Fathom Mag

Merton in Alaska

A story

Published on:
August 10, 2018
Read time:
5 min.
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September 23 (1968)

I have no hesitation in saying Eyak Lake seemed perfect in many ways—for a place to live. The quiet end of it is several miles back in the mountains, completely isolated, silent… A few cabins nearer town were attractive. Also the bay was impressive.

March 25, 1989

I am here down in Cordova because I am to go across the bay to the hospital in Anchorage. I may spend some time with the Antiochs, who are a gentle comfort, but I am not expected. Though there is a room they keep for me when I come.

They tell me others come from all over just to sleep where I sleep. I had thought that kind of thing would go away since I came to Alaska.

They tell me others come from all over just to sleep where I sleep. I had thought that kind of thing would go away since I came to Alaska. But even to the outermost regions still the pilgrims come. I am thankful for my solitude, for the years I have had since leaving Gethsemani. And for the few years I assume to have left.

I am an old hermit now, not much of a writer. Just this journal. Perhaps the words now I only give to God are what will make me a saint. If all the other words are forgotten. I suppose I only write for God now. As I have tried to do for so many years.

Coming into town, I noticed the boats were all moored.

In Cordova there are many people, too many, at the docks, straddled all up and down the piers, looking. Searching out into the bay.  
They say there is oil, millions of gallons heading perhaps our way.

March 26, 1989

I have flown over the sound and bay many times in my years off Eyak Lake. I do wonder, at my age, when will be the last time I see its magnificence.

I hope today was not that day.

A disaster is upon it.

My pilot said he thinks the oil will flow south, sparring Cordova’s shores. But he and I both know from seeing it from this angle, even low as he flies, there is no mercy coming. There will be pain for all.
We did not see the ship, but we saw the oil. Black and thick from the sky, the waves are heavy from it. And the sound will become a dead zone. That is what the paper reports. The pictures on the front page that sat next to me during the flight did not—cannot—compare to seeing from where I sat.

I was told there had been another spill in January. I did not know. It was much nearer the port of Valdez.

And more to come, I am sure.

A disaster is upon us all.

March 27, 1989

People have asked me to write more. By mail after their note was passed along or passed through those who secure my seclusion in the parish office in Anchorage. A few letters a month, some seekers, some those who have discovered my words from long ago. I do not respond anymore. Maybe once or twice I have.

But I suspect now I will receive more entreaties.

There have been groups and movements that have brought changes to how the US and its government handles the land and the water and now, the sea. It must be faced, what we have done to nature. So many of the faces of those who have organized themselves to stave off our world’s disasters have died. But I am still here.

Looking over, flying over the bay, I know someone must now face this.

Have I been praying for more reasons to write? No. And I never did. Vietnam, nuclear fears, and now the Cold War have pushed me further into isolation, pushed me here to Alaska.

But it is, of course, as the curious reader notified me, not just a natural disaster. It is a moral and spiritual one.

I do not keep my journals from the years at Gethsemani so I do not know my own thoughts like those who quote me. But one letter told me I used to speak of an interdependence of things. And so I did.

That is still true, but the global scale of it erupting from this spill has both awakened me to new thoughts and dampened my spirits that I had ever understood the idea at all.

I suppose it is no longer accurate to say Alaska is not caught up in the mess of problems down in the lower states.
I keep returning to the word disaster.

But it is, of course, as the curious reader notified me, not just a natural disaster. It is a moral and spiritual one. A technological stampede with oil as the new nuclear bomb. Reagan took us to the edge of disaster. And now Bush seems to be trying to keep the status quo.

From the letters I get, there are changes happening. In people and to the world. Talk of something different, something coming. Changes. I suspect I am too old now to really understand events as I did at Gethsemani. But I do know there is a great spiritual need amid all the changes.

And yet this superboat churned out of the Valdez port, headed down the coast to the waiting tanks of cars rumbling across the nation’s interstates.

March 28, 1989

There is much talk about the pipeline that brought the oil to the tanker—another technological marvel.

I do not take the money from the state. And I do not know what happens to my share. Perhaps the church donates it. Perhaps I should know and then send it back. I do not think it would make much of a statement.

Is there a statement anyone wants to hear from me? Do I want to state things anymore? So many people thought I should have left Gethsemani to become the voice of this or that movement. But I stayed and new worlds opened to me. I saw those worlds in ’68. And came here to explore them in my solitude.

I do think if anyone wants to me speak, I would think I must begin with the people here, in Alaska. There will be suffering. I am back now from the hospital in Anchorage and my pilot told me bankruptcies are coming. And that will cause many more problems.

People know of me here but they tend to leave me alone. Will they seek me out now? Should I be sought out? I do not want to be sought out. Perhaps if I must, then only by those who will suffer locally. I am not their priest.

Long ago I created the trust that will see my words outlive me. I gave them a 25-year hiatus.

But then will I too be sought out by the nation, the world? What can I offer that I am not offering? It is what is offered by so many like me. In Gethsemani and other places. There was a crush of monastic activity after I first wrote. Perhaps I am called to do that again. Perhaps that is what is needed.

Though I suspect there will be no rush to live here in Alaska. The bears are noticeable and non-starters to many. I worried about them when I first visited here. But now they are part of my existence, part of the interdependence. They, too, eat the salmon that the oil has killed.

Is that what the world wants to hear from me? My thoughts on the bears and the salmon?

Long ago I created the trust that will see my words outlive me. I gave them a 25-year hiatus.

What will the world be like then? If I am given a few more years, my words will open to those living in the next century, the next millennium. What will I say then?

I have said enough. Silence for now. I have been silent for some years now. And so I shall be for what is left of my time.

I have not become a saint by words. Perhaps by silence.

Cover image by Luca Bravo.

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