Alaska Life

Thomas Merton a focus of upcoming lecture series at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Thomas Merton's life and writings have had a huge influence on millions of people for the past 70 years. Before his untimely passing in December 1968, Merton visited Alaska looking at potential new retreat sites during September of that year. "Merton in Alaska," published posthumously, documented his wide-ranging travels in Alaska, many talks, and ruminations via his letters and journal. I consider this book to be a spiritual "must-read." (I've written about Merton and his time in Alaska in several previous columns.)

On Nov. 4-6, St. Mary's Episcopal Church will host a series of talks, titled "Contemplation and Action: Insights from Thomas Merton," by Merton scholar Rev. Hugh Grant, who will be brought to Anchorage  through the generosity of The Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series. The talks promise a welcome change from our contentious and damaging election cycle.

Caroline Wohlforth passed away five years ago but her contributions to Alaska are well known by many. She pioneered the "open classroom" model which resulted in Chugach Optional School. The Committee for Alternative Secondary Education was started through her efforts and those of others, out of which grew Steller Secondary School. She was also a member of the Anchorage School Board, serving as president for two years. A co-founder of KSKA, she also served Planned Parenthood, Thread, and F.I.S.H. A member of St. Mary's, she led out in the Bible Workbench process, a concerted Bible-study program, editing and contributing to it for many years. The 27th Alaska State Legislature honored her posthumously with a resolution stating "Caroline has left an indelible mark on Alaska and will not be forgotten." Caroline's influence lives on through this pioneering lecture series.

After she passed, her husband, Eric Wohlforth, established a foundation to bring noted speakers to St. Mary's, and other churches, on behalf of the community. The first speaker in the series was Rev. Robin Myers, an author and clergyman from Oklahoma, who spoke about the challenges and advantages of building inclusive Christian communities. The second speaker was Mark Osler, law professor at University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, who spoke on social advocacy and his book "Jesus on Death Row," which challenged the death penalty based on the experience of Jesus Christ as a criminal defendant.

In choosing this year's speaker, Wohlforth  was deeply influenced by an Easter sermon he heard Rev. Grant give earlier this year at his church on Orcas Island where he was a guest speaker. Titled "Learning to Love our Whole Selves," it presented clear thoughts such as "You probably don't need me to tell you that Christianity over the centuries has been distorted, used as a means of social control and wielding power instead of a safe haven for weary souls longing for peace and a sense of belonging." And, "Everyone gets a seat at the table, even if some need more help learning how to behave. The table becomes the place of wholeness and healing and incorporation. At the table, everyone belongs. Everyone gets a seat."

Recalling it, Wohlforth said, "The sermon made me think of the fact that I want to live more intensely with much greater awareness of what is happening in my life. For me this refers to the quality of the thought conversations I have with myself as I react to the daily events of my life. Fred Buechner, a favorite writer of mine, talks about the need to 'listen to your life.' I interpret this to mean that for my thought conversations to work (and 'to work' means producing some 'inner change') requires that I listen more intensively and consciously to daily life events of family, friends and community." Wohlforth especially recommends author/theologian Buechner's book, "Listening to Your Life."

Graduating from General Theological Seminary in New York City with a Master of Divinity, Grant was ordained a priest in 2008. He is also trained in psychotherapy and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington state, conducts wilderness retreats, and has a keen interest in mysticism. Prior to moving to Washington state, he served for five years in a New York City parish. He currently resides on Orcas Island, Washington.

Rarely do Anchorage churches go out of their way to bring thought-provoking speakers to town to challenge our ways of thinking, and to give us new perspectives with which to view our lives of faith.

On Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., Rev. Grant will speak about "The Spiritual Path of Contemplation and Action: Insights from the life of Thomas Merton."

Grant's talk on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m.,"Practicing Contemplation and Action: A Quiet Day for Self-Inquiry and Devotion," is more practically focused.

On Sunday, Nov. 6, at 10:30 a.m., Grant's delivers a final session, "Further on the Spiritual Path."

All sessions are at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Tudor Road and Lake Otis Parkway, and are free of charge. (For more information contact St. Mary's Episcopal Church at (907-563-3341.)

"Our vision is that St. Mary's might be a resource for spiritual growth for anyone in the wider community" says St. Mary's rector, Rev. Michael Burke. "It doesn't matter what faith community that you belong to, or none at all. Come on in. No matter what your perspective is, you'll probably find someone here who agrees with you."

In response to my question about what portion of his lectures will focus on Thomas Merton's work, Grant indicated he plans on devoting one-half to two-thirds of them to Merton. In seminary, he studied Merton, recalling that "The Inner Experience" had just been published. Grant said he was "struck by the interplay between Thomas Merton's being drawn into the monastery and his inner/outer life." Merton's humanity and devotion to the spiritual path proved to be an inspiration to Grant.

"The more we're called to contemplation, the fruits are action," he says. Merton wasn't sure of mystical experiences, Grant noted, but his life seemed to be punctuated by them (he'll talk about three of those.)

A number of Merton devotees will be attending these lectures. Last year an informal chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society was formed here and representatives will be on hand to offer membership and meeting information to those interested.

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