Introduction and interview by Bill McGarvey
It is no surprise that a young seeker—as Morgan Atkinson was back in the mid-1970s—would be interested in the life of Thomas Merton. Merton’s journey from poet, artist and bohemian to poet, writer, artist, activist, mystic monk has all the required elements of adventure, risk and creativity that easily sets fire to the imagination of a young man looking to find his way in the world.
But, unlike so many fascinations that grip young minds for a brief time before being replaced by newer interests, Atkinson’s attraction to Merton’s life remained strong more than three decades after he first discovered the Trappist from Kentucky. After some initial reluctance, Atkinson, now a Louisville-based documentary filmmaker, decided to create a documentary on Merton’s life. The film, Soul Searching is an insightful glimpse into the life of a restless monk whose fascination with God seemed boundless.
BustedHalo: What interested you in taking on a subject like Thomas Merton?
Morgan Atkinson: I had stumbled upon Merton when I was in my mid-20s and I’m nearing 60 now, so I guess the last 35 years I can say that he’s really had a very profound influence in my life, and going to Gethsemani, which is near here—it’s about 60 miles from here. So I was very aware of the impact he’d had on my life. It was because of him that I became a Catholic. But I was pretty leery about trying to do a documentary about him because in some ways it was the classic “I’m not worthy”—it seemed like too big of a thing for me to take on. But then I did a documentary on life at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and the community liked that and a lot of Merton people liked that and said, “You should do something on Merton.”
BH: What struck you the most while making your documentary about this man whose writings you’ve known for so long?
MA: I think I was very much like the typical person that Busted Halo is directed to when I first came upon Merton. The edgy aspect of his life in New York before he went into the monastery is the thing that first caught my attention. I was in my mid-20s and most things spiritual sounded like white noise to me. They just did not register. And Merton, because if his life experiences—I could relate to it. I could relate to this person that had made more than his fair share of mistakes, and the fact that he still found something of worth to seek in the spiritual world really caught my attention. It made me think, “Well if a guy like this, that’s as sophisticated and intelligent as he is, can find something of merit in this, perhaps I’m missing something. Maybe I need to look a little closer.” And so Merton helped me to look a lot closer.
BH: The book that accompanies the DVD of your documentary says you grew up in a Presbyterian household and you had a father who was a Hollywood writer?
MA: Yeah, he was in Louisville initially and then my parents divorced and my dad went to New York and then to L.A. and worked in television there. He wrote, among other things, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” [laughter] So it was fun for me to go out to Los Angeles—you know, here I was an eighth- or ninth-grader, and to go on the set and meet Jed Clampett and Ellie May and the whole gang, I was something of a celebrity at home when I would come back with these stories. His genre was that sort of rural or cornpone type of humor, if you like. And so he wrote “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction” and all of that sort of genre, and there was that transition there where they went from that to “All in the Family” and “Sanford & Son,” you know, a very different type of humor. And he was a little bit older and he’d been sort of stereotyped as “Oh, he’s the guy who writes the hillbilly-type stuff.” So after his initial really good run, his last 15 years in L.A. weren’t as prosperous but he was still a working writer and still was getting things produced.
BH: How did he take your interest in being a documentarian?
MA: What he had done made me at least consider doing something in the world of film or cinema. After I got out of college at the University of Kentucky I went to Los Angeles thinking, “Oh, well my dad’s out here and if I’m gonna work in the film business, this is where I should be.” And after about a year I could tell that even if I was to make a breakthrough, that I was sort of a small pond kind of guy. [ laughs ] And so I came back to Louisville and I have not regretted it. I’m glad I went when I did because I’d hate to be at this stage of my life now thinking, “Gosh, if I had only gone to L.A., it all would have been good.” Things would have been different, but each time I go out there—I still go out there at least once or twice a year—the town’s gotten more nuts and less humane as far as I’m concerned.
BH: It sounds as though you identified with the element of Merton being kind of a restless screw-up?
MA: Well, yeah. I could tell that Merton was a person who was out of my depth as far as an intellectual, but as someone at loose ends, trying a lot of different things and making more than a few wrong turns or going into a few dead ends—yes, I could relate to that a lot. And then what really spoke to me was his restlessness that didn’t seem restless just in a neurotic sense of, “Well nothing’s gonna satisfy him.” but his thirst for a spiritual authenticity. A genuine spiritual life. And the fact that, here is a guy with so many gifts that could have been lived in a different way in the secular world who made the very radical and countercultural decision to choose the path he took—that really impressed me. And I think part of it was my ’60s identification, like: “What could be more countercultural than this?” In a way, he made a spiritual path seem as radical—and to be very trite—as anything Abbie Hoffman would have done, but in a way that had far more depth.
BH: That’s an interesting thought: that what Merton was about was going deeper in a way that other movements that the culture at large might consider to be “radical” perhaps can’t, because they don’t have the same sort of depth or substance. Any thoughts on why that might be?
MA: Well I think a lot of people like myself get stopped at the front gate by words or by institutions—things that we almost need to detoxify. You know, a lot of church-speak or God-speak has a way of putting people off, and I know it put me off. I’d seen so many bad examples of that. And not so much in my own church upbringing, but just in the culture at large. And you see so much hypocrisy and you can’t get beyond that. Well somehow, something about the way Merton wrote and the fact that he really put his money where his mouth was, it made me think, “Yeah.” I mean here is a guy that is—to use a cliché—not only talking the talk but really walking the walk. He really did it. And there’s nothing halfway about a Trappist lifestyle. I mean if you’re in, you’re really in. And once I did my documentary on Gethsemani and you get behind the wall and you begin to say, “Well, okay, there are ways where you can hide from things here as well.” But by and large, Merton’s courage and bravery struck me. And my dad would always say, “Well what’s brave about that? He’s hiding behind walls. He’s hiding away from reality.” But to me it always seemed that he was really confronting reality head-on without any of the little filters—or big filters—that we put up with all our distractions and whatnot.
BH: When you say that a lot of people get stuck at the front gate. I think that’s dead-on for what a lot of people encounter. Is that a piety thing or is it a language thing?
MA: I think it’s a combination; I know it was a stumbling block for me. And one of the real revelations is to sit here and not let a word freak me out. You know, not let something like “Jesus loves you” freak you out. Because at one time, that would have been like, “Oh, God, I can’t, don’t even …” You know, it was like fingernails on a blackboard. But then, to really just let it be and think about what something like that means. And I don’t know if that’s a good example, but things that so often have been made cloying pieties when you look at what they really are and try to unload some of our own baggage and just see it, it can be mind blowing. The scales start to drop off your eyes. And so that’s the impact that Merton had on me. I would say the majority of my friends are, at best, skeptical of a lot of the things that I’m up to, and I will just ask them to just give it the benefit of the doubt and don’t let buzz words make them just turn it off. Try to get past that and see what’s at the core of the message.