By KATHLEEN TARR
Editor’s note: This is part three of four essays reflecting on Father Thomas Merton’s historic 1968 trip to Alaska.
“The ultimate thing is that we build community not on our love but on God’s love, because we do not really have that much love ourselves, and that is the real challenge of the religious life. It puts us in a position where sometimes natural community is very difficult.”
— Notes from Thomas Merton’s conferences with Alaska nuns, September 1968
Before his historic trip to Alaska in autumn of 1968, it is perhaps not generally known, that Thomas Merton (Father Louis) held two unprecedented conferences at the Abbey of Gethsemani solely for nuns. Women weren’t welcomed as retreatants at Gethsemani until June 1989, shortly after the construction of the present guesthouse with private baths. Even then only certain weeks were open to women.
It was Merton’s wish and idea to invite small groups of contemplative prioresses from different religious communities to gather at the rural Kentucky abbey in December 1967 and again in May 1968.
As members of religious orders, against the backdrop of an often hostile or indifferent world, the nuns could enjoy free time to quiet their minds by meandering around the woods and meadows in the surrounding 2,000 acres. The welcoming atmosphere was the perfect setting in which the sisters could engage in open, honest, face-to-face dialogue with Father Louis as spiritual facilitator.
Sister Mary Luke Tobin of the nearby Sisters of Loretto, an auditor (observer) at the Second Vatican Council, participated in the Kentucky retreats. Almost 25 years after Merton’s death, she recalled her impressions of the experience in a preface to “The Springs of Contemplation” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux; New York, 1992).
Father Louis had a “talent for cutting through non-essentials, and for engaging the mind and heart directly,” Sister Mary Luke Tobin remembered. “Merton did not pretend to have the answers; he knew that was not his task.”
Mostly through his voluminous correspondence, “Merton had come to know and value many of these contemplative prioresses,” she said, “and to understand what was happening in their lives.”
And among nuns in particular, there was much to discern, discuss and question. In the quickly changing, unsettling and confusing times of the late 1960s and post-Vatican II, when an “anything goes” mentality permeated the climate of American culture, religious women everywhere grappled with their roles as traditionally defined by the Catholic Church.
Nuns appreciated the chance to talk frankly about their daily lives, to share their thoughts and ideas about those perplexing but more liberating times, especially in regard to how their own religious communities might be re-structured.
Amid the groundswell of change, the status quo was breaking down. In Alaska, the Anchorage Archdiocese was just getting started. Father Louis enjoyed serving as a de-facto mentor to nuns and a catalyst for much-needed dialoguing.
Merton was a highly regarded, exceptionally gifted teacher, open to new ideas that helped him delve into the psychology behind modern concerns and challenges. He practiced the art of deep listening, a skill that Alaska’s indigenous peoples, had they had the opportunity to spend time with him, would have greatly appreciated. As a “regular” person, he exuded warmth to just about anybody he ever spoke with.
His easy-going, jovial manner shown to the Kentucky nuns was expressed again a few months later when he arrived in No. 49 — the new state of Alaska.
That fall of 1968 he spoke from September 18-21 to the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood (1967-1972), a group of six contemplative nuns living in their newly-established convent in Eagle River, not far from the small float-plane basin of Fire Lake. For his first few days in Alaska, he stayed in a borrowed trailer adjacent to the nuns’ two-story house situated on a dead-end, dirt road within groves of birch and cottonwood.
Then on Sept. 29, amongst his jam-packed touring over Alaska’s grand landscape by private charter, his journal and letter writing, and his brief hike on Mt. Baldy trail in the Chugach Mountains, Father Louis also preached a Day of Recollection for Sisters of the Diocese at Providence Hospital. (The edited notes from the Alaska conferences were included in the journal, “Thomas Merton in Alaska,” New Directions Press, 1989.)
For much of the 1960s, Father Louis had written widely on the issue of man’s sense of alienation, the ongoing divisions over racism, and the chain of horrors witnessed in the 20th century.
Another pressing topic weighing heavily on his mind when he came to Alaska, one on which he energetically focused with the Sisters of the Monastery of Precious Blood in Eagle River, was community. He led a discussion on what was meant by community in the ideal Christian understanding of the term. (In an ironic twist of fate, the beautiful Orthodox (Antiochian) Cathedral of St. John’s occupies the site today. Dozens of families who belong to St. John’s live within walking distance of the cathedral and two-story, brown house where the contemplative nuns once lived. The property also includes a small school, parish house, cemetery, and the Russian chapel of St. Sergius, nestled in the woods.)
The year before Merton’s Alaska talks, Plough Press had sent him a newly printed book, ”Why We Live in Community,” by Eberhard Arnold. Father Louis used this book as the basis of some of his Alaska conferences and had previously referred to it for talks he gave to his fellow Trappists at Gethsemani.
Eberhard Arnold wrote during Hitler’s Nazi-ruled Germany and was the Protestant founder of the communal Bruderhof movement based on his study of Anabaptist history and practice.
How do more static and well-ordered religious communities fit into the context of a rapidly changing, paradoxical world? How does one, as an individual monk, priest, or nun, reconcile the tensions of living in a religious community while also confronted with many obvious personal differences in ethnicity, philosophy, life experiences and worldviews? What exactly is the foundation of a real community, besides clearly understood vows, rules and personal fulfillment? These were crucial questions being raised in the Catholic crowd and ecumenically.
According to Plough Press’s website, “these (Alaska) talks, given just three months before his death, shed light on the power of Christian community to deepen faith and overcome human divisions.”
He extensively quoted Arnold to the Eagle River nuns — mentioning him by name at least 10 times in one session entitled “Building Community on God’s Love.”
“What [Arnold] wants to stress…is the fact that community is not built by man…. It is God’s work and the basis of community is not just sociability but faith…. The idea of community built on God — that really is the center of Christianity.”
Merton could have been speaking about the cross-section of faiths represented in the new state of Alaska when he commented about building an authentic, natural, real community: “Often very incompatible people are thrown together. Groups of people who would have never chosen to be together in ordinary human ways find themselves living together.”
“It isn’t just a question of whether you are building community with people that you naturally like,” Merton said somewhat prophetically, “it is also a question of building community with people that God has brought together.”