Thomas Merton Documentaries
by Morgan Atkinson
Thomas Merton documentaries provide contemplative context in a busy, too noisy world. It was some 10 years after Thomas Merton’s death in 1968 when Morgan Atkinson discovered the story and writings of Merton. As a documentary filmmaker, Morgan was drawn to sharing Merton’s wisdom by examining the controversial monk’s life through the lens of a camera in two, PBS-aired documentaries:
- Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton
Released 2007, Soul Searching traces Merton’s life from Europe to New York City to rural Kentucky to points west and ultimately east. It reveals the remarkable evolution of one of the 20th century’s spiritual masters.
- The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton
Released 2015, examines Merton’s activity, writing, speeches and travel in 1968, the last year of his life. This most tumultuous of years in the life of America, in many ways reflects Merton’s own inner turmoil. He leaves the cloister of his monastery home, traveling to Asia for life affirming meetings with spiritual seekers of diverse traditions. His premature death does not prevent him from deepening his conviction that “we are all one”.
Atkinson makes Merton readily accessible to audiences through remarkable photography and memorable interviews with those who either knew Merton well, or have also examined his life in depth.
Atkinson’s study of Merton has taken him from extensive stays at Merton’s adult home, the Abbey of Gethsemani, to following the “Merton trail” in London and Oakham, England, New York City, Rome, the New Mexico desert and the redwoods of northern California. Each of these stops has yielded evocative images as well as interviews with such luminaries as Daniel Berrigan, the Dalai Lama and Rosemary Reuther, to name but a few.
Atkinson smilingly refers to his “monastic period”, a time when he produced feature length documentaries on Merton’s home monastery, Gethsemani, and then two documentaries on Merton’s life, as well as one on Matthew Kelty, Merton’s fellow monk, friend and confessor. It’s a body of work that takes viewers behind the walls of one of America’s most famous monasteries and inside the lives of the men who live there. What motivates them? Do they have any relevance for us today? What is the role of contemplative spirituality in a world set to hyper speed? Is there any role at all?
Atkinson says his time with the monks changed his way of looking at the world. Many viewers have shared that sentiment.