Looks like I'm the first person here. I think some more people will be checking this out soon, as it is soon to be released on DVD.
This is a good documentary about the life of the 20th century monk/author/social activist/mystic/poet/author Thomas Merton. Considering the current interest in "spirituality" and Eastern religious traditions, Merton would be of interest to many.
In a nutshell...
Merton attended Columbia University and was chums with some guys who were basically part of the pre-beat generation. Robert Lax is a pretty well-known poet, and one of Merton's best friends. They would spend summers at a cabin (I think it was Bob Lax's) and try to write the "great American novel."
Merton did funny cartoons for the Columbia humour mag, Jester. Rumour has it, he was a bit of a lady's man. I recall reading that he claimed to have learned some language in bed with a girl.
After a couple trips, one to Rome and one to Cuba, and in trying to come to terms with various events of his childhood, he became interested in Roman Catholicism. I think he was reading a book on medieval philosophy at the time, as well (by Gilson, maybe?).
Eventually, he investigated the Franciscans. Upon hearing of his misadventures, they said "no thanks." Big loss on their part.
One of his profs mentioned the Cistercians (who observe St. Benedict's Rule and live a very strict life), and he went for a retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. You can too. Long story short, he soon entered their novitiate. His life can be divided in two: 27 years in "the world" and 27 years as a monk.
The Cistercians weren't known as a particularly intellectual order, but knowing his talent for the written word, his abbot suggested he write. "The Seven Storey Mountain," his autobiography, became a hit. You can find it at most good bookstores today.
His early writings appealed to the pre-Vatican II audience. They focused on prayer, meditation, and the Church. They were very "safe." In his early writings (Seven Storey Mountain included) he sometimes comes across as quite holier-than-thou. He was a monk and a Catholic - the best of the best, right?!
Well, one day on a rare trip to town, he was standing on the corner of 4th and Walnut (now 4th and Mohammed Ali Blvd, I believe), and had an epiphany. It finally struck him that he was not any different from those around him. He could really love and accept them. No, the world wasn't perfect, but he understood that there was no escaping it. Even the monastery is part of the world. This is perhaps his most lasting impact on the Church. Most of the monks and nuns I have met and read are not dualistic at all.
His later writing was quite controversial. He wrote about war and peace (he gave credibility to the nonviolence movement of the '60s, they said), Zen, literature, and corresponded with many, many people. He had a deep desire to live as a hermit (and did, on the monastery grounds), but he probably saw more people then than before.
A lot of people within the Church were uncomfortable with his newer critical and provocative writings, and some even believe that his death
by electrocution in Thailand at a conference - was the result of a
CIA plot. Interesting, though most scholars doubt it.
If any of this interests you, check out this movie. There are several Merton sites on the net, an international society, and of course, his many, many books. Check out "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander," "Zen and the Birds of Appetite," "Raids on the Unspeakable," "Thoughts in Solitude," and his seven volumes of journals.
Oh yeah, near the end of his life he fell in love with a nurse.
See, it keeps getting more interesting!
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