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Book Review: ‘Soul Searching’ is a spiritual travelogue

By Sister Jean Peerenboom

Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton edited by Morgan C. Atkinson with Jonathan Montaldo (Liturgical Press, $19.95).

Thomas Merton may have died in 1968, but for many Christians he lives on in the spiritual legacy he left behind.

Morgan Atkinson calls Merton the 20th century’s most famous Christian monk. According to scholar Anthony Padovano, Merton “is one of those figures who has achieved a kind of mythic stature. I think you achieve a mythic stature when you somehow or other symbolize and connect with very deep needs in the human psyche, and I think Thomas Merton does that.”

I have found Merton’s writings to be timeless and inspiring, therefore when I spotted Soul Searching I was curious what else could be said about him. Atkinson undertook the project as a follow-up to a PBS documentary he did on Merton. Obviously, he is fascinated by the late Trappist monk. He admits to his admiration, but doesn’t let that get in the way of presenting a realistic view of the many facets of Merton’s life as a man and as a great spiritual writer.

His research led him to many who had known Merton well. He found “there were many Mertons running free.” Different people had different perceptions of who Merton was. As with all of us, Merton was a complex person who grew and changed as he traveled through life. We see him as the monk, the literary critic, the poet, social justice advocate, a person of peace and a writer on spiritual theology.

In addition to talking with people who knew, experienced or were influenced by Merton, Atkinson traveled to places where the famous monk had lived as an adult. As he takes us through New York, Gethsemani, Louisville, and other points west and east, I felt like I was part of a spiritual travelogue.

Some of the contributors are names easily recognizable in the areas of theology and social justice: Father Daniel Berrigan, Rosemary Ruether, Martin Marty, John Dear, Colman McCarthy and Anthony Padovano. Their insights are linked to the places – from the Abbey of Gethsemani to the Redwoods Monastery in California, from New York City to Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico – that made Merton the admired adult he became.

The contributors pull no punches. They are frank about Merton’s vices and virtues. They are talking about a real person. It’s not all flattering and they don’t all agree with one another. Just as Merton did in his own writings, so his friends and colleagues talk about his pettiness, temptations, doubts and envy. This is not an effort to canonize him; it is a way to get to know him.

Atkinson ties the interviews together with commentary reflecting on what he learned and discerned about Merton. He looks at the impact on Merton of college, writing, Catholicism, Communism, conversion, religious life, formation, asceticism, obedience, teaching, solitude, interreligious dialogue and much more.

To readers of other Merton books, this may not offer new facts. But I found this a good complement to what I’ve already read about a spiritual writer I’ve long admired.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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