Alaska author Kathleen Tarr returns to the Kenai Thursday night, when she’ll be featured as part of Kenai Peninsula College’s Showcase series. Tarr released a book last year, 'We Are All Poets Here' about Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a prolific writer and renowned spiritualist who spent 17 days traveling in Alaska just months before his untimely death in 1968.
“There are so many people who don’t know who Thomas Merton is, but there’s also a giant group of people who are familiar with him. So either you know him very well or you’ve never heard of him. He is probably considered the most famous monk in American history, even though he wasn’t born in America. He was born in France.
He studied at Columbia University, graduated from there. (He was) a prolific writer. That was his first intention in life, to be a writer. He graduated with a master’s degree in English, got a job in academia, tried to become a novelist. At the same time, he was going through a spiritual transformation...and conversion to Catholicism.
What happens is he gives up his job as a young professor, he gives up all his material possessions, he decides to join a very strict, austere religious order...known as the Trappists. He goes to Kentucky to an abby and becomes a novice and spends the rest of his life in the monastery for 27 years. (He) continues his interest in writing as a monk. The book that really put him on the world stage was his very famous spiritual autobiography, ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ that came out in 1948.”
In 1968, Merton began a worldwide trip that included 17 days in Alaska, just months before his premature death in Thailand.
“He kept his journal of places he went in Alaska and he made notations. He was very, very busy when he was in Alaska. He took photos from the locations around Alaska he visited...He went to Dillingham, Juneau, Yakutat, Cordova, all over South Central. He talks about Mt. Redoubt in his journal. That journal wasn’t published until 25 years after his death. So the interesting story is that Alaska is one of the last places on Earth he saw, because a little over two months later, he was dead at age 53.
I believe he would have come back to Alaska. One of the reasons he was here, beside the fact that it was tacked on to an Asian trip, was that he was searching for another location outside of Kentucky to be more of a true hermit. Alaska was sort of on his hermits hits list.
Merton is such a fascinating and pivotal figure in the 20th century. He’s like a monk for all ages and a monk for all people. He crossed all the boundaries as far as faith goes. He was interested in Russian Orthodoxy and Judaism. He was especially interested in Buddhism. He was a man way ahead of his time as far as having an open mind and having a dialogue with all different kinds of people and being a lifelong learner. He had a lot of important things to say.”
Tarr will speak at 6:30 Thursday, November 1st, in the McLane Commons at KPC.