By KATHLEEN TARR
Editor’s Note: This is first of a four-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Father Thomas Merton’s journey to Alaska in September 1968.
In the volatile year of 1968, with the country besieged by political upheaval, assassinations, campus protests, the Vietnam war, Cold War tensions and racial strife, Father Thomas Merton — a Trappist monk known as Father Louis in his religious order — under the sponsorship of the new Archdiocese of Anchorage, set off for the peaceful wilds of Alaska for 17 days.
Alaska was a late addition to Father Merton’s global plans, made possible by a special invitation from late Anchorage Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan, the first archbishop of the newly formed Anchorage Archdiocese, and the immediate predecessor of Archbishop Francis Hurley.
After visiting Father Merton’s monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, the Abbey of Gethsemani, and helping to secure permissions from the religious superiors, Archbishop Ryan began organizing the complicated logistics and jam-packed schedule for Father Merton’s Alaska talks, conferences and sight-seeing.
In a journal entry made Aug. 13, 1968, written at the Abbey a few weeks before departure on what was to be his world trek of spiritual explorations, Father Merton anticipated what might happen with the gung-ho archbishop from the Last Frontier.
“I don’t know how good the climate is, but I may end up six or eight months from now incardinated in his diocese,” he wrote. “That is probably where I’ll go if and when I get back from Asia. But before that, in September, I hope to make Anchorage my first stop in my long journey!”
Merton continued: “I have no special urge to be a hermit in Alaska, but it is an obvious place for solitude and here is a bishop who likes the idea very much! So let’s look into it and see what happens!”
Part of Archbishop Ryan’s master plan was that Father Merton’s physical presence would inject spiritual vitality and encouragement among Alaska’s clergy, many of whom served in remote locations, including military installations with missiles pointed at Russia. Even the heartiest among them could be prone to “cabin fever.”
To further whet Father Merton’s appetite, Archbishop Ryan made sure a postcard of Mt. McKinley was sent in advance. Father Merton’s expressed his excitement about McKinley in a journal entry made Aug. 22: “I cannot believe that I may see it. Or even find myself one day living near it. Is Alaska a real option? One would think not. And yet there’s that bishop….”
Due to the archbishop’s full schedule, he sent an emissary to greet Father Merton when he stepped off his plane from Chicago on Sept. 17, 1968, and into the small city of Anchorage — population around 70,000 at the time. Father Merton’s introduction to Alaska came not during the peak summer months, when most travelers venture north, but during the cloudy, damp times when daylight noticeably diminishes.
Alaska had been a state for only nine years. On the surface at least, everything seemed tranquil, an antidote to the chaos shattering the nation’s political and cultural order. Outsiders generally considered it a wasteland of glacial ice, snowfields, empty tundra and darkness.
Shortly before Father Merton arrived to give talks and workshops to priests and nuns, however, the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field discovery was publicly announced. The financially poor state, mostly dependent upon federal government spending for its economic survival, suddenly faced potential fortunes.
Father Merton was passionate about wandering around the Kentucky woods in solitude and to experience nature, the trees and birds, in the immediacy of his own direct experience. Prior to arrival he did know something about Alaska’s historical connections to Russia and Orthodoxy. He studied Russian writers and theologians.
Before starting monastic life, Father Merton was once a graduate student in English at Columbia University, intent on becoming the next great American novelist. At 23, he became a Catholic convert, baptized at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia. Upon graduation, he landed a coveted university teaching position at the beautiful campus of St. Bonaventure in rural Olean, New York.
But after a spiritual awakening, he walked away from his promising teaching career at age 26, dispensed of most of his material possessions, and destroyed some of his draft manuscripts. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani on Dec. 10, 1941, and took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability.
From that point forward, he lived in what he imagined was to be a sanctuary. His life as a humble, obscure Trappist monk promised larger doses of solitude. He was removing himself from the illusions and falsehoods of the world to live in the purifying silence and to be in closer union with God.
Over the next few decades, the obscure monk who had purposefully chosen to live as a “marginal” man far removed from mainstream society instead became world famous.
After the success of his spiritual autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” a book that became an instant bestseller in 1948, Merton’s spiritual teachings and reflections continued to touch the lives of millions of readers nationally and internationally.
His literary output and intellectual depth appeared boundless. Religious and secular alike admired the gifted writer.
He wrote essay collections, books of poetry, prophetic social criticisms about nuclear war and man’s need for inner freedom. He composed over 10,000 letters, volumes of personal journals, tomes on monastic history, and an impressive array of other books on contemplation, Zen Buddhism, the Cold War, faith and violence, Gandhi — all of which added to Father Merton’s impact and legacy. From 1955-65, he also taught his fellow monks about art, poetry and prayer.
Though it wasn’t his idea to include Alaska in his ambitious 1968 plans, he was excited and enthusiastic over this unforeseen stroke of luck.
By this time, age 53, Father Merton was a different monk. He had grown weary of the spotlight, the constant demands on his time, the intrusions. For the previous few years he was granted special permission to live alone in a cinderblock hut — his “hermitage” near the monastery’s main grounds — but it proved less than ideal.
By the time he received the invitation from the Anchorage Archdiocese, he was a monk who, paradoxically was running out of solitude.
When the year 1968 dawned, Father Merton’s desires to continue inter-faith explorations, something he had studied and written about for years, had fallen into place. His global itinerary originally included northern California, New Mexico, Asia, India, and if time allowed, Indonesia.
It was time to turn himself into a monk-on-the-go, a pilgrim-poet. Canadian scholar, Ron Dart described Father Merton during the last year of his life as a “contemplative rover.” He wanted to visit Buddhist religious shrines and travel to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
His dreams to one day live as true, outright hermit in a remote and still-to-be-determined location were finally coming to fruition. But now Alaska, too, had entered into the realm of possibilities.
For the first four days, Merton was whisked to Eagle River to stay in a borrowed chaplain’s trailer adjacent to a two-story brown house, the site chosen for his recollection talks. The house sits on a scenic piece of land that is today part of the property belonging to St. John Orthodox Cathedral.
The house served as the home and convent for six contemplative Catholic nuns belonging to the Sister Adorers of the Precious Blood Order, newly-arrived from Oregon in 1967. Merton was under the charge of the over-worked nuns, as directed by Archbishop Ryan. The “Fire Lake Nuns” as they were locally known were nevertheless ecstatic to be hosting such a charming, well-known, Catholic personality.
The bishop knew the energetic monk would be up for the rigors and challenges of hopping in and out of bush planes to see parts of his far-flung diocese, places like Dillingham, Cordova, Valdez, and Yakutat, that few people explored in those days.
Alaska immediately impressed Father Merton. He noted the snowcapped Chugach Mountains. He described Alaska in glowing terms: “There is no question this place is full of ideal solitude in every form,” he wrote in one of his letters to his abbot back home in Kentucky.
In a letter to a friend dated Sept. 26, 1968, he said of Alaska’s peaks: “They are the finest I have seen anywhere. It is a GREAT land.”
For the more ideal form of solitude, he said, Alaska might be the best place for it. There were more square miles of silence in Alaska to last any hermit until judgment day, he quipped.
“It would be folly for me not to consider Alaska as one of the best possibilities for a true solitary life, and I hope I can return here when I am through with Asia,” he noted.