In May 1968, Christian mystic Thomas Merton undertook a pilgrimage to the American West. Fifty years later, filmmaker Jeremy Seifert and writer Fred Bahnson set out to follow Merton’s path, retracing the monk’s journey across the landscape. Amid stunning backdrops of ocean, redwood, and canyon, the film features the faces and voices of people Merton encountered. The essay offers a more intimate meditation on Merton’s life and the relevance of the spiritual journey today.

I. Woods

On the flight from San Francisco to Eureka, he looked out the window and caught his first sight of them: redwoods.

Even from the air, the trees appeared enormous. To the north, Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta rose like great silent Mexican gods, white and solemn. When he looked down again, the trees were gone. Entire hillsides slashed into, ravaged, stripped.

Life seemed to be unraveling everywhere that year. The date was May 6, 1968. Vietnam was in full swing, and King had been assassinated just one month earlier. Ever increasing frenzy, tension, explosiveness of this country, he wrote in his journal.

Thomas Merton was perhaps the most important Christian mystic of the twentieth century. For the past twenty-six years, he had lived as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and for the past three he had lived in a cinder-block hermitage in the woods. I am accused of living in the woods like Thoreau instead of in the desert like St. John the Baptist, he wrote to a friend. Whatever else can be said about Merton, and much has been said, one thing is certain: he was a monk who loved trees. One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest, he wrote. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence … Perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.

He had been searching for that center his whole life.

Le point vierge, he called it.
On the Road with Thomas Merton — Essay by Fred Bahnson