Along the Way Deacon Rohrbacher

Remembering Thomas Merton’s visit to Alaska

By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

December 10th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton in a tragic accident while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok in 1968. Two months prior to his trip to Asia, Merton visited Alaska and the Diocese of Juneau. His visit to southeast Alaska is confirmed by a journal entry dated September 27th, 1968.

He wrote: … flew in rain to Juneau which turns out to be a fascinating place clinging to the feet of several mountains at the edge of a sort of fjord. I never saw such torrential rain as met us when we got out of the plane.

Thomas Merton was a 20th-century Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. He was first and foremost a contemplative, but was a poet, was active in the civil rights and Catholic peace movement of the 1960s, was a student of comparative religion and the author of many works on contemplation, Christian mysticism and the monastic life. He wrote over sixty books, but his best-known work is, “The Seven Storey Mountain”. It is the story of his conversion to Christ and his saying ‘yes’ to the monastic vocation.

Despite, (or perhaps because) of his isolation in the monastery and influence by the papal encyclical “Pacem in Terris” and the example of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Merton was deeply concerned about the state of the world and about issues such as the threat of nuclear war, racial equality, the Vietnam war and the disparity between the rich and the poor. All of which led him to advocate, especially as a writer, on behalf of non-violence and peace.

Influenced as well by the Second Vatican Council, Merton became a proponent of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and understanding and was a pioneer in establishing spiritual dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monks. This led to his friendships with the Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama: the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and the Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki.
Merton traveled to Alaska in September of 1968 as the first leg of his journey to Asia. From September 18th–21st he gave several retreat conferences to priests and religious in Anchorage. During a brief visit to Juneau, he gave a conference for the priests of the diocese (including Fr. Peter Gorges) in the kitchen (the present day sacristy) of the Cathedral rectory.

More than anything else, Merton felt called by God to the solitary life. He was allowed by his superiors to live alone in a hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey, but he became dissatisfied with its many interruptions and distractions. In 1968 when he visited Alaska, he was searching for a place where he could build a hermitage and live in much more complete solitude.

Merton noted that while visiting Yakutat, Frank Ryman, a St. Ann’s parishioner offered him a quarter acre on which he could build a hermitage, but Merton declined, confiding to his journal that given the pastoral need he would inevitably find himself as the de-facto parish priest. At the time of his death, he was still exploring the possibility of building a hermitage outside of Cordova following his return from Asia.
After Merton’s accidental death in Bangkok, a Benedictine monk wrote this of his friend shortly after his death:

The sermon I gave [the morning after Merton’s death] was a moment of talking about Merton’s search for God. When a monk enters a monastery, what is asked of him is: “Are you truly seeking God?” The question isn’t “ Have you found God?” The question is, “Is he seeking God? Is his motivation highly involved in that search of who and what God is in relationship to us?”

It’s not philosophical – it’s existential. And Merton, to me, was a great searcher. He was constantly unhappy, as all great searchers are. He was constantly ill at ease, he was constantly restless, as all searchers are – because that’s part of the search. And in that sense, he was the perfect monk. Contemplation isn’t satisfaction – it’s search.
In Thoughts in Solitude, Merton wrote fifteen lines which have come to be known as the “Merton Prayer.”

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

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