Soul Searching --- Review

SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton. Edited by Morgan C. Atkinson with Jonathan Montaldo. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. 2008 pp.

I am not a contemplative person. I don’t read much in the spiritual masters, ancient or modern. I enjoy spiritual biographies and singing hymns, but poetry and guides to a life of silence and solitude don’t get my attention. I can spend a few hours in a monastic setting, but I get up and move around quite a bit. Indeed, I need a library and a book shop. So, when a copy of Soul Searching arrived at the door, sent to me by Kelly Hughes, a publicist who supplies me with books, often books that I wouldn’t pick up on my own, I wondered what to do with it. I’d heard of Thomas Merton. I knew he was a Trappist monk, and famous for his spiritual writings, but I’d never read anything by him or even about him. Despite my lack of knowledge of this man and his work, I picked up the book and started to read.

Soul Searching is a companion book to a documentary filmed and produced by Morgan Atkinson. He produced the book because he had so much material left over, so much commentary from friends, students, and observers of Merton’s life and work that he decided to share the words of what he calls a “Merton Choir.” Atkinson is a film maker from Louisville, which is home to the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, the home of Thomas Merton for much of his life. Atkinson is joined in this work by Jonathan Montaldo, director of Bellarmine University’s Thomas Merton Center. And the choir is diverse and having a testimony worth considering.

Arranged chronologically, these voices bring to life a man that many revere as one of the great spiritual writers of the modern age, or at least 20th century America. Through the observations of this Merton Choir, the reader is introduced to a great spiritual master. But this isn’t a saint, as we typically understand that word. This is a man of deep spirituality, and yet this also a person who is deeply complex. Although there are those who would like to see him canonized, people who make pilgrimage to his grave, who read books with great devotion, Merton isn’t the saintly type. Indeed, we want our saints pure and undefiled, simple and without doubts. This isn’t the Thomas Merton we meet in these pages – his own complexity, his struggles with the life he chose – whether it be solitude, celibacy, or obedience – mitigate against such an action. Yet, it’s these very struggles that make him a model of Christian life and service.

William Shannon, an editor of some of Merton’s works and a founder of the Thomas Merton Society, writes:

“I don’t want him to be canonized anyway, because the canonizing would in a sense be putting him on a sort of pedestal, and I want to see him as someone who’s very much like all of us. If you want to call him a saint, that’s fine but what does it mean? He’s a person who struggled to do the will of God, who realized his faults. His clay feet are there for all to see. He certainly would not want any kind of adulation given to him in the way of sainthood” (p. 185).

The Merton who appears on these pages is certainly a contemplative, a spiritual master, a person of prayer. He’s a person who chose the life of the hermit – a practice that was not part of his Cistercian tradition at the time. He chose to live apart and yet desired human contact. He enjoyed conversation but chose silence. Though, to those of us uninitiated into this tradition, it may come as a surprise that this silence and solitude wasn’t continuous. He was also a social critic, strongly opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War, and he crossed religious barriers and explored Zen and Tibetan Buddhism long before this was popular in the West. These choices made him suspect within his own church and put him at odds with his superiors at times. He found himself balancing his vow of obedience with this emerging commitment to social justice and interreligious dialogue. These expressions of protest and exploration outside the faith may have contributed to his exclusion from the recent catechism of the American Catholic Church. It would appear that Merton has become a dangerous voice. Yet, it’s this very complexity that has drawn people to him, both from within Catholicism and outside it.

The book begins with explorations of his early life, the years prior to his conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a monk. He was British, an orphan, and brilliant. He studied at Cambridge and at Columbia University. He sought to be a famous writer and was known to be something of a playboy. In fact, it’s likely he fathered a child out of wedlock. The story of his early life and conversion is the subject of his famed spiritual biography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. The “choir” notes that he was a searcher, one attracted to Catholicism first by its intellectual possibilities and also by its aesthetics. But even as he was exploring Catholicism, he was also exploring communism.

In the end he chooses Catholicism, and not just Catholicism, but a strenuous form of monasticism. Although monasticism, with its vows of obedience and commitment to community would seem limiting, Merton looked to monasticism for freedom. A former student of Merton and Cistercian abbot, John Eudes Bamberger writes about the freedom the monk is seeking when joining the monastic community.
“It is a paradoxical freedom, however, because it is the freedom that comes from giving up your own will. Instead of seeking to affirm yourself, the monk seeks to bear witness to a truth that transcends him, and that’s what makes him free.”

In Merton’s case, Bamberger writes further:
“He understands that in order to attain to that kind of freedom he would have to die to this secular ideal of the successful man, the self-made man, the independent person. On the other hand there’s a certain danger of passivity, of dependency, of falsity. There’s no substitute for courage, for real inner freedom, for the energy that it takes to get liberated.” (p. 50).

Seeking this freedom, Merton embraces the asceticism of monastic life along with the structure that the community provided. Indeed, those who knew him best note that part of the attraction of monasticism was the structure that it gave to Merton’s life. Indeed, this structure provided the foundation for a life of writing that made him famous, even as he sought freedom from that desire.

In his search for this inner freedom, Merton had to face the reality of obedience, obedience even to those with whom he differed. Part of the story here is Merton’s relationship with his abbot, Dom James Fox, a man of very different inclinations and viewpoints from Merton. Yet, even as Fox often disciplined Merton’s actions, Fox respected Merton, turned to him as his confessor, and made Merton Master of Novices, one of the most important posts within the community.

What has attracted the most attention to Merton is his spirituality, a spirituality that became was expansive even as it was deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. While noted for his exploration of Buddhism, including Zen, his decision to explore the life of the hermit stemmed from his exploration of the Desert Fathers. Even as he explored Buddhism and found strength and wisdom in its traditions, he never gave up his commitment to Catholicism. He was neither conservative nor liberal, as his observers note. Part of his decision to enter the life of the hermit was his desire to be one with nature. He loved being out in the forest, tending to gardens, and enjoying the bounty that he found there. In this there was somewhat of the Franciscan.

Earlier I noted that issue of sainthood and the complexity of his life. Noted in the book is a relationship relatively late in life with a young woman. He had become sick and was assigned a student nurse, with whom he developed a relationship of some intimacy. Whether this was consummated sexually is not revealed – perhaps isn’t known – but it figured prominently in his life. Of course, he had to make a choice and in the end he cut off the relationship, apparently with some abruptness. There is some question about the depth of this relationship, but it marks him as human, with all the longings of a human for companionship and intimacy, something that can’t always be provided by one’s relationship with God.

Merton the spiritual master died relatively early and unexpectedly. He was on a tour of Asia, visiting Cistercian monasteries and engaging in conversation with Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama. It was on this trip that Merton, only in his mid-50s, was electrocuted and died. Although some looked for sinister motives or even suicide, those who knew him best recognized that this was bound to happen. Merton might be a spiritual master, but he was also a klutz.

I confessed in the beginning that I’ve not read Merton. I don’t know his writings or his perspective. But, having read this book, I find myself intrigued by his life and his message. I may not be ready to embrace the contemplative life, and most assuredly not the ascetic life that he led. That being said, I am impressed by his early attempts at building bridges across religious lines, his understanding that one need not give up one’s faith to learn respectfully from the other. I’m impressed to by his willingness to enter the fray of human life. Having chosen the life of the hermit, he could have easily slipped away and ignored the difficulties of his day, but he didn’t. From his own spiritual life, he found the courage to address difficult issues. His legacy is strong and influences many, to this day. There is much to learn from his writings, but also from the example of his life – not that he was a saint, but that he was a human being seeking God in the world.


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