Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton

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Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton Morgan C. Atkinson with Jonathan Montaldo, eds. The Liturgical Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8146-1873-8. 216 pages, paperback. $19.95.

The origin of this book is the set of interviews that Morgan Atkinson conducted in preparation for his documentary on Merton - by the same title - for public television and now also on DVD. For the documentary, he could select only a small part of the 100 hours of interviews he conducted, so he had left over a large amount of good material that he felt should be published (at least in part). The men and women he interviewed included some who lived with Merton, knew him personally, or studied his life and writings and wrote about him. The documentary is good and worthwhile, but I prefer the book. Both are appropriate for those who are just getting to know Merton .

Restricting myself to the book for the purpose of this review, I can report that it is, for the most part, medium-sized or long quotations from those interviewed that are frequently very insightful, give different perspectives on Merton and his work, and yet largely cohere, giving one more depth in understanding this complex, compelling, and important spiritual master. The book is divided into four main parts, with short introductions by Atkinson to these parts and their subdivisions.

In the first part, "The Young Man in New York," Atkinson restricts himself mostly to Merton when, at the age of twenty, he transferred from Cambridge to Columbia University. Atkinson recounts interpretations of him as the young man about town who is hyperactive, and one noted for his spontaneity and astounding intellectual curiosity. Merton had a sense of guilt for the way he had spent his year at Cambridge; he was rootless, having lost both parents and then his two grandparents while a student in New York. Writing was essential to his life. Literature and aesthetics were his road to conversion to Catholicism, with Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy a turning point toward a sense of the plausibility of faith in God. Those who comment on this phase of Merton's life depend on his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. The effect of this book on a reader is intriguing, as Michael Mott notes: "I'm not sure about that yet, but this man is really speaking my language. . . . He is interested in my search for God and he's helping me in that search." Merton's baptism occurred in November 1938; his conversion was from the heart and yet was intellectual. And three years later, just as World War II had begun for the United States, he entered Gethsemani, an abbey of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance in Kentucky.

The second part, "Gethsemani," is the longest part and, for most people, probably the most interesting. Merton, a very gifted and modern young man, entered a monastery that was almost medieval in its prayer, practices, and asceticism, so radically different from his earlier life. A student of Merton's when he was master of studies for junior monks, later a collaborator, and a future abbot, John Eudes Bamberger says that to enter a monastery is both to follow a vision one has and to leave family, work, and possessions:

If you hold on to your old identity too strongly, you'll never become a monk . …