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, but 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.”
When I think back to my recent trip following in Merton’s footsteps in Kentucky, 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, but also to a central teaching of his: there is no division between the sacred and the secular. All places are holy, including a busy street corner in the middle of a city.
The outlines of Merton’s story are well-known. Born in 1915, he lived a worldly and cosmopolitan life before embarking on a spiritual quest that eventually led him to take vows as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton recounted the story of his religious conversion in the surprise bestseller Seven Storey Mountain and went on to write more than 60 books, among them the classic New Seeds of Contemplation and The Sign of Jonas.
I’ve long been an admirer of Merton and thought I knew his story well. But the impact on me of that sign on the corner took me by surprise. If you want to know the heart of Merton’s message, it seemed to say, look here, not in the cloister.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as beautiful as the Abbey of Gethsemani is, Merton himself likely would have directed me elsewhere for true inspiration. By the time he experienced his street corner revelation in 1958, he was a different kind of monk than the zealous convert who had entered the monastery 17 years before. While he had initially believed that in order to find God he needed to leave the world, his years of prayer at Gethsemani made him realize that God is found in the world, in its ordinary details and everyday beauties. The monk’s cell is no more holy a place than a park bench, a day care center, or a soup kitchen.
In his writings Merton bore witness to the fact that all of us have access to a rich interior life of contemplation, and he modeled for us a life spent in search of spiritual wonder and awe. It’s not surprising that in his last years he found common ground with Zen Buddhism, another path that emphasizes the transformative power of everyday experiences.
Merton’s mystical experience in Louisville happened in the middle of an ordinary day when Merton was running errands for the monastery. When you visit that spot today, it still seems like an ordinary sort of place, unless you know the story of what happened there.
But consider this: when I visited that spot, I wasn’t alone in remembering Merton. An older man and a young woman were there as well, and as I approached the corner I overheard him telling her the story of what had happened there, his voice barely audible above the sound of cars. It made me happy to see that I was not the only pilgrim that day at the busy intersection in Louisville.
Standing there after the two of them had gone on their way, I recalled Merton’s words: “Contemplation is . . . the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”
There on the street corner in Louisville, I could hear echoes of that voice, calling to me as it had to Thomas Merton.