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01/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Thomas Merton: A Man For This (And All) Seasons

"Merton is, in a sense, the lost soul of the 20th century, looking for redemption, looking for recovery, looking for God."

-- Sister Kathleen Deignan

Forty years ago this week, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and prolific author of The Seven Storey Mountain and other enduring works, passed from this life to the next.

Merton, 53, met his end on Dec. 10, 1968, stepping out of a shower and touching a short-circuited electric fan -- a banal finale to an extraordinary life, one that is retold in a beautiful new book, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.

I first read Merton as a graduate student in seminary and was instantly besotted with his unique mix of humanity and holiness. A cloistered monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky for most of his adult life, Merton straddled the perceived chasm between the sacred and the profane with immense grace and wit.

Merton became a household name in the 1940s and '50s with the publication of his autobiography (written at the age of 31), The Seven Storey Mountain, and subsequent writings.

He wrote for a world reeling from global war, weapons of mass destruction and the real possibility of apocalypse. Those were nervous times, much like today.

"The things he wrote about then really apply now," said Morgan Atkinson, the editor of Soul Searching and also the filmmaker of a PBS Merton documentary of the same name, which airs nationally on Dec. 14. "You can just substitute words -- if you take out 'Vietnam' and put in 'Iraq' -- and you don't even have to substitute any words when he talks about a rampant consumerism and things of that nature."

Atkinson, who interviewed dozens of Merton's friends and scholars, believes the American monk was ahead of his time. "One of the people I interviewed, Sister Kathleen Deignan, said, 'Look, he's not a relic of the '50s or '60s. In some ways, we're still catching up to him.' The things that he wrote about and was concerned with are still things that are with us today. More so than ever, I would think."

In The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a surprise best-seller in 1948, Merton tells of his spiritual conversion and unlikely call to monastic life. His odyssey began in earnest as a freshman at Cambridge University in England. He drank too much, studied too little and was an unrepentant womanizer. For his sophomore year, Merton enrolled at Columbia University in New York, embracing the life of a young intellectual, hanging out in jazz clubs, wooing young women, even flirting briefly with communism -- all of which left him spiritually empty.

At Columbia, he wrote at a near-frenzied pace. He couldn't sit still. He was restless -- a state Merton later said was thoroughly theological. His spiritual quest began with an academic search, studying leading writers and thinkers such as Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, T.S. Elliot and Etienne Gilson. But his epiphany came while reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great poet who converted to Catholicism. "Why don't I do the same?" Merton wrote. And he did, being baptized into the Roman Church on Nov. 16, 1938, at 23.

The following year, Merton said he felt called to the priesthood. After a false start with the Franciscan Order, in 1941 he went on a retreat to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and found his home. He became a novice in the Trappist order in March 1942 and lived in seclusion -- cloistered behind the walls of the abbey and for periods of time as a hermit in a shed on the grounds of the abbey -- for the next 26 years.

But his life was far from solitary or disconnected. Merton continued to write prolifically -- prose, poetry and critical essays on topics from Albert Camus to nuclear disarmament -- which led him to play a leading role in the peace movement.

At 51, while undergoing back surgery in Kentucky, Merton fell in love with a young nurse. The relationship -- which some scholars argue was sexual, while others insist it was chaste -- transformed his life and faith.

"It was a great awakening for him and sort of a coming to terms with a lot of unfinished business in his own life," Atkinson said. "Before he became a monk, he had had a lot of relationships, and he wasn't happy with the way he dealt with the vast majority of them. While I think he had real misgivings about the fact that he had violated vows . . . I think he was also very gratified and grateful that he had had this opportunity to express love and feel love of this type.

"I don't think less of him for it. It was a situation where he fell in love, and he had to make a very difficult choice, and he made the choice, and then he came back to monastic life."

A large part of Merton's appeal for me is his candor about his brokenness and foibles. They were part of him, as much as his love for and devotion to God. He was a complicated man with a complicated faith.

"He kept wanting to search deeper, to not accept easy pat answers, to keep growing. What a challenge that is for all of us," Atkinson said. "We all reach a place that is sort of comfortable, and we want to just stay there. And we realize we can't. We may stay rooted in certain ways of living that life, but to get to the essence of it, you have to keep pushing forward. And that's what he did."

To find the air times for "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton" on PBS, click HERE

Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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