Busted: Morgan Atkinson

Busted Halo speaks with the director of "Soul Searching," a new documentary about monk, writer and peace activist, Thomas Merton

BH: When you’re dealing with a writer like Merton who deals with this ineffable spiritual life through words, did you get the feeling that in some ways there’s something about him that can’t be captured about someone like Merton who was so deeply invested in living “directly?”

MA: Yeah, and I think he frustrated himself because there was a very significant part of him that had to write. That was the way he processed things; that was at the core of his being. But he also saw the total futility in a lot of the writing that he was doing, and I think he always fought that conflict between trying to describe—as you say—the ineffable and then realizing just, sort of, almost the comic absurdity of trying to do it. But knowing he almost had no choice but to do it. And then becoming reconciled with that. I mean, it could sound like he was being self-important, but I don’t think he was at all. I think he knew that part of his role—a big part of his vocation—was to explore these areas and try to share what he was finding with people, and in a way that most people can relate to.

BH: I think a lot of us have the impression of a monk living according to a rule and behind closed doors, and living a sort of orderly life that no decisions are made. Can you talk a little bit about why you think for people like Merton and other monks, it’s really not about being walled off — it’s about a different kind of reality?

MA: Lawrence Cunningham, one of the people that I interviewed who’s a professor at Notre Dame, talks about that process where like probably the first three to six months you’re caught up in the romantic aspect of being a monk and these new clothes you’re wearing and these new rituals and whatnot. And then after a while you’re confronted with the fact, “Okay, I’m gonna be doing this for the rest of my life, and I better find some real meaning and substance in this.” And then you’re confronted with all the stuff that you brought in to the monastery, you know, that you can’t just check at the door with your civilian clothes, and you’ve got to comes to terms with it and you’ve got to surrender it to something far beyond your own ego. And I think in the documentary I did on Gethsemani, one of the things that I was a little startled to find out and I could always hear a reaction in the crowd: only one in four monks stay the course. Most leave before then. And I think there’s a good reason. It’s a very tough life, and to live it genuinely and well I think requires just a tremendous discipline and tremendous heart.

BH: There’s a great line where one of your interviewees says, “Well which Merton do you want to talk about: Merton the monk, Merton the spiritual writer, Merton the social justice commentator, the peace guy?” Did you get the sense that maybe we privilege certain parts of Merton over others and maybe we should look back at parts of Merton that don’t often get highlighted?

MA: Well, yeah. I mean, again it depends on which audience you show this to. There are people who like the Zen Merton or the social activist Merton that really don’t want to hear much about his early spiritual writings or even some of his later spiritual writings, because it conflicts with their “hipster” Merton. Well, Merton had a hipster side, but he also had a very traditional, healthy, Catholic side too. All these people would say, “Oh Merton was going to become a Buddhist, or he was going to become this or that.” Everything that I read in his journals leads me to think that he was very, very grounded in his Catholic roots. Not that he didn’t find flaws in the institution, but that he was a Catholic and was so secure in that that he could speak to people from other traditions and not be defensive about it. So I think there are a variety of Merton audiences out there, each of which championed this person who they think Merton is. I think Merton would chuckle very much that he can’t be pinned down so easily.

BH: Can you talk a little bit about how radical it was for this Catholic monk priest, ordained priest, to be exploring Eastern spirituality. I don’t think we have a great sense of that today.

MA: One of the people that I really felt honored to interview was Dr. Martin Marty. And I asked him what did he consider were Merton’s most significant contributions. And for him it was inter-religious dialogue. He said that what Merton was doing in the ’50s and early ’60s was just not being done. It’s gotten to the point now where it’s become much more acceptable and in some areas, a matter of course. But when Merton was reaching out to the East or opening up doors to the East, at that time it was really just not being done. There might have been one or two other people within the Catholic writing world that were thinking about it, but Merton was really in the forefront of that. And Martin Marty felt that, even far more than what he did with ecumenism, what he did in reaching out to other expressions of spirituality, particularly that in the East, was really significant. And it was unsettling for many people in a more traditional Catholic mindset or Christian mindset because here was this monk who was supposed to be safely cloistered in a Kentucky monastery, corresponding with people from the East and writing about this correspondence, and bringing these great insights that he was unearthing to a general reading public.

That was unsettling and you see that still today. One of the things that sort of sticks in the craw of people who admire Merton is that he was banished from the new catechism. And part of the reasoning given by the bishops in putting that together and making that decision was that well, towards the end of his life, Merton had sort of gone astray and was—I forget the wording; it was something really priceless—was sort of wandering around in the East and had sort of “strayed from the reservation,” is the way that I would have translated it. I find that sort of sad and really sort of a sign of insecurity almost. I think Merton was so secure in his own Catholic faith and in his own tradition that it was easy for him to speak to people from other traditions. And he said, “You know, I’m not looking to dilute what I have in my own tradition, but I’m trying to find places where there is a match-up, and where there isn’t then we can just agree to disagree about certain things. But where there is this match-up, we should celebrate that.’ And I found that pretty exhilarating.

BH: There is certainly an interest in Eastern philosophy, Eastern religious practices, certainly even yoga among young adults. There’s a fascination with some elements of this that maybe have a spiritual component to it. Do you have any thoughts as to why, even though Merton was able to talk about and synthesize both, it hasn’t caught on yet in the Catholic context? Do you think it might experience a renaissance?

MA: Well, I think that there is, from what I’ve noticed and you can see it in bookstores, you can see it as you travel across the country, going to colleges and places like I do and showing this film (and not just in colleges, all the way up through the ages of people), there is a real spiritual hunger. And sometimes that leads beyond the traditional Christian expressions of spirituality. And some people find that threatening. Again, I’m not exactly sure why. I’m sure there’s a whole laundry list of reasons. But people find that threatening for a variety of reasons. But I think that just the fact that you investigate the ways that other people express their spirituality or find nurture, doesn’t mean that you’re forsaking your own tradition. It means that you’re sort of putting new fertilizer in the ground where your tradition rests, maybe.

BH: What do you hope younger people will get out of understanding or experiencing Merton’s life for the first time?

MA: Well, I think his honesty, his openness, his hunger for spiritual growth and experience; not just for thrill-seeking, but as recognizing something that is the ground of our being, the authentic—the real deal. And his hunger for that. I would wish that for anyone who might be going along the spiritual path. Merton, when he was at Columbia, had a lot of this hunger and was looking around. And there was a—I believe it was a Hindu—that lived in the same house in which he lived. This Hindu—I believe he was some sort of holy man—priest is not the right term—not just a casual Hindu, Merton asked him, “Who should I read?” And the Hindu responded, “Well, read your own mystics. Read Augustine. Read Eckhart.” And it took Merton aback because he was wanting this exotic adventure and this man said “start at home.” And I’m always gratified when I see the people ask the Dalai Lama, “What should I do?” and invariably he says, “Practice your own faith truly.” And I think there’s a lot to that. And one last thought in sort of that same vein: Kathleen Dignan, who is someone I really enjoyed interviewing, said, “Merton is not a relic of the ’60s. His thought is so perennial and so of our time and sort of beyond our time—we’re sort of catching up to Merton in ways.” And so one thing that makes me a little sad at times is that you see younger people sort of roll their eyes and go, “Oh God, this guy from the ’50s and ’60s—what can I find in him that would be relevant?” And I think there are things in Merton that are so relevant for not only this time, but for all times.

Soul Searching will be shown nationally on PBS December 14 th at 10:00 pm.