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Chris Thompson: Memories of Merton stirred in Alaska and beyond

  • Author: Chris Thompson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 23, 2015

My Sept. 11 column about Thomas Merton's brief stay in Alaska jolted Merton memories across the U.S. Then Pope Francis invoked a memory of Merton in his recent address to Congress. In this column, I'm sharing several voices of those who contacted me about Merton in the days that followed.

One amazing story comes from John Smelcer, former 20-year resident of Eagle River. He wrote, saying: "This spring and summer, I came into possession of all of Thomas Merton's personal possessions, including all the clothes you've ever seen him wear, including his religious clothing, and his Gethsemani work clothes. The treasure trove also included previously unknown photographs, letter, and the last poem he ever wrote, stuffed in a pocket of the clothes that were returned from Thailand with his body. The poem was dated the day before his death."

Smelcer, writing a book about this experience, has donated the bulk of this trove to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He added: "I have letters he wrote in the days before he left on his fateful trip in which he says his trip was simply to attend a conference in Bangkok. I also have the letter sent from the conference to the abbott of Gethsemani the day after Merton died in which the delegates there say again how the conference was mostly organized so that religious could meet Merton. I wonder if in the Alaska Journal he meant that these places (Eagle River, et al) would be a good place for contemplative orders, but I know that he was very, very happy at Gethsemani...after all, he had only recently had his hermitage in the hills built." Smelcer was recently interviewed on KBIA, Mid-Missouri Public Radio. It's a fascinating listen, filling in many gaps. The listening and reading link is at tinyurl.com/oqad8z6.

"This donation is significant as, prior to it, the Merton Center had very, very little in the way of personal artifacts that had belonged to Merton," said Dr. Paul Pearson, the Thomas Merton Center's director. "As an orphan there was just no one to keep things from his childhood, and so we have just a handful of photographs. As a monk he wasn't interested in these kinds of things. He was certainly concerned in later years that his papers would be preserved, but not personal items."

About Merton's quest for solitude, Pearson said: "Merton was certainly seeking somewhere that would afford him more solitude than his hermitage at Gethsemani. Just a couple of days before his death he wrote to his friend John Howard Griffin saying that he hadn't found anywhere better than his hermitage at Gethsemani 'which is, after all, a great place.'"

Rosemary Marto, a former nun of the Precious Blood community, Merton's host in Eagle River, had strong memories of him.

"I spoke with one of my colleagues who was also a member of that community," she recalls. "We agreed that the impression Father Merton made on us was an overwhelming awe at the stark simplicity, humility and surprising humanness of this world renowned author and political figure. I remember one of the sisters in Anchorage at a retreat called him 'Uncle Louie', and Father Merton seemed to enjoy that. He was remarkably aware of his surroundings, each person he encountered, and would comment on specific people and events. The lasting impression I have of Father Merton is one of awe that a man of such renown, obvious spiritual gifts, and closeness to his Creator could manifest something of the simplicity and transparency of God's greatness yet manage to reflect his many remarkable gifts back to the source of all spiritual greatness."

A group of Merton devotees, myself included, is forming a local chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society. Local writer, and fellow Merton devotee, Kathleen Tarr is heading up this endeavor. To be part of this group, contact her to indicate your interest: ktarralaska@gmail.com.

"I have been researching and writing about Thomas Merton and have re-traced his steps in Alaska and beyond," Tarr said. "I've completed a 103,000 word draft manuscript of narrative nonfiction, a spiritual memoir, which partially tells the story of how Thomas Merton became my spiritual guide, and which goes into depth about his Alaska sojourn."

Despite not having a religious background, Tarr discovered Merton a decade ago and "quickly became smitten with him," she said. "After 10 years of immersing myself in his life and teachings, I remain in awe of Merton for many, many reasons. In speaking solely about his writing, there's so much to say about his voracious, omnidirectional mind, his intimate and engaging voice, and how his sentences are never boring. But beyond the details of his prose style, and the intimidating amount of his productivity, one the most important take-away messages I got from him is this: to never give up on the world."

Mark Heidbrink wrote from Cordova telling of the friendship his father, John, had with Thomas Merton. His father introduced Merton to Thích Nh?t H?nh, internationally recognized Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. Mark shared a photo of Merton, Nh?t Hanh and his father.

Merton's writings continue to affect many people's lives, in significant ways. Karen Quirk wrote: "Thomas Merton's writings were my turning point toward conversion of heart and my journey of deepening faith and contemplation. Not all of us can be monks, but each of us can live a life of discipline in the world while not of the world."

Through Merton's literature she found her way to the Catholic Church and then as a Benedictine oblate.

"Ten years ago I left all I knew of my life Outside to come to Alaska," she wrote. "While discerning the move, a friend's bookshelf held a book I did not know existed: 'Thomas Merton in Alaska.' What better way to confirm that Alaska would be right for me. And I continue to find this 'an ideal place for solitude.'"

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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