Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

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.

Memories of Merton stirred in Alaska and beyond

An undated photo provided by Cordova's Mark Heidbrink shows, from left, Heidbrink's father John Heidbrink, contemplative Catholic monk and author Thomas Merton and Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. Heidbrink's was one of several memories of Merton shared by Alaskans after a recent column recounting his time in the state. Courtesy of Mark Heidbrink
An undated photo provided by Cordova’s Mark Heidbrink shows, from left, Heidbrink’s father John Heidbrink, contemplative Catholic monk and author Thomas Merton and Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. Heidbrink’s was one of several memories of Merton shared by Alaskans after a recent column recounting his time in the state.  Courtesy of Mark Heidbrink

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 Nhất Hạnh, internationally recognized Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. Mark shared a photo of Merton, Nhất 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.

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 Nhất Hạnh, internationally recognized Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. Mark shared a photo of Merton, Nhất 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.

Thomas Merton in Alaska

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.