Sunday, August 9, 2009

Soul Searching -- The Journey of Thomas Merton

One of my mentors and favorite authors is Thomas Merton. Difficult to pin down, he is alternately described as a Catholic mystic, a spiritual rebel, a modern pilgrim, a compulsive writer and a beatnik-turned-monk. He is all of these and so much more besides.

It was his relentless quest for Truth—for God—which drove him all his life and it was this search which is explored in this recent film by Duckworks, Inc., called, Soul Searching—The Journey of Thomas Merton.

Born in France in 1915, Merton had an unusual upbringing—forced to leave Europe due to World War I, his mother died when he was six, then his father’s avant-garde lifestyle took him back and forth across the Atlantic until he was eventually left an orphan with one younger brother.

Although financially provided for himself, the young Thomas came of age at a time when the rest of the world was entering the Great Depression. This further set him at odds with what he saw around him. The documentary discusses the disgust he felt with himself after a night spent in dissipation when morning came; he’d watch the rest of the world going about their lives with a purpose he knew his lacked. Soon, his own purpose was to find him as well.

Shortly thereafter he experienced a dramatic conversion to Catholicism which he later described in his youthful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain—published ten years later in 1948, which may well be the first book I ever read by Merton.

My own journey to Father Louis, as he was known after he was ordained at Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, KY, goes back so far I cannot even remember the first time I heard of him or the first book of his I’ve read. He absolutely fascinates me. His writing is alive and compelling; he writes on seemingly dry subjects with an intensity which must have been electric when he was speaking the same words to a retreat group or a class of novices.

Watching this moving testimony to the life and works of Father Louis, I want to go back and pick up his books again. He was a 20th Century pioneer in Catholic spiritual renewal. He reminded us we're all called to pray contemplatively—there are not two paths, one for the elect and another for everyone else. In this, he was echoing almost lost teachings of the doctors of the Church, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. Mental prayer and meaningful spiritual lives are not just for priests and nuns. Nor are we to be discouraged by our own sinfulness, inadequacies and failures.

‘Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt. And you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of Faith who has never experienced doubt, is not a man of Faith.’ ~~Thomas Merton

Merton’s early writing on prayer, spiritual biographies and conversion would later move on to more controversial issues, including Christian responsibility in race relations, violence, nuclear war and economic injustice. He died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand at age 53 due to an electrical accident. He left behind over 60 books, 2000 poems and countless letters, journals and various other documents. As I said early on, he was a compulsive writer. Make it a point to see Soul Searching and read Merton!


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