In the middle of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, there stands a most unusual bronze plaque. Usually such markers commemorate a battle, political figure, or some natural or historical feature. The one on the street corner in Louisville marks a mystical experience—one that happened to the monk Thomas Merton on March 18, 1958:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
That marker points to the intriguing paradox of Merton’s life. For 27 years he was a Trappist monk, a member of one of the strictest of all orders and resident of a quiet rural monastery. But Merton was also a citizen of the world, passionately engaged in the political dialogues of his day, writing books that were avidly read by millions across the globe, and corresponding by letter with thousands of people. He was both beloved and the subject of controversy. So that historical plaque marking an interior experience, located on one of the busiest intersections in the city, is an apt symbol for the paradoxical strains of Merton’s life.
When I think of my trip following in Merton’s footsteps, I keep coming back to that marker. I don’t know of anything else quite like it. Where else in America can you find a tourist plaque marking a mystical experience? Its existence points to Merton’s influence and importance as well as to the contradictions of his life.
A tour following in the footsteps of Thomas Merton will lead you to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, to the spot in Louisville where he had his famous epiphany, and to the Thomas Merton Center at the city’s Bellarmine University. Best of all, you can walk the hills of rural Kentucky and worship in the Abbey of Gethsemani’s church, both places where Merton found inspiration and solace.