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Thomas Merton, Monk & Mystic

November 24, 2023

This week in Monks, Martyrs and Mystics, we’re studying Thomas Merton. He was a monk known for his writings on the contemplative life. He became more widely known during the Vietnam War, when his writings touched on issues of social justice.

I lived in Louisville from 2016 until 2019, in the historic Henry Clay building on 3rd and Chestnut. My apartment was just three blocks from 4th and Walnut, now Muhammed Ali Blvd, where Thomas Merton had his epiphany. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton wrote:

“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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being 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. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Pictures of the Merton memorial show a Starbucks in the background, which is in the lobby of the Seelbach Hotel. I spent many hours in that Starbucks writing my memoirs. That time in my life was a period of intense growth. I became very ill and was no longer able to work in my profession of 30 years. Up until that time, I had pinned my entire sense of self-worth on my career, my income, and my intellectual abilities, and I lost all of it in one fell swoop. I lost all sense of who I was and what I stood for. I laid a series of incredibly self-sabotaging choices on top of an already deeply challenging time, and I almost died. No exaggeration.

During that three-year period, I was stripped down to nothing and I slowly and meticulously began rebuilding my life. The wonder (and irony) of realizing I died and was reborn so close to that place where Merton had his pivotal mystical experience greatly moves me. Maybe the profound sense of happiness and peace I feel having made this discovery is me being my usual dramatic self. But I don’t think so.

I’ve been on an upward trajectory since then. It hasn’t been a straight line; I’ve had some significant setbacks. Yet overall, it has been a time of sustained positive growth. The fact I’m in seminary is rather a capstone on that whole period and marks the beginning of a new phase in my life. I feel lucky to have survived that time, but then again, I don’t believe in luck. It was my sustained belief in Divine Spirit that carried me through, and which continues to propel me forward. Studying the mystics has only deepened my sense of connectedness and oneness with all that is.



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