Thursday, July 28, 2011

Picture perfect

"The very contradictions in my life
are in some ways signs of God's mercy to me."
Thomas Merton

What do you notice that is special
in this photo? Me neither.

Yesterday I spent some time in Louisville, escorting several sabbaticants with Saint Meinrad's Institute for Priests and Presbyterates around town. Our stops included the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, the Cathedral of the Assumption (with a guided tour by current IPP Director Fr. Ron Knott, the former pastor at the cathedral), and a variety of museums. While I have been to these places before, yesterday I did something very simple that I've been wanting to do for a long time--take a picture of downtown's intersection of Fourth and Walnut (now called Muhammad Ali Boulevard).

Before explaining why, allow me to back up a bit. As I've mentioned before on this blog, the life and writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) have long held my interest. Surely, the same can be said for a great number of people. Merton, one of the most influential (not to mention prolific) spiritual authors of the 20th Century, was a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, about an hour south of Louisville. Although I ultimately discerned that Trappist life was not for me and came to Saint Meinrad to be a Benedictine monk instead, I spent a considerable amount of time looking at and visiting Gethsemani back in 2005. It is a wonderful place, and because of Merton's popularity as a writer and social commentator, is probably the most well-known monastery in the world.

Shortly before the monk's sudden death, Merton named Bellarmine as the repository for his manuscripts, letters, journals, tapes, artwork, photography, etc. The idea was to maintain a central collection of his vast work that was accessible to others without intruding on the necessary solitude integral to the monastic life at Gethsemani. Today, the Thomas Merton Center ( serves as a regional, national, and international resource for scholarship and inquiry on Merton and his works.

(As an aside, our tour guide yesterday at the center related an amusing story. Merton himself came to the center to deliver some manuscripts one day, dressed in his grubby work clothes worn in the fields surrounding Gethsemani. Not recognizing him and apparently distrustful of his appearance, a receptionist turned him away. Merton simply shrugged, and walked back out with his undelivered manuscripts, only to be met along the way by the college president at the time, who apologetically ushered him back in!)

Whenever I visit the Merton Center and see his old typewriter, his handwritten notes and letters, his work boots and camera, and shelf upon shelf filled with volumes containing his writings, I am simply overwhelmed by the breadth of his interests, the depth of his commitment to the monastic life, and the abundance of words he wrote during a relatively short lifetime (not to mention their insight and wisdom).

Merton was an extremely bright, high-spirited, yet very complex person filled with self-acknowledged contradictions. Like anyone else, he struggled with sin, with the meaning of life, with who he was, and how he was called to live out his vocation (in his case, as both a monk and a writer, a hermit and a human being intimately involved with the world in which he lived.) He was born in France, spent periods of his life in England, New York, and Kentucky, and then Southeast Asia, where he died. He lost his mother at a very young age to cancer, his father (who often left him alone for long periods) later to a brain tumor, and his brother to World War II. He fathered a child out of wedlock as a young student in England, when he was known as a hard-drinking agnostic.

Later he underwent an intense conversion, was baptized, and eventually discerned a religious vocation as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, where he once again would have to undergo a number of difficulties and transformations. He, his abbot, and the entire monastic community struggled with this "hermit of Times Square." Toward the end of his life, he both embraced and spearheaded inter-religious dialogue, and also fell madly in love with a woman for the first time in his life. Ultimately, but not without great struggle, he remained true to his Catholic faith and his monastic vows--perhaps even deepening his understanding of those commitments. In short, the Merton who entered the monastery in 1941--though the same man--was a much different person than the Merton who was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok in 1968.

His was an intensely lived life of contradiction in pursuit of holiness, which is why I have included the quote at the top of this post.
OK, back to Fourth and Walnut. It was at this corner, during a trip to see a doctor in Louisville in 1958, that Merton had his famous "epiphany," which he wrote about later. It was a life-altering moment for him, which is often quoted by others more than 50 years after the fact. This is how he described it:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fouth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. ... It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. ... I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they reall are.
So, I wanted to take a picture of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville where this light dawned on Merton, and I did. The site is utterly unremarkalbe. There is a bronze plaque commemorating the moment, but you really have to look for it. I've seen it many times, but even on this afternoon while specifically looking for it, I walked right by it before having to double back. Surrounding it are traffic signs and signals, a lamp post, a trash can, and a bicycle rack. Nearby is downtown Louisville's Fourth Street Live entertainment district.

And if you look closely at the picture below, you'll notice that the plaque is not only enveloped in obscurity, but also in seeming absurdity. Directly across the street from the spot where this cloistered monk had an inspired revelation on a crowded street corner -- is a Starbucks. All this strikes me as extremely funny, and better yet, perfect! I am positive that Merton would feel the same way.

So, after taking the pictures, in mid-afternoon 97-degree heat, I went across the street and got a cup of piping hot coffee. It was perfect.

No comments: