In this biographical video about the life and thought of Thomas Merton, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, poignantly characterized him from the outset as the “lost soul” of the 20th century looking for redemption, recovery, God. After his early years spent at Cambridge and Columbia, Merton discovers a new “intellectual” image of God in Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, awakening in him a radically new theological perspective. This watershed moment in his life inspires him to seek baptism in the Roman Catholic church in November 1938 and ultimately leads him to enter the Abbey of Gethsemane in Louisville, Kentucky, in December 1941.
With this background, the stage is set for an hour long documentary about the sometimes turbulent, sometimes profound, but always deeply human experience of Merton’s life unfolding as a devoted monastic. The film offers a moving portrait of the complex character that Merton was, looking carefully at his own struggles both interiorly and with his superiors. We learn that Merton’s profound spiritual ‘restlessness’ provoked by his fervent intellectual appetite led to an ongoing quality of dissatisfaction with answers—any answers—and thus, an honest ability at introspection, which was at once strikingly honest, self-critical and rich.
Writer and producer Morgan Cook Atkinson, does a fine job of contextualizing Merton’s life in the monastery over and against that of the political life that was unfolding in the US from the late 1940’s to the late 1060’s. As such, one begins to understand how as a contemplative culture-critic, Merton was able to strike a chord—and sometimes discord—with his readership, ultimately raising him to “mythic stature” within his own lifetime.
Constructed around many moving and poignant quotes from Merton’s own writings, Atkinson examines Merton’s ambiguity, humanity, restlessness and personal struggles with compassionate honesty. The film does not shy away, for example, even from Father Merton’s somewhat scandalous affair with a young nursing student whom he fell in love with while under her care after having had back surgery. We are left to wonder if this affair was an unorthodox mishap, or yet another aspect of Merton humanity seeking to know and experience love in its fullness.
While there are many insightful interviews throughout the film, it is regrettable that the interviewees are not better identified as reliable or authoritative voices qualified to speak on behalf of Merton and his life. Most are identified simply as ‘authors,’ yet for those less familiar with Merton scholarship it might have been more helpful to know more of their connection to Merton. While, one might also find some artistic aspects of the documentary a bit clichéd, nevertheless the content, visual beauty and spiritual depth of the film make it well worth seeing. This documentary is well suited for high school, college, and adult faith-education groups looking for an entree into the life and person of a contemporary mystic, contemplative social critic, and insightful spiritual writer. Atkinson is to be commended.