[from the Orange County Register by Cathleen Falsani]
Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can't be your bride.
— from “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez
It was their song — the young, winsome brunette and her silver-pated lover with the sparkly eyes.
“All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,’” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself — and yourself for me, in a way.”
He yearned for her. He was heartbroken. And he was Thomas Merton — the Trappist monk, celebrated author, and perhaps most influential American Catholic of the 20th century.
It’s a chapter of the thoroughly modern mystic’s life that is no secret to his legions of fans, detractors, and scholars of his prolific work, including the best-selling autobiography (written when he was just 31), “The Seven-Storey Mountain.”
Now Merton’s complex love life (divine or otherwise) is also the subject of a forthcoming feature film, “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton.”
Not long before his death in1968 at the age of 53 — he reportedly was electrocuted when he stepped out of a hotel shower and touched an electric fan during a monastic convention in Bangkok — the thoroughly modern mystic (known to fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky as “Brother Louis”) fell in love with a nursing student half his age. She is referred to, simply, as “M” in his memoir and letters collected in the volume “A Midsummer Diary for M,” published posthumously in 1997.
“I will never really understand on earth what relation this love has to my solitude,” Merton wrote to M in a letter dated June 21, 1966. “I cannot help placing it at the very heart of my aloneness, and not just on the periphery somewhere.”
I recently had the pleasure of reading the screenplay for “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton,” written by Ben Eisner and Kevin Miller, the filmmakers behind last year’s feature-length Canadian documentary “Hellbound?.” That film explored popular notions of hell and what those ideas say about our collective understanding of God.
The duo’s Merton film, while factually-based (carefully so, they emphasize), is not a documentary. Rather it is an epic tale of spiritual, emotional, and cultural transformation in the 1960s. And, yes, it is a love story.
“I chose to build this film around Merton's love affair in 1966 for every reason other than the fact that sex sells,” Eisner told me earlier this week.
“A lot of Merton fans are revolting against what I am doing because they want to hold on to him and sanitize him. Merton doesn't fit into any mold, and that's why I love the man.”
Merton was “a fully spiritual person and fully human person who openly shared his deepest fears and failures with anyone who cared to listen,” Eisner added.
“He tosses formulas out the window. We all want something spelled out for us to follow so we know we are safe, secure, and on the right path. But Merton doesn't let us off the hook that easy.”
The middle-age monk’s love for M was an “agonizing, and at other times liberating, crucible he has been forged in,” that “crystallized his vocational vision and cemented him more firmly in his message for the world. And oh how relevant that message is for us today amid the clamor of social media and the 'me, me, me' mentality we pretend doesn't exist,” Eisner said.
I first read Merton as a graduate seminarian 20 years ago and fell head-over-heels in love with him, too. His voice was, to me at the time, unique in the way he lived in the awkward no-man’s-land between holiness and humanity (where, frankly, each of us dwells.) It is a delicious dichotomy, one he navigated with grace and brutal honesty.
Merton was a man’s man, handsome and strapping, like a rugged Spencer Tracy with a tonsure and cassock. “Tom” had been around the block a few times, both before he moved behind Gethsemani’s cloistered walls and after. That made him, to me and many others, more accessible and authentic than many other giants of the faith.
Merton was saintly and serious. He also was sexy and a little bit dangerous. It’s a combination that tends to make people nervous, not unlike C.S. Lewis’ Aslan. Not safe, but good.
“He is so human, real, and relatable to me,” Eisner said. “I am convinced that what he so eloquently and vulnerably wrote about is perhaps more relevant today than it was in his own day... I just can't wait to introduce this beautiful person to a whole new mass of people who have yet to be smitten by his wit and wisdom.”
The way Eisner and Miller have written the romance between Merton and his M is lovely. It’s not tawdry or voyeuristic, and it leaves to the audience the (highly debated) question of whether their relationship was ever fully consummated physically. I was grateful for that as the details of what happened between the sheets are the least compelling part of their unlikely coupling.
“Dear, I have a terrible desire for fidelity to what has been far greater than either of us,” Merton wrote to M in the “Midsummer” collection. “And not a choice of fidelities to this or that, love or vows. But a fidelity beyond and above that to both of them in one, to God; to the Christ who is absolutely alone and not apart from us, but is the dreadful deep hole in the midst of us, waiting for no explanation.”
Eisner and Miller are in the midst of development and fundraising, with principal shooting set to begin next March and a (hopeful) 2015 release date to coincide with what would have been Merton’s 100th birthday.
Of course, the million-dollar question remains: Who will portray Merton on the big screen?
When I posed the question online via Twitter and Facebook, people responded with definite (and passionate) ideas including Patrick Stewart (probably a little too old, though), Sir Anthony Hopkins (ditto), Paul Giamatti (hmm...), Daniel Day-Lewis (too skinny), Campbell Scott (the eyes are close and he’s 52), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (well, everything he does is art.)
I’d like to see Jeremy Sisto — whose middle name is Merton and whose jazz musician father knew Brother Louis (a longtime jazz fan) personally — cast in the film.
Sisto already has played Jesus in a film and he’s got a glimmer in his eyes and brooding energy that reminds me of Merton. If not the protagonist himself, Sisto, perhaps best known for his recurring role on "Six Feet Under," might do well as Merton’s final abbot, Flavian Burns, or his friend, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.
But if Eisner has his way, he knows exactly who the lead roles will go to: “I wrote the script with Stanley Tucci and Zooey Deschanel in mind.”
Sounds like a match made in heaven to me.
Learn more about “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton” at mertonmovie.com.