Editor’s Note: This is second of a four-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Father Thomas Merton’s journey to Alaska in September 1968. Part one can be read here.
By KATHLEEN TARR
It is a little-known story that Father Thomas Merton spent 17 days in Alaska, and that it was one of the last places on earth he saw before he died of accidental electrocution outside of Bangkok just two months later.
Father Merton delivered eight conferences to Alaska’s clergy and nuns during that fateful September of 1968 before embarking on the rest of his journey to Asia. He spoke on a variety of thought-provoking subjects such as “prayer, personalism and the spirit” and “community, politics and contemplation.”
For him, 1968 was to be a year of global travels and a much-needed break from regular teaching and writing commitments.
It was a real stroke of luck to be a monk let loose from the monastery as a kind of pilgrim-poet. This time his spiritual quest and interfaith explorations went well beyond reaching for yet another dense book. Along the way, in all these wilder places, he would also have a chance to seriously look for a more isolated site for a future hermitage.
His far north travels took him through a vast swath of raw and exceptional territory on a geographic scale that has been little understood by outsiders, but one that made a great impression upon Father Merton.
He traveled by charter planes during Alaska’s shoulder season when autumn temperatures are often cool and wet, winds shift, birch and aspen leaves blow across the ground, and flight conditions are notoriously iffy.
Perhaps this was the monk’s first “small plane” experience since he had entered the Abbey of Gethsemani 27 years earlier. In his youth, he mostly traveled by ocean liner back-and-forth across the Atlantic, and on New York’s trains and subways. Bush planes must have been a white-knuckle, eye-opener for a semi-cloistered monk from Kentucky.
Under the invitation and sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Merton, age 53, absorbed all he could of Alaska’s sublime and road-less landscapes beginning Sept. 17 through Oct. 2.
Father Merton continued his long-time spiritual practice of keeping a journal close at-hand to record as many observations as he could in an almost breathless fashion.
He ventured to the west side of Cook Inlet near Mount Redoubt, an ominous active volcano which he described as “handsome and noble in the distance” but “ugly and sinister” as get closer.
He flew to the Bristol Bay region in a Piper Aztec and overnighted in the world-famous fishing center of Dillingham.
“Lake Aleknagik speaks to me,” the nature-loving monk wrote. The area’s “miles of tundra” and “big winding rivers,” reminded him of Siberia, he said.
He landed at Cordova’s airfield shortly before dawn on Sept. 23, 1968. “Still freezing,” he wrote. “I rode into town on an airport bus — a school bus — with a bunch of duck hunters…” In Cordova, the Spanish Jesuit priest, Father Llorente, met him at St. Joseph’s.
Father Merton was enthralled by beautiful views of Eyak Lake tucked several miles back in the mountains, “completely isolated, silent. Wild geese were feeding there,” he observed.
“Great silver salmon were turning red and dying in the shallows where they had spawned (some had been half eaten by bears). Bears would be the only problem but Father Llorente said they were not grizzlies. A few cabins nearer town were attractive. Also the bay was impressive.”
Merton joked with an Eagle River audience that Alaskans didn’t have to contend with any identity crisis like other Americans in the 1960s because Alaskans were far more worried about all the bears running around.
In scoping out the land and sensing the potential for a place where he might return one day to live in more solitude, he flew to Valdez, and over the Copper River Valley and commented on seeing the high peaks of Mount Drum and Mount Wrangell. Everywhere he went, he took a 35-mm camera, a gift that he only recently learned to use.
With boundless reserves of energy, he saw parts of the Matanuska Valley, and spent another day flying to Yakutat where, in good humor, he snapped a photograph of an old fishing boat docked in the harbor called, “Tommy Boy.” A reproduction photo from Yakutat’s boat harbor now hangs framed in the hallway of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville.
Once he and Father Tom Connery, assistant to then Anchorage Archbishop Joseph Ryan, got to Juneau, Father Merton noted seeing “green walls of mountains in the rain.” (Father Tom said they got pulled over by a police officer for speeding on the way to the Anchorage airport.)
On Sept. 28, Father Merton noted: “Night in the comfortable bishop’s house. Torrent in the channel outside … the clouds lift a little and beyond the green islands are vague, snow-covered peaks. A beautiful channel full of islands.” He snapped a photo of Mendenhall Glacier.
The meandering monk was also driven around Southcentral to and from downtown Anchorage; to the Russian Church and one-of-a-kind Athabaskan-Russian cemetery at Eklutna village; and to Providence Hospital to speak to nuns.
In his “free” time, the not-so-silent, often angst-filled monk, managed to take a brisk walk guided by a local teenager on a mountain trail in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains.
To Alaskans, then and now, this kind of jam-packed itinerary (and without any boat rides or silver salmon fishing on his touring about) ranks as something far above average for the sheer numbers of miles and places covered in one dizzying journey of introduction, especially for a contemplative “religious tourist.”
Though noteworthy, Merton’s Alaskan experiences, and the thoughts he shared while on the ground here, largely went unnoticed or remarked upon. The secular press didn’t write any local feature stories about him and few residents, typically under-impressed by any “Lower 48 big shots,” didn’t pay much attention. As one Yakutat man had put it, “He may be a Trappist monk, but he don’t know a damn thing about trapping.”
Father Merton welcomed and appreciated this lackluster reception for he was done with fame and the amount of annoying distractions and inner conflicts it caused.
This prelude to his long-anticipated Asian journey was barely commented upon by Merton historians, scholars, and admirers in the decades following his death.
But there were good reasons for this long lag time.
It took years of in-depth study by swarms of scholars, seminarians, theologians, and other writers and people who personally knew him, to properly contextualize his extraordinary life and legacy.
The Alaska portion of his biography would have to be addressed in more detail later, after the authorized biography could be researched and written.
Father Merton’s officially sanctioned biography, “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton,” was released in 1984. Michael Mott, a writer from Williamsburg, Virginia was tasked with this monumental work. His comprehensive biography made the New York Times bestseller list and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Alaska was not listed in the book’s index and subsequent biographers overlooked it, as well.
According to The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, it wasn’t until between 1995 and 1998, over ten years later, that Father Merton’s complete journals in seven volumes, spanning the period from May 1939 to December 1968 (which included his Alaska experience) were published by Harper San Francisco.
An eighth-volume, “The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals,” edited by Jonathan Montaldo in 1999, provided powerful excerpts from all seven volumes.
Father Merton’s Alaskan journal was, at first, published in a limited deluxe edition of only 150 copies in 1988. Following the Turkey Press publication, the “Thomas Merton in Alaska Journal” appeared in 1989 by New Directions Press. It included an introduction by Robert E. Daggy, curator of the Thomas Merton Center, and a preface by David D. Cooper of Michigan State University. Most of Merton’s Alaska photos of mountains, glaciers and historic sites, remained unidentified, until recently. The content of the talks he gave to Alaska’s priests and nuns were invaluable additions.
In 1989, when the stand-alone Alaska journal appeared, Kirkus Review commented, “Like the relics of the saint he probably was, Merton’s writings have by now, 21 years after his death, been nearly picked clean. A few chunks of prose remain, though, including this welcome collection of letters, assorted talks, and a journal—all dating from 1968 and reflecting Merton’s growing orientation to the East as well as perennial wrestlings with contemplation, conscience and the role of the priest in the political community.”
In fact, the real meaning and background about Father Merton’s 1968 journey to Alaska has not yet been “picked clean.”