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Chris Thompson: Thomas Merton in Alaska

  • Author: Chris Thompson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 11, 2015

Once upon a time, there was a contemplative monk named Thomas Merton. Born in France, he converted to Catholicism during his studies at Columbia University. In 1941 he joined a community of Trappist monks in Kentucky who belonged to an ascetic and contemplative order. Merton spent 27 years there developing spiritually, and gaining a keen understanding of politics, becoming a peace activist, something that displeased many Roman Catholics.

A prolific writer, Merton wrote his life's story in a best-selling autobiography titled "The Seven Storey Mountain." In all he penned more than 60 books on a variety of topics: poetry, social justice, spirituality, and political activism. Ordained in 1949, he was given the name of Father Louis. "The Seven Storey Mountain" had a tremendous impact after World War II, awakening spiritual questing in many young men who sought out monasteries. His dialogue and writings reveal a keen interest in mysticism and other religions.

Fast forward to 1968. The Rev. Merton was given permission to search for another site for his order's contemplatives, who were rapidly becoming overwhelmed by numbers of people seeking to visit the Kentucky monastery. He visited several sites across the U.S. including New Mexico, California, and Alaska in search of new potential contemplative sites. Merton was keenly interested in Asian religions and had planned a trip to Thailand in the fall of 1968. The purpose of the Asian trip was to further his interest in Asian religions with the possibility of finding a suitable place for contemplatives.

Merton arrived in Alaska on Sept. 17 that year and departed for San Francisco Oct. 2. In a brief two weeks, he saw an interesting cross section of Alaska including Eagle River, Anchorage, Palmer, Cordova, Valdez, Yakutat, Juneau, and Dillingham. Initially he stayed at the Convent of the Precious Blood in Eagle River, now the site of St. John Orthodox Cathedral's campus. Given a trailer for lodging, he stayed for close to a week where, during that stay, he presented a workshop for the sisters at the monastery. He also gave a workshop for the priests at the monastery, plus one for the Sisters of Providence at the hospital. Both the presentations were sermons for a Day of Recollection.

His Alaskan journeys were supported financially and in many other ways by Archbishop Ryan in Anchorage, and Bishop O'Flanagan in Juneau. Merton indicated, through his many letters during this stay, various options that might prove fruitful for a new contemplative site. In one letter, he spoke favorably of the Cordova area and a possible return trip there after Asia. Another letter mentioned he'd found "enough lonely spots here … to last any hermit until Judgment Day. It is quite possible that if and whenever I get back from Asia I may end up here." In a letter to his abbot, he wrote "This would be the obvious place to settle for real solitude in the United States." Merton was amazed at the land, the people and its potential. Many of his letters contained requests to associates to send various books, and materials to people with which he came in contact.

Merton's workshops, and sermons while in Alaska were recorded and transcriptions made of them. They were quite frank, covering many topics including prayer, the Eucharist, God's work, politics, and building community.

In one of his Alaska talks regarding community and politics, Merton, addressing Catholic activism, said, "I personally think that we should be in between; we shouldn't be on the conservative side and we shouldn't be on the radical side -- we should be Christians." He further invoked a number of references to Gandhi during this talk saying, "But the basic thing Gandhi said, and it has proved absolutely right, is that you can't have any real non-violence unless you have faith in God."

Merton sought connections between various faiths to gain further knowledge about his own faith and practice. Addressing mysticism in a talk with the Providence Sisters, he said "It is even worse if you use the term 'mystic.' This causes a great deal of consternation. Of all the people who should know what mysticism is and what a mystic is should be those of us called to be contemplatives, and yet you have to be very careful of how you talk of mysticism in our monastic communities. It is wiser not to talk about it sometimes. Although it is perfectly right that there are mystics in contemplative communities, often it is better that they don't know it, because real mysticism is something very simple and it should remain simple."

In a talk with the sisters at the Monastery of the Precious Blood, Merton, talking about prayer, said, "All prayer is communion, not only between Christ and me, but also between everybody in the Church and myself. All prayer takes us into the communion of saints. Perhaps it would be helpful to think that when I am praying I am closely united with everybody who ever prayed and everybody now praying."

Merton's untimely death in Bangkok, on Dec. 10, 1968, was a shock to the religious world. A little more than two months had passed since he'd departed Alaska. His dreams of returning and locating an appropriate site for a contemplative outpost were snuffed out in an instant. I wonder what impact Merton's presence might have had on Alaska had he returned and established such a place. This year marks the 100th year since his birth, but his influence lingers to this day through his writings, and patterns of thought. Although Merton, the sisters and priests of the Convent of the Precious Blood, and the temporary trailer home Merton occupied are long gone, his memory lives on through a memorial room at St. James House at the Campus of St. John Orthodox in Eagle River. Merton devotees show up to visit the site on a regular basis in a quest to both honor him, and better understand his quest.

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