40 years later, Merton's legacy looms large

TRAPPIST, Ky. -- Around the country for the next few weeks, many Roman Catholics will remember and honor the life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who died 40 years ago on Dec. 10, 1968, in a freak electrocution accident.

Merton, who influenced generations of believers with both his monastic lifestyle and his prodigious writings -- some 60 books were published during his lifetime, and about as many in the 40 years since his death-- is especially noted for bringing spirituality to the laity.

A documentary on Merton's life and legacy, "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton," will air on PBS stations nationwide on Dec. 14.

"The essence of Merton's spirituality is, I think, the humanity of it, that he really speaks to ordinary people," said Paul Pearson, director and archivist of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.

"He knows so well the great classics of Christian spirituality, but he can interpret them in a way that people in our world today can understand and relate to."

At the time Merton rose to prominence, the church was still firmly hierarchical.