVID: People talk about “The Seven Storey Mountain” as a runaway bestseller, but I don’t think people will get a good impression of its importance if they think about it as just a huge media success story. Merton’s success wasn’t like an actor becoming a movie star or a singer becoming a huge hit. Merton was important because of the way he touched spiritual nerves in millions of people.
I think a better comparison is with someone like Jack Kerouac, who also became a guru to a whole generation. After Kerouac’s books like “On the Road” in the 1950s, countless people wanted to head out on the road, as well. That’s the kind of impact Merton had, I think. Is that a fair way to put it?
MORGAN: That’s dead on. I would agree with that. Suddenly there were people making these pilgrimages to Gethsemani and suddenly there were all these young men who wanted to become Trappists and there was this explosion of the population at Gethsemani. Merton’s book had a significant part to play in all of this. Merton became like a Jack Kerouac prototype. Suddenly, people were showing up at the monastery saying: I want to be like Thomas Merton.
DAVID: The book affected you, too, even years after its publication.
MORGAN: Yes, that’s why I became a Catholic myself in the 1970s. I read his book and wanted to be like Merton.
DAVID: Tell us a little of that story. I’ll bet there are lots of people who followed your same path in the ’70s.
MORGAN: I grew up Presbyterian and then went through a period as a teenager and in my early 20s, when I probably would have proudly said I was an atheist or agnostic. Then in my mid 20s, I was in the post-college funk that a lot of people went through in the mid-1970s. I read the “Seven Storey Mountain.” At first, it was pretty off-putting to me. The book’s tone was so hothouse Catholic.
But there was something about Merton talking about how many mistakes he had made in his life and I had made mistakes, too. So, he had some credibility with me. He described Gethsemani, which wasn’t that many miles away from where I was living. I made arrangements to go down there for a weekend and it was one of those great moments when you walk into a place and you feel a real, direct fit.
I didn’t want to become a monk. But there was something about the monastic sensibility – the more contemplative approach to life that really struck me. Often when you go to a place like that where there is a lot of silence that is cultivated, you come out of your noisy, everyday life and it has a very good effect. In my case, it did. I came home again and, within six weeks, I became a Catholic, which surprised everybody including myself. I’ve been a Catholic ever since.
DAVID: One thing that impressed me about your documentary is that you include quite a bit about Merton’s influence on the peace movement and on interfaith relations. Even though he spent so much of his life in the monastery, he developed an enormous network of friends though his letters. And a Who’s Who of important figures visited him. He interacted with so many people! Explain just a little about how Merton got so involved in these emerging networks of people.
MORGAN: In the mid 1950s through prayer and his correspondence with people around the world, he came to the conclusion that part of his vocation had to be directed to advocating for peace and civil rights and justice. And he understood his best place as writing from — well, the title of one of his books was “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”
He understood that he was removed from the hubbub of the daily world, but he also knew that from this unique vantage point he could give unique advice and help to the Daniel Berrigans of the world. In an earlier film that I made about Gethsemani itself, Lawrence Cunningham said that, if Merton had left Gethsemani and jumped into the front lines at the barricades in these struggles, then he would have become just another ‘60s radical. By remaining detached and understanding his place, it added to his power and authority.
DAVID: One of the people we meet in you film is a current peace activist, John Dear, S.J., who we’ve featured here in this Conversation series as well. Dear talks about Merton’s inspiration on this whole movement.
MORGAN: Some people compare the two of them. Among Catholics, Merton and Dear may seem comparable on some levels. They both are involved in peace activism and peace writings. But one of the more remarkable things about Merton was his breadth. He would write about peace, but he also could write literary essays about Camus. He could write about the desert fathers. The range of the man was astounding.
DAVID: His range was so vast that I wonder if you could recommend a good book — beyond your own, of course, and also the new book out by HarperOne that collects a sampling of Merton’s letters. Beyond these newer books, if people want to dive back into some of Merton’s literary works, where do you suggest people start?
MORGAN: The one book that I think is a really a good starting point is by Lawrence Cunningham, called “Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master,” despite the hierarchical tone of that title. Cunningham gives us a cross section of his writings in that book. You’ll get some from “The Seven Storey Mountain” and from other books. I think a sampling of Merton is the best place to start.
I hesitate to tell people to start by reading “Seven Storey Mountain” first, because it may be off-putting. It’s good to get a sense of his great range of writing.
DAVID: It’s interesting that you’re hesitant about that phrase “spiritual master.” Right now, there’s a huge interest among American Christians — even among many young evangelicals — in rediscovering what are called “the ancient practices.” And, on one level Merton does seem to be a master of these centuries-old traditions.
But I really think, in the end, we are so fascinated by Merton not because he is merely the carrier of ancient traditions, but because he stood firmly in those traditions with this powerfully restless spirit. He seemed to be rooted in one place, but he was constantly in spiritual motion. Does that make sense to you?
MORGAN: Yes, I like to say: He’s the lost soul of the 20th Century. He is a guy we all can relate to because he is searching for God, he admits his doubts, he admits his failings and yet he keeps searching and keeps failing. It’s not that he’s hopelessly neurotic and never satisfied. Someone could try to make that argument about him, but I wouldn’t agree with it.
The truth is that he was honest about his spirituality and his humanity and his search. He could have sat back and played the fat happy old man of Catholic letters, but he refused to let that happen. He had a tremendous hunger for authenticity. He was unable to accept the pat answers. And that’s why he remains so important to so many people today.
CARE TO READ MORE?
The Filmmaker’s Web site: Morgan Atkinson tells you more about the Merton film — and his other projects — at his Web site.
Visit the Monks online: Gethsemani has a fine Web site about its ongoing work, including photos of the Kentucky monastery.
Dig More Deeply: The Merton Center and International Merton Society will take you even deeper into his works and legacy.
(Photo of Merton and Merton with the Dalai Lama used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Merton Center at Bellarmine University.)
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)